The fact that San Sebastian is home to two of the top 50 restaurants in the world and boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other city, is common knowledge and an indication of the Donostiarra passion for food.
That many residential complexes come fitted with state of the art community kitchens in lieu of gyms or swimming pools, is even more telling. As are the numerous sociedad gastronómica (also known as Txoko): male only gourmet clubs where members get together to socialize and discuss, yes, food! Membership is hereditary.
Interestingly, the companies of drummers in the annual La Tamborada festival, are entirely made up of representatives of these societies, usually dressed up as soldiers and cooks!
Our expert local for the evening, Jon Galdos of Basque Tours, showed us around the premises of the club he belongs to, with fascinating insights about its origin and the honour system they follow in its use and maintenance. Members take turns cooking gourmet meals for family and friends on weekends and on special occasions.
Hardly surprising therefore, that almost every taberna in town dishes up the freshest, most ingenious pintxos that would not be out of place in the top restaurants of the world.
The culture of miniature tapas arrived in San Sebastian with the influx of Spanish aristocrats in the 1930’s. Along the way, the tapas tradition morphed into something intrinsically homegrown. The anchoring slice of baguette was swapped for a fine stick (pintxo) pierced through quintessential Basque ingredients in place of the ubiquitous ham and cheese. Another distinction is that while tapas originated as a complimentary snack served with drinks, pintxos were always freshly prepared and never free.
The ambience in the pintxo bars, although fun, is far from refined. It is self service only. Plates are sometimes chipped, the floor traditionally littered with crumpled paper napkins. But the food is haute cuisine.
Everyday gourmet at a fraction of the price.
Here’s a list of our favourite bars in the Parte Vieja (old town), and the pintxos we sampled in each:
Taberna Gandarias (31 de Agosto Kalea, 23)
A traditional bar cum restaurant, very popular with locals and tourists alike. This was the very first pintxo bar we visited on our own, and I relied on sign language and luck to order a crostini type pintxo of goat cheese and pistachios, roasted red peppers with a sweet balsamic dressing, and fried guindilla peppers dusted with rock salt (My perception of myself as a picky non vegetarian hadn’t yet been shattered!). R had a ham and cheese tart with soft cooked eggs and we shared a hot shrimp tart in bechamel sauce, washed down with txakoli. All delicious.
THE thing to order here, we learn later, is pigs nose! Their foie comes highly recommended as well, and they have a mean selection of wines.
Borda Berri (Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12)
This experimental bar was the first stop on our pintxo tour with Jon. The pulpo en vinagreta ahumado (smoked octopus in pimentón vinaigrette, with chunks of membrillo), was pure heaven. And I don’t even like octopus! It was cooked to perfection, melt in the mouth tender with just the right amount of spice and tartness. Paired with a light Txakoli.
Bar Zeruko: (Arrandegi Kalea, 10)
A hip bar that attempts molecular gastronomy techniques, and as you can see, suitably elaborate presentations. We tried two of their specialidad de la casas:
La Hoguera (Bonfire), a thin slice of skewered fresh bacalao (codfish) on a mini grate, to be seared to preference on each side, then placed on the accompanying bread and parsley cream before popping in the mouth. Followed immediately by the test tube shot of ‘salad’ essence!
The less complicated ‘Rosa de Bogavante‘ was a piping hot butter, garlic sautéed lobster ‘rose’, topped with light mayonnaise and attached to a crisp green cracker ‘leaf’ sticking out of a container of rose infused liquid (not drinkable!) with dramatic white vapour wafting out of it! It wasn’t all spectacle though. The flavours exploded in our mouths. I could easily have eaten a dozen.
Atari Gastroteka (Calle Mayor 18)
This very popular bar has the most enviable corner location, with a terrace facing the Basilica of Santa Maria. We had written this off as too touristy that morning, but the beautifully grilled merluzo (hake) served over a red spicy sauce, and the little bowls of grilled mushrooms topped with soft cooked, runny yoked eggs (no photo, but possibly my favourite of the evening) were both delicately balanced and full of flavour.
Bar Astelehena (Plaza de la Constitución 15)
This is a small, atmospheric bar on a corner of the arcaded bull ring turned Constitution Square, with enough crumpled napkins on the floor to certify its popularity. The hot specialities were: Astelana rabo de buey (the most tender oxtail) and Txipirón Plancha (Grilled Squid).
La Vina – (Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 3)
Another lovely, buzzing bar famed for its tarta de queso (baked cheesecake). While La Vina’s stellar dessert steals the show, their pintxos stand on their own. Our fun companions freaked out on some fabulous Boquerones (Mediterranean white anchovies marinated in olive oil, roasted garlic, parsley & vinegar).
That cheesecake was all it was feted to be. Even some New Yorkers sharing pavement space with us couldn’t stop raving about it. Be warned, portions are huge. We shared three between the six of us, and it was way much.
La Cuchara de San Telmo – (Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28)
We returned on our own to this simple little bar on everyone’s must visit list, that does not do pre made pintxos at all. One orders from the specialidads listed on the chalkboard. Our Euskara was a few words stronger by then, but it helped that the young man behind the counter could speak fluent English.
The chatty American lady next to me stood swooning over their last pumpkin risotto. The Vieira Toro Ennuelta Tocino Bellota (Seared scallop wrapped in Iberico bacon), Carillera de ternera al vino tinto y hummus de garbanzo (slow cooked veal cheeks with hummus), Foie de Las Landas a la plancha con compote de manzana (Seared Foie with apple compote) and the Ravioli de pato confitado, puerros y foie (duck confit, foie gras, and leek ravioli) were all spectacular.
Thank you for joining me on my Txiquiteo*. Are you checking fares to Donostia/San Sebastian already?
*Euskara for pub-crawl