Saturday, 2 June 2012

Warning! San Sebastian Pintxos Porn

The entire basis of our visit to San Sebastion rested on a short pixelated piece of American television viewed on YouTube. My dear brother, whose recent priestly belly could be attributed to his love of good food, held a high opinion of a certain Anthony Bourdain, whose No Reservations series featured one episode dedicated to the San Sebastian food experience which he irresponsibly associated with "the best food in Spain". Argh, how can anyone ignore that!

So here we were in foodie's mecca (still buzzing from a bus ride from Bilbao that had free wifi) scouring the streets for a place to stay for the night. This proved to be more difficult than expected, as we discovered Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen was in town that weekend. We managed though and soon we were let loose on the town. A number of Michelin starred establishments exist here, but we were kinda on a budget and didn't have the two or so months of reservation time up our sleeves. Instead we focussed on getting our salivating mouths around the finest tapas in Basque Country, the best in Spain according to many - San Sebastian pintxos. After reading and hearing so much about it, my excitement was difficult to suppress.

There must have been hundreds of pintxos bars saturating the town, but some good blogs guided us and kept us from getting too overwhelmed. The key was to decide what you wanted to eat, find the place that specialises in that, and stick to eating just one or two couple-of-bites sized morsels. Needless to say, the last part was where it got difficult.

Bar La Vina - San Sebastian
We started off lunch at Bar La Vina, specialising in anchovies. Usually not Ben's favourite ingredient, but he soon discovered the Spanish style of anchovy was lighter flavoured and much to his taste and delight.

Anchovy Pintxos, Bar La Vina - San Sebastian
We had another cream-cheesy anchovy "ice-cream" cone with a side of smooth but crispy jamon croquettas, and a cool zurrito (six ounce pull of Spanish draft beer) to wash it down. It was a good start but we had already broken the stick-to-only-two-at-most rule, and there was so much more to come.

Canutillo de Queso y Anchoa (Little Pipe of Fresh Cheese and Anchovy), Bar La Vina - San Sebastian
Jamon Croquettas, Bar La Vina - San Sebastian
The rows of jamon legs in Bar La Cepa lured me in, but we stuck to humble-looking but very tasty fried ball specialities - gavilla and meat-stuffed red peppers. Ben had become a fan of the zurrito but I mixed it up with a refreshing kalimotxo (a kind of simple sangria made with red wine and coke).

Bar La Cepa - San Sebastian
Hanging Legs of Jamon, Bar La Cepa - San Sebastian
Red Peppers Stuffed with Meat; Gavilla (cured ham, cheese, bechamel), Bar La Cepa - San Sebastian
Kalimotxo (Red Wine and Coke); Zurrito (Six Ounce Pull of Draft Beer) - San Sebastian
Bar Gandarias was supposed to be well regarded for its sirloin and russian salad, but we found the service lacking in comparison to where we had been, and struggled to get our order in. With so many other bars on our list, we didn't bother with more than a couple of nibbles before heading off.

A Couple of Pintxos, Bar Gandarias - San Sebastian
A few hours of relaxed sight-seeing and a siesta to rest the digestive system before another round of bars for dinner. A perennial traveller's favourite, La Cuchara De San Telmo was known for its miniature versions of Basque nouvelle cuisine. High on my hit list was to see what the fuss was all about with that controversial ingredient, foie gras. Seared beautifully, topped with crunchy salt flakes, wobbly smoothness bursting with ducky fat tastiness, served here with a funky apple sauce. Delicioso! My arteries groaned and I was hooked.

La Cuchara de San Telmo - San Sebastian
Tia at La Cuchara de San Telmo - San Sebastian
Foie with Apple Compote, La Cuchara de San Telmo - San Sebastian
Ben had never been a liver fan, and my extra fatty sample of foie wasn't going to convert him. As luck would have it, this amazing little bar had much more to offer, so a little veal cheek slow-cooked in red wine sauce went down a treat. Rinsing our palates with another zurrito and kalimotxo, we tore ourselves away from the tempting menu to try yet another bar.

Braised Veal Cheek in Red Wine Sauce, La Cuchara de San Telmo - San Sebastian
Probably the most well known pintxos bar in San Sebastian, Bar Ganbara was crowded and a bit pricey, but well worth it. Its famous aromatic plate of assorted grilled hongos (wild mushrooms) with a simple single raw egg yolk dip, certainly lived up to expectations, especially when washed down with glasses of lightly bubbly txakoli (a chilled young local white wine, poured from high to create a slight fizz).

Bar Ganbara - San Sebastian
Assorted Platters of Fresh Hongos (Wild Mushrooms), Bar Ganbara - San Sebastian
Plate of Grilled Hongos (Wild Mushrooms), Bar Ganbara - San Sebastian
Just to make sure he actually liked it, Ben decided he wanted veal cheek slow-cooked in red wine sauce again, this time at the moderately less assuming Bar Borda Berri. It was a photo finish, but La Cuchara De San Telmo may have been half a nose in front with this dish. At any rate, both plates were cleaned up, so it was hard to tell.

Bar Borda Berri - San Sebastian
Braised Veal Cheek in Red Wine, Bar Borda Berri - San Sebastian
True to my nature, I could not go past the roast suckling pig, drizzled gorgeously with its own juicy gravy.

Roast Suckling Pig, Bar Borda Berri - San Sebastian
Barely scratching the surface had resulted in very full stomachs. Luckily we had another day in San Sebastian.

Chocolate Drizzled Cappuccino - San Sebastian
A very lazy late morning start warranted a simple breakfast cappuccino and an average menu lunch near our Gros area hostel that we thoroughly regretted. What a waste of stomach space! We washed away the blip in our culinary progress with a couple of afternoon zurritos and Hika Mika's pastel de pescado, a closely guarded secret recipe of fish paste on toast. We were back on track.

Pastel de Pescado (Fish Cake), Hika Mika - San Sebastian
A Pair of Zurritos - San Sebastian
Back to busy Ganbara again because Ben had been dreaming of jamon iberico, again. This one was right on the mark - firm but meltingly tender, a dense fattiness, aroma and sweetness that is hard to describe. We'd had a bit of jamon lately and we reckoned our palates were starting to get pretty discerning, so we think this was up there with the good stuff. Plus you have got to respect a place where they have an experienced chef and his apprentice dedicated only to slicing and serving jamon.

Busy Bar Ganbara - San Sebastian
Half-plate of Jamon Iberico, Bar Ganbara - San Sebastian
Getting back to the fish theme, we checked out the bacalao (salted cod) chops raved about at Bar Martinez. Cute little morsels that were perfect for popping in the mouth and making you want more. We resisted the urge and tried some yummy lumps of spider crab wrapped delicately in eggplant instead.

Cod Chops on a Shellfish Cream, Bar Martinez - San Sebastian
Shallote with Spidercrab, Bar Martinez - San Sebastian
And for the grand finale, we experienced the exciting creations of Bar Zeruko, in particular the famous La Hoguera (the "bonfire") - a piece of bacalao that you smoked to your liking over a glowing piece of charcoal before topping off your own pintxos stack to be devoured with a shot of green sauce. Bizarre, but great fun, taste and textures.

Bar Zeruko - San Sebastian
La Hoguera (The Bonfire), Bar Zeruko - San Sebastian
There was so many more colourful items on display but we were pretty much done. Ooh, except I had to try the stuffed sea urchin, because it was there of course. A taste I'll never forget.

Stuffed Sea Urchin, Bar Zeruko - San Sebastian

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