Wednesday, December 1, 2010


San Sebastian. I'll leave the description of the food scene to Mr. Adria, who described it the following way:

It's the best in Europe. The best in the West. No doubt about that at all. And if you push me, in terms of the average quality of the food, in terms of what you can get at any place you happen to walk into, maybe it is - probably it is, yes - the best in the world.

That's high praise. I don't think my experience was that good, but the purpose of the trip was to enjoy the town and the food--there was no Michelin star collecting (and now that Chicago's been reviewed some of that guide's magic may have been lost for me). We stuck to bars and generally low key restaurants. We tried not to over-research it.

There are many San Sebastian reviews out there, so I'll try to keep this somewhat short. First, it's worth noting that even the average pintxos spots (and there were lots of them) have what seemed like at least 40 hams hanging from the ceiling, That's not an exaggeration. The amount of incredible cured hams in a town that size was mind blowing. So if all else fails, one can always grab a ham plate.

Most the places in the old town seemed to follow a similar form--pintxos in front (with a bar full of pretty, cold, premade tapas and bocadillos that no one ever seemed to eat), and semi-fine dining in the back or below. The hot pintxos that had to be ordered were where it was at. Some places were seafood-centric while others appeared to focus on meat. In general, the offerings appeared somewhat consistent from place to place. Some form of foie gras was on nearly every menu.

First meal was at Restaurante Egosari's subterranean restaurant. Cod Pil Pil for me, Galician T-bone steak for L. I wanted to try cod pil pil ever since reading this book about eight years ago. Eating it here, made with ridiculously fresh cod (local here seemed very important, sustainable seafood . . . not so sure), did not disappoint. The sauce, emulsified, garlicky, and like a warm olive oil mayonnaise was just perfect. The meal also started with a nice little mushroom croquette as an amuse bouche. Not a bad maiden meal (and their hot pintxos upstairs, coming out of the same kitchen via dumbwaiter, were pretty good too).

After that most the food I consumed in the city was in the form of pintxos. Bernardo Etxea (pintxos in front, fine dining in rear) for seafood (shrimps and a cigala). Casa Urola (same thing with the pintxos up front and a serious restaurant in the back and maybe downstairs--the website makes it look fancier than it is, although it looked very nice) for some beef cheeks, foie, and some other stuff. Gandarias Taberna (twice) for more foie, more croquettes, and some goat cheese wrapped in something that was great (and that I can remember). Gandarias was great and always seemed to be open. They also did serious business in the restaurant portion, and had some of the nicest beef I've ever seen just sitting out by the bar in sub-primal cuts for everyone to see--kind of weird. Bar La Cepa, a ham Mecca (that just doesn't sound right), for some morcilla (blood sausage), meatballs, and a first try of the local beer (my opinion: stick to the cider and txakoli; more on that later).

We had some more avant garde/trendy pintxos too. We found La Cuchara de San Telmo, despite it being located on a street perpendicular to the street it was supposed to be on according to address we had. It had what was agreed to be the favorite hot foie of the trip, a pretty solid risotto, and super rich braised lamb (the lamb throughout Basque country was no joke--it was lamby, good, but lamby). It was also the first place on the trip that was filled with obvious food tourists, but that didn't make it bad or anything--the whole town seems geared for food tourisim. Standing room only inside.

And there was A Fuego Negro. Redic pictures here. This place won the hip award. Pintxos in front, seating in the rear, but definitely not like any of the other places we went. Kobe slider with chips (banana chips); craziest version of roast beef I've ever seen; cappuccino (almond "coffee" w/ some foam) w/ fried sweetbreads; an amazing combination with a ball of crab, ball of avocado ice cream, and a ball of licorice ice cream; a disgusting combination of pickled pork and mole ice cream, a decent piece of fish, and desserts. 2.50 euro each. A very cool experience at a really reasonable price. We just kept ordering. We think it was named after the smoke monster.

And finally, two other restaurant experiences that I'll keep super short mostly because I'm being harassed by two cats temporarily residing on my lap. We ate the small set lunch at Guggenheim in Bilbao. Some of the best turkey I've ever tasted, and more of the amazing Spanish ice creams. I don't think the ice creams were custard based, and the flavors and textures were amazing.

Also Urepel. Highly recommended by the guy who rented us an apartment, this somewhat fancy restaurant looked like the interior hadn't been updated in about 40 years. The food however, was not stuck in the past (as promised). After looking at the menu and feeling overwhelmed with the choices (even though the menu wasn't huge by any means) I asked if there was a menu of the day (or night, in this case). There was, and for 50 euro a person it would be hard to have eaten better. Perfectly braised meat, super fresh scallop with a bright orange sauce made from its roe, a fish course that for the life of me I can't remember, lamb, and probably the best dessert of the trip. All in all it was about 6 courses, each with appropriate flatware and accompanied by a rose wine that was included in the price (red or white were available too). It was great dining experience.

That's it. There were other places too, and I went to the Bretxa Market (which was a bit disappointing except for the pretty neat fish portion) and surrounding shops (which were amazing), but I think that's enough.

One last thing: Drinking. Sidra and Txakoli. Dry local cider and dry local white wine, respectively. They were inexpensive and very enjoyable. The cider may have been around 1 euro for a small pour, and the txakoli about 1.50. Those drinks were some of the biggest treats of the trip.

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