July 4, 2010

SAN SEBASTIAN • DONOSTIA

Adrian and I went down to San Sebastian, on the north coast of Spain, last month. It's still fresh in my mind so I thought I would post a few highlights. First of all, this place is an ideal town in a lot of ways. It's small, so you can get around by foot to all that's worth checking out. The Parte Vieja (old town) is where most of the pintxo (Basque tapas) cafes and bars are, and is the part of town right in between the two beaches. The Playa Concha is the more serene beach (no surf, great swimming and lounging) with hotels that look out onto the  mellow, pristine beach. The other beach in town, La Zurriola, is where all the surf shops are and where there is a beach break. Adrian rented a board from Pukas Surf, directly facing La Zurriola.  The neighborhood adjacent to La Zurriola is called Gros, where there are also a few popular Tapas bars and cafés.  It's all very close and pleasant to walk through.  We really liked how many cultural events were going on despite the town's small size. It reminded us of our hometown, Santa Barbara. Also, Don't forget to take the footpath up to the top of the hill (the hill between the two beached) and take in the view.

Playa Concha, San Sebastian
Our favorite pinxto bars in the old town: 

La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle 31 de Agosto, 28) The chef designed the menu to have miniature complete dishes rather than the more traditional tapa. Now most of the bars in the old town serve haute-cuisine in miniature form, following La Cuchara's step into this direction. Some of the specialties at La Cuchara were seared foie gras  (tasted carmelized) with an apple compote, braised beef cheeks, Skate with local mushrooms, Gazpacho,  Queso de Cabra (local goat's cheese) baked  and served with fresh greens on top, Txipiron Relleno (stuffed squid) and lots of other small dishes that change daily on the chalk board behind the tiny bar. The attitude is friendly and excited to serve the constantly revolving clientele of the Txikiteo (pintxo bar hop). The Basque hang out in each bar for 20 minutes;  they enjoy one or two pintxos, a Zurito (beer) or the local white wine.  Txakoli is a tangy, slightly sparkling, local white typically poured with finesse from high above the glass to maximize the fuzz. All these dishes are generally priced at around 3.50 - 7.50 euros.  This is really the brilliance of this kind of dining in San Sebastian: you can try a few Michelin-esque dishes and move on to the next bar for another mind-blowing food experience.
Phone pics of the bartender at Cuchara pouring Basque Cider and the seared Foie Gras with Apple Compote

We also loved Ganbara (C/ San Jerónimo, 21) for their wild mushrooms. They have a beautiful display of their tapas crowded on the bar, featuring piles and piles of local Cepe (Porcini) mushrooms. We ordered a serving of their mushrooms which were perfection.

 Cepes and other local wild mushrooms at Ganbara

Phone pic of Angulas, Basque baby eels at Gandarias
A local favorite, and one of ours, is Gandarias Taberna (C/ 31 de Agosto, 23). Here you should order off the little bar menu, or sit down and eat. In fact, it's better to ask the bartender for the made to order dishes off the daily menu than to eat the pre-made items displayed on the bar (except for maybe the baby eels!). I would recommend ordering this way at most of the Pintxo Bars. This one is a very welcoming little restaurant. Gandarias is also the favorite tapas bar of our dear friend Eirik Bøe, from Norway's Kings of Convenience. We went there because of his enthusiasm for it. Their dishes include the Duo (Queso Cabra with bacon), Crepes Bacalao, and baby eels, among many others.

For dessert on Adrian's pre-birthday (stroke of midnight) we went to La Viña (C/ Abuztuaren 31) for Tarta de Queso (Basque cheesecake). This dessert is one of the best sweet things I've ever put in my mouth. It was fluffy, almost like a marshmallow, but still with that dense, creamy quality that I love about American cheesecake.

 Phone pic of the Tarta de Queso at La Viña

Fuego Negro (C/ 31 De Agosto / Abuztuaren 31-KO Kalea, 31)  has a young staff and a more contemporary take on pintxos. This is where you can get your foams, emulsions, powdered sauces, etc.  Sciency food, but still in the small-plate, affordable format.  We had something they were calling a Jamón Café (ham coffee) which was actually a frothy cured ham soup served in a small espresso cup with 'cookies' on the saucer which were actually crisped-up sweet breads. It was fun, delicious and not all wanna-be. 
We stayed at the Hotel Niza, a small hotel on the Playa Concha. Make sure to ask for a room with an ocean view and balcony. It's a beautiful hotel with an antique elevator that is super fun to ride. The rooms are pretty and kinda minimalist chic. The hotel features a lot of work by Basque artist, Chillida, whose sculptures you can see around town and out on the ocean rocks.

The Hotel Niza and a Museum Poster featuring Chillida, San Sabastian

Adrian walks with a rented surfboard on the 1920's Puente de la Zurriola bridge between beaches and a small street in Parte Vieja, San Sebastian

On Adrian's birthday, we drove into the countryside near St. Jean de Luz, a sweet little seaside town with a cove-shaped beach similar to San Sebastian's Playa Concha. The restaurant was called L'Auberge Basque and it was just over the border in France's Pays Basque (Basque Country).  It's a modern  restaurant (with hints of it's older self) with an inn dating back to the 17th century. One of the dishes from our tasting-menu extravaganza, was a sous-vide egg and vegetable flan with a Pipérade sauce, piment d'espelette, and herbs perched in the middle. With the sauce poured on top (by the waitress, at the table), it transformed into a tomato.  A lot of people roll their eyes at high level imitative food presentation, but if it tastes amazing and I'm also entertained by the way my food looks, I mean, why not?

Phone pic of Sous-Vide Egg with Pipérade Sauce and Jambon de Bayonne, L'Auberge Basque

We've been back in Paris a few weeks now, and spent last Sunday afternoon at Yves Camdeborde's L'Avant Comptoir, next door to the mega-popular Le Comptoir du Relais.  It turns out to be a San Sebastian style bar with pintxos and delicious wines.  The man behind the bar, Tomas, was  suprisingly friendly and ended up having an hour of conversation with us while we tried some of the best food we've had in Paris (cooked by him, behind the bar, as we chatted).  He lived in San Sebastian for 7 years (he likes Cuchara) and teared up when describing  the tuna collar he loves at  one of his favorite little restaurants in town, Le Verre Volé (Rue de Lancry 67, Paris 10th) over by the Canal St. Martin.

L'Avant Comptoir's Tomas (left) with Yves Camdeborde (middle) and co. 
(photo: Lexpress)


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