Friday, June 27, 2008

Health Nut

As I sit here in Barcelona summer, trying not to stick to the leather chair, or my clothes, or myself, I think back on a day a few months ago where it was pleasantly sunny day, not too hot, not too cold, just Goldilocks. It wasn’t a normal spring here, there was actually no spring present. We went from a long, cold winter that ended with a couple months of rain, and finally came to a halt mid-June, when we were smothered immediately with summer. Thanks Barcelona. Global Warming, El Niño or something, I don’t know. Anyways, it was on this beautiful day that I decided to celebrate with a little picnic in a very green, tiny park in the middle of the city. It’s a university park, so only open to the public on the weekends, but it’s never too crowded and really nicely landscaped.

I had already been planning on trying some banana nut bread, which we all know are best friends, the banana and the walnut. What we don’t all know is that they’re quite chummy with whole wheat, oats, and honey too. I had an urge to go to a health store here and make something with whole wheat, and while I was there I found oats too (sorry, no Quaker oats in every grocery store you go in Spain). I’m also used to having fruit for breakfast and having my heavier stuff later, so I did some quick searching on the internet for some ‘healthy’ recipes. I came up with my own version, and I like it because it doesn’t have any sugar in it, and uses honey instead to sweeten it. And it almost seems like whole wheat is necessary; you want a good, dark bread to balance the nuts and banana. And it wasn’t dry because I threw in some yogurt. So then I felt really good about myself after I baked this pure, wholesome bread, and even better about myself when we slapped a couple pats of butter on it and enjoyed ourselves a lovely picnic.

It must be said that there were some lovely drinks at this brunch picnic, these were a mixture of cava (Spanish champagne), grapefruit juice and a touch of casis. Quite refreshing and slightly intoxicating, in a good way.
It must also be said that after taking pictures of the pretty drinks, my camera decided to do it’s favorite thing and become exhausted. Literally ‘battery exhausted,’ and it just cant’ go on anymore. So I don’t have pictures of pretty bread in the park, but instead of a later re-enactment with some sidewalk in the background. Not as nice, I know, but it was exhausted.

Whole Wheat Banana Nut Bread

3 really ripe bananas, mushed
1 container plain yogurt (about ½ cup)
½ c honey
1 egg
¼ c vegetable oil
¾ c oats
1 ½ - 2 c whole wheat flour
1 c chopped walnuts, toasted
pinch of salt (but don’t skimp)
1 tsp baking soda

To start make sure your banana is well mushed, and then stir in the yogurt, honey, egg, and vegetable oil. Now pour on the flour, salt, baking soda, oats, and walnuts and stir everything well together. If you see the batter’s a little too runny, add more flour. Remember, this is a pretty dense batter/bread, and it’s pretty chocked full of oats. I like to taste it and make sure it’s sweet enough, because if it’s not, add more honey, don’t be shy. That’s all you gotta do. Now pour it into a loaf tin or some sort of baking dish (mine ended up being in an oval soufflé like glass thing) and bake at 350F/180C for 45 minutes to 1 hour, when the center is almost dry. It seems like the edges are going to get too dry and overbake, but they turned out just fine even though they formed a nice crust.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

San Sebastián: restaurants

I guess I’ve waited a sufficient amount of time to talk about Mugaritz and Etxebarri. Not that I meant to, but things happen, people go to Italy, etc. So now that I’ve talked all about the pintxos that make up San Sebastián, let’s talk about restaurants and Michelin stars.

My first trip to San Sebastián, after eating my first pintxo I had already decided that I didn’t want to waste any of my valuable meals on sit down restaurants with normal menus. For my second trip there in May, I had changed my mind (I also had a little more leeway in my budget since I was with my parents and could therefore splurge a bit), so I chose to go to the two restaurants that urged me most: Mugaritz and Etxebarri. We have some friends that have been to Arzak and they said it was one of the best meals of their lives, but whenever reading comparisons between Arzak and Mugaritz, the latter is always said to be more modern, while the former is more traditional cuisine. I wanted modern. I really wanted to be wowed. And I wanted to wear a nice dress.

San Sebastián is said to have more Michelin-starred restuarnts per inhabitant than any of other place, and also more Michelin-starred restaurants per square kilometer, depending on what source you look at. I wanted to get a little piece of the pie and see what the fuss was about, I mean, do you really need so many stars with such great tapas? We’ll see.

So, for our first night in San Sebastián we set off in a cab a little outside the city and pulled up to Mugaritz. It was a bit misty outside, but already past dusk so you couldn’t see extremely well. I wanted to take a picture anyways, and this is when I realized after having charged my camera and erasing plenty of pictures from my memory card, I had left said memory card in my computer in Barcelona. Great. Don’t worry, there are pictures of this meal, thanks to my dad. The room was big and open and each table was very spacious. They even brought out a purse stool so you didn’t have to put your purse on the ground. And the drinks were generous. My mom started with a gin and tonic which was served in a spherical wine glass the size of a magnum and lasted her most of the night. Anyways, onto the food.

There were two tasting menus you could do; naturally we chose the bigger one, which was 11 courses. First off were some amuse not listed on the menu. These included shrimp lightly fried whole. And I mean whole. Heads, eyes, tails, legs, everything. And you’re supposed to eat everything.

Thankfully it comes with a side of aioli, you know the garlic mayonnaise stuff, but I still couldn’t stomach the head. I ripped it off and crunched on the legs and tails and shell (oh, and a bit of shrimp meat too). It was good, it would have been great sans all those bits I’m not used to eating, but the aioli was magnificent. Very light. The other amuses were the somewhat famous rock potatoes. They look a bit like purple stones, and you bite into them, and inside it just a potato. I don’t know how to describe the outside, except saying it’s kind of like a coating on Easter candy. It’s very hard but light, and these were delicious with a touch of aioli.
Next was the pre-appetizer which was a bowl of tiny bright green peas with potato. The peas alone were wonderful and so small and soft and delicate.
Now starts the menu that we did, with our first course of salad. There are small heads of lettuce here called cogollos and they’re about the size of a fist. This salad was half a cogollo, slightly warm and marinated in balsamic vinegar, served with a vanilla sauce and a milky cheese. The lettuce had little flavor but the vanilla was strong and I liked the cheese (I could never not like cheese).
Next was crab and pea ravioli in a consommé of blue fish and vegetables. This was more the inside of ravioli, there was no pasta in sight, but it was so delicate, and once again the peas were so seasonally fresh. The whole table gave this one a thumbs up.
The third plate was an interesting cheese plate that tasted very woodsy. It was a curd or ricotta of sheeps milk cheese and hay, seasoned with burnt fern leaves and squash in syrup. This cheese was very light so what really came through was the toasted flavor of leaves. I didn’t think I would like this at first because the cheese is so mellow, but it’s very interesting, and I ended up enjoying it a lot.
After this we had a plate that was tender leeks roasted on a grill with vine shoots (I’m not sure what those are, but I’m looking up the translation as I have the Spanish menu, and that’s what it tells me). They came in a bit of mollusk broth with citrus notes. I remember liking the leeks, I think the chef does well with keeping vegetables delicate so you can enjoy all their subtleties with their bursts of flavor, but I didn’t think much of the mollusk broth.
This fifth dish was something to remember and I wish I could have it again or recreate it. It was sautéed red mullet on top of a stew of ibérico pork and vegetables, red mullet liver, and topped with a sheet of bottarga, which is dried and pressed fish eggs, so more than anything it adds a salty taste. The crunchy, salty sheet on top was a perfect compliment to the meaty fish, so eating a bite of each component together was great. After that came the duck foie gras roasted over a charcoal grill with sea urchin. Now the chef, Aduriz, is said to have spent sometime in a hospital learning all about livers just so he could properly and accurately devein them, so I was expecting perfection. I usually prefer my foie seared, so that was one thing going against him. And the sea urchin. This was my first sea urchin to date. My mother, on the other hand, had just had some in New York and declared it her least favorite thing in the world. So this was not looking like ‘perfection’ when the plate was set down. I still am not sure how I feel about sea urchin, it wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t wonderful either, it was just kind of there and I don’t know if it added much to the foie. The foie, please don’t be reading this Aduriz, was not the best I’ve had. It was foie, so nothing to sneeze at, but I’ve had better.

Next came something that was a bit of a ‘wow’ dish, to kind of surprise people. It was a piece of veal roasted and perfumed between a grill with vine shoots (yes, again) and sprigs of thyme. Served with ashes, salts, and radishes. First of all, this was not just any veal, they explained, but only 3 months old, which then made me a little sad, but hey, it was already on my plate and dead, so I might as well let it not go to waste. It was this piece of totally blackened meat, and you cut it open and it was a solid pink on the inside. No layering of dark meat towards the edges to pink to juicy red, it was consistent light pink. The meat was really good and tender and all that, but the real wow part was the taste of smokey grill that was captured in the crust and the ashes and salt that came on the plate. They had long curls of ash and I kept picking them up and eating them and exclaiming “this tastes just like s’mores!” Unfortunately the Canadian sommelier walked by and heard me say that and said please not to tell anyone one else that…So it didn’t really taste like chocolate and marshmallow and graham cracker, but it did have that exact taste of the burnt marshmallow, just the very blackened part, where you get all the flavors or the smoke and campfire. It was amazing.

This last savory dish might have been the winner. I was reminiscing about it yesterday, because it was a pork dish which is probably Spain’s national dish, so you can get tired of it and lose the ability to be impressed. But this was a surf’n’turf, which contained stewed ibérico pig’s tail and sautéed crayfish bathed in the cooking juice reduction and infused with jamón ibérico. Wowza. In the picture you can barely see the crayfish, but it was there and soft and tasty, smooth so complimented with the crunchy pork’s tail and the salty sauce brought it all together. Great pairing of land and sea. If you’re a bit hesitant when you think pig tail, just think bacon. A really big piece of bacon. It’s pork, so it’s got that salted, greasy taste, but this is so much more crispy than bacon. Delicious.

Now starts the desserts. There were three, but there was one thing that caught my eye on the other menu that wasn’t on this, so I decided to trade out one of my desserts for it. But we’ll get there. First, there was a further study in contrast of temperature, texture and culture (I’m just reading off the menu, guys): violet ice cream, cold almond powder/paste/turrón-like stuff, and splinters of spiced bread and green tea. This impressed me, and I would order it again, and I’m always the first person to go for chocolate or something rich like cheesecake or crème brulee, but man, this was a delicious dessert. I really enjoyed the violet ice cream, but what I found I really liked was the almond powder stuff, I’m not sure how to describe it, it was like turrón (the almond candy) but without any of the other added stuff, just pure almond paste. I don’t remember the spiced bread curls, but that almond and violet together was magic stuff.

The next dessert is what I decided to trade, and I think I made a good decision because I tried the ones that came to our table and they weren’t all that. I should have gotten crunchy sheets of milk with confit of red beans, a sorbet of citrus peel, and orange blossom and cumin water. I think this had a Japanese flare to it, the beans in a dessert but they tasted like pureed nothing. And the milk sheets also tasted like crunchy pastry sheets of nothing. So instead, I had ordered the chocolate that came on the first menu. I can’t remember what it was called or anything, but it was a hunk of chocolate covered in a chocolate glaze and came out with bubbling chocolate. Does that convince you? I don’t really need to say anything more about it except that it was rich, creamy, and rich. Yum.

The last dessert is the one that sticks in my mind the most, and that says a lot to outweigh that chocolate dessert I just talked about. This was an iced white chocolate sphere over broken almond toffee, and distilled with cocoa. This meant we got a giant ball on a plate and a little bottle of what looked like chilled water and were told to smell. So you smell and it’s like cocoa (for most people, there was one person who swears it was just water). Then, they poke a hole in the sphere and pour in the cocoa water and you eat everything together. It was so strange because the cocoa water tasted of nothing, just water, but for some reason it smelled very strongly of cocoa. And oh man, this cocoa-essenced, cold white chocolate sphere, slowly melting into the crunchy salty toffee was definitely going to stick in your head. Not a bad way to end the meal.

So it took that long just to get through the courses, I’ll go ahead and sum up Mugaritz as fast as I can: it was all about the experience. The food, of course, was top class, as I’ve just explained, but the whole experience itself was noteworthy. The staff were friendly and relaxed, it didn’t have that stuffiness that my parents were saying they had just experienced in New York. We were at big round tables, conducive to nice conversation throughout out meal, and the whole setting was friendly. Some people came in jeans, it’s more of a come-as-you-please, it’s your night out to enjoy. And we did. They kept the wine on a special wine table away from you, and I don’t like that, having to wait for someone to bring me my wine the whole night, so I just asked for the bottle on our table. “No problem, sure,” and we got a sturdy wooden coaster for it, too.

Now onto the next restaurant in my Donostia tour (Donostia=San Sebastián in Basque, so I guess it’s actually the proper way to say it). I had driven through the Basque Country, but only between Bilbao and San Sebastián, and it’s really a site, completely different from other parts of dry, flat Spain. There are hills covered in all kinds of green, clumps of different trees and sheep and cows on mountains that look like they could topple over. My favorite part is being in San Sebastián with the beach and behind it green mountains, so you get both of these natural beauties. Anyways, I wanted my parents to see some of the greenery because to get to Etxebarri it’s a little drive, about an hour or more, closer to Bilbao than it is to Donostia (I think I’ll just switch back and forth between the two names, keep it exciting). I also wanted them (and me) to see Asador Etxebarri. Asador just means, in American terms, steakhouse. It’s a restaurant that does lots of grilling, or in the case of Etxebarri, only grilling. And word on the street is they have the freshest and best ingredients. I was about to confirm this. When we got to the little town of Axpe that the asador is in, it was misty and cool, no surprise for the Basque country. But it was just a cluster of a few buildings around a square surrounded by green hills on all sides. Very much Sound of Music-esque.
There’s a tasting menu at Etxebarri, but we decided to get whatever we wanted from the a la carte instead. So here it is.
Each person starts off with half a loaf of bread. This will last you the whole meal. We ordered some homemade chorizo and bombas of butter covered in ash. The chorizo was definitely up there with some of the best chorizo in Spain, dark and soft with a bit of grease. But for the butter I was expecting more. It was definitely good, I can’t complain with flavored butter, this one coated in ash and ashy salt, which spread nicely onto a chunk of bread followed by chorizo. But I was expecting some magic tricks involving grilled butter, as everything is supposed to be grilled. Then we had a seafood salad, which might evoke picture of some nasty mayonnaise and rubbery shrimp cocktail thing, but this was no such thing. Green lettuce, jumbo shrimp, and some of the best lobster I’ve ever had. My dad started off with grilled oysters and I took a picture but did not try, so let your eyes be the judge.
Now come the mains. My parents split a sea bass, and I was lucky enough to get a bite. The proof (of the freshest ingredients) is in the sea bass. It was simply grilled with butter and parsley and was still easily the tastiest fish any of us had had. I think someone must have gone to the coast and fished, caught it, and come back and grilled it in between the time that we ordered it and it got to our table. Everyone was very impressed with this.
Then came my plate: beef. Well, it wasn’t all mine, I was splitting with D and we wanted a bit ole hunk of juicy steak. This was called chuleta, which is like chop, and I’m not so good with my cuts of meat, but it’s like a t-bone steak perhaps? Anyways, this is Flinstones-style rare, juicy red meat, and a big hunk of it, on the bone with bits of fat here and there. It was mighty good, and I felt a little at adds eating it while wearing my dainty white dress. D still dreams about this meat. I have a new dream now. Shortly after we got ours, my dad’s solomillo arrived. So he got a thick, round salted circle of rare filet with a few peppers and potatoes for garnish. This is my new dream. I hadn’t had steak this tender in a long time. Never in Spain, that’s for sure (their dedication to pig doesn’t leave much room for other animals). But this filet blackened on the outside and soft and pink on the inside, melted away in my mouth. There’s now a debate between D and I whether you want something with a little more bite, something to chew on with loads of flavor, or if you want beef so delicate and tender that you don’t need a knife. I’d throw all my knives out for that.

That was the end of our Sunday lunch feast, we didn’t order dessert, but some little tiny almond muffins came out at the end. And you should go for lunch so you can see all the countryside. On our protein-highs, we went outside to discover the sun had come out and walked around a bit, to the bottom of the mountain where there were sheep eating, over to a little farm with hens and a rooster, and had a little after lunch snifter. I talked about the experience at Mugaritz, but this too is its own completely different experience. Menu items are usually summed up in one word like solomillo or lubina, and if they come with a side, then that’s a rarity. There were two items that didn’t contain meat or fish (butter and pimientos de padrón). Etxebarri is for a certain kind of person. We’ll say that’s not a vegetarian. It’s also someone who appreciates quality. And might be in for some nice green hills along the way, cooler weather, but also the chance of sun. I wish Etxebarri had giant French doors, or floor to ceiling windows because when the sun shines, it’s amazing. To take in some hillside sun and a steak isn’t so rough.

If you ask me to make a decision and to pick between the two, I’d tell you they’re completely different experiences. It depends on the mood you’re in, if you want to know every detail and taste every part of each plate, and be presented with varying combinations of textures and tastes and perhaps be surprised and amazed, then you probably know where you would go. On the other hand, if you want something straightforward, hearty, and pure, and maybe a little bit rugged, with a dash of scenery, then you too know where to go.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

San Sebastián: pintxos

How to do San Sebastián justice with just pictures and words is the question of the day. To make sure I remember every detail of every place and convey it to you without repeating the words ‘delicious’, ‘wonderful’, and ‘amazing’ too many times is my challenge. But I will try, and if I fail, I leave you with the words: go there. Go eat, drink, and be merry in San Sebastián. You may remember a few months ago I began to go on and on about San Sebastián in this post because it was a Barcelona place that reminded me of the beauty of the Basque cuisine. To put it short, most bars/restaurants you go to have plates covering the bar of pintxos, which are pieces of bread topped with all kinds of ingredients. Lots of places also have the option to order food which also comes in little bite-sized portions. So let’s begin.

I should go in some sort of order, like chronological or something, but I’ll just go ahead and start with my favorite place in San Sebastián. It’s called Senra. It’s not in the Old Town, which is closer to the main beach and a bit more popular as well as touristy. It’s on the other side of the river that goes through San Sebastián in a neighborhood called Gros. Yeah, Gros, but it’s anything but, and Senra proves it. There are many fancypants, avant-garde places in San Sebastián, not only bars but a couple Michelin-starred places. Senra is not one of these white tablecloth sort of places, but rather a dark, wooden bar with long, picnic table benches and honest pintxos. That means they use food you know, simple combinations of it, and it comes out great. My all time favorite pintxo goes as follows: bread, a thin slice of ever-so-slightly sautéed crispy jamón, a sliver of bright juicy mango, a half-moon of tomato, and another thick half-moon of griddled goat cheese. Heaven on a plate, seriously. I dream about this thing, and I wonder why I’ve never thought of doing this my self because the ingredients are readily available (at least here in Spain) and not complex at all. This is Senra. They have one that stuck in my memory after the first time I went: a mixture of mashed potatoes and bacalao (not a combination Americans are used to, but it works) topped with some crispy jamón and caramelized onions. They have one that’s for mushrooms lovers: sautéed mushrooms sitting on a bed of pureed mushrooms. It’s a good thing I just ate, I knew I wouldn’t be strong enough to write this unless I had a full stomach. There’s one that’s similar to my favorite, but doesn’t quite beat it: more crispy jamón, foie gras, mango, and some mango sauce. The colors are beautiful. A new one that Senra presented, that I didn’t remember from my first trip there a year ago was a pintxo with fried eggplant, fried fish, green pepper, and another lovely hunk of grilled goat cheese. They have a wide variety of pintxos including tuna and peppers, which aren’t my style so much. I tend to lean towards the goat cheese, mushrooms, crispy jamon ones, which there are also plenty of. Senra has a menu to order as well, but I’m usually so stuffed with pintxos I can never try anything on it. There is one thing that has been ordered more than once though, and that’s duck breast stuffed with foie, served with waffle fries and apple. I must admit, it’s quite delicious, but my heart has been taken already. I guess I’ll move on to the next place, a bit unwillingly, which is also how I go when I leave Senra.

Just down the street from Senra is its polar opposite. Complete with waitstaff in white jackets and little tiny spoons of servings and powders and such. I think this place has gotten more international recognition than Senra, due to the wow-factor of its food. It’s called Aloña Berri and always seems to win some annual award for the best pintxo. Note: Aloña Berri’s pintxos do not come on bread but rather in shot glasses or clean, square plates, Asian soup spoons, or perhaps a sea urchin shell. They contain many ingredients, like fried basil or anchovy sorbet. They’re all on display for you to order, so it kind of mixes the ideology of the pintxo bar: see all the stuff before you buy, but it’s still made to order. I like to look at all of them, and try a few, pretending I can taste all the different flavors and textures. I don’t know if my palate’s that refined (just give me Senra) but I do love Aloña Berri, even if it wasn’t made for people like me. I decided to go for a couple spoons: duck with a slice of bruleed orange (yum) and something else that literally had nine or ten ingredients, and we’re talking small spoons. The base was a quail egg, surrounded by a sauce (hollandaise?), topped with roe, then a couple fried leaves, one of them being basil. Also very delicious, but it’s gone so fast. I had to get more. Next up I got a shrimp in a won-ton like pastry with an avocado sauce. I was a bit disappointed, I liked my spoons better. Pigeon in a similar pastry case with cinnamon was also ordered and I’m told it was delicious. You could drop a lot of money and time in this place, sampling all the tiny masterpieces, and if you got it, I’d recommend that you do.

Now we move over to the old town, where the pintxo bars get a bit more rowdy and crowded, especially during all meal times. One of my favorites is Cuchara San Telmo, at the end of a small street pegged up against the mountain that is surrounded by sea on all other sides. Cuchara San Telmo is a truly small space, no tables whatsoever, a bowling alley lane of a bar area to stand in. I remember the duck here the first time I went, tender stuff. One thing you might notice about places in San Sebastián is that a lot of them seem to have the same stuff, but when they do it well, it’s fine by me. And it’s not what comes to mind when you think bars in Spain, such as tortilla or croqueta or patatas bravas. Instead it’s tender beef, risotto, duck, cannelloni, the list goes on. Cucharra San Telmo is one of the many places that does all these things and does them exceptionally. Something I thought I never would have eaten is cheek. Specifically beef cheek. My dad thought that it tasted like a very flavorful, tender pot roast. But the sides are not carrots and onions, but puree of potatoes swimming in a red wine sauce and drizzled with some green herb oil. Salmon cannelloni was had and enjoyed, much better than regular pasta ordered at a Spanish institution. Dan got cochinillo (ie suckling pig ie baby pig. Yes, it’s sad, but they do it here, a lot, and there’s nothing I can do about it). He fully enjoyed it, I think it’s nice and crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. A note about the Basque language while we’re at it: it has nothing to do with anything. It sounds like Spanish, in that it’s got about the same accent, but after listening to a minute of spoken Basque and thinking you don’t understand Spanish at all, then thinking these people are speaking gibberish, you realize it’s just Basque. Oh, and they love their K’s, Z’s, X’s, and T’s. Cochinillo in Basque is Kotxinillo, so it comes out with the same pronunciation. Alright, back to the food. I also love Cuchara San Telmo because I could eat the sauces alone. No meat, no pasta, no nothing. One thing I remember loving from my first time there that was sadly not repeated was the duck confit (this time I got duck breast, which was a bit tougher) and the dessert. They had a chocolate coulant/molten lava cake, so if you happen to see that on the menu when you’re there, don’t hesitate.

Around the corner from San Telmo is a very trendy bar that attracts lots of people on the weekend nights just for drinks. We of course go for the food at A Fuego Negro. This is another place that has an a la carte menu that’s more interesting than the few bits they have sitting on the counter. The menu begins with shot glass-sized bits and progresses into glasses and bigger portions. It’s written across the back wall on a blackboard with a few drawings to provide hints at what the dish might include. I unknowingly ordered and ate anguilas, or little baby eels here my first time. They looked and tasted like shortened pasta noodles, a couple inches long, and that’s what I thought they were. There were no eels this time. We got some roast beef that was good, but not as good as the beef cheeks you find around town. Then we had a couple shots. The first one was strawberry juice, sheep cheese and basil. You didn’t know if it was a dessert or savory, but it was refreshing and eaten nonetheless. The other was what I wanted, salmorejo, which is like gazpacho but 100 times better, as I don’t love gazpacho. It was served with some edible flowers and little sprouts, also refreshing. I think both these were thought out well, portions-size, because all you need it a little tiny shot of it to get the flavors and the effect. Something that was ordered for my dad, but I ended up really enjoying was a sort of ham broth topped with chickpea puree (this could be the reason I loved it) and potato strings (you know those crunchy thin fries). The chickpeas and ham broth really complimented each other. My final dish at A Fuego Negro was a seaweed and potato salad. The best part of this was the seaweed because the potatoes were just a few, little boiled potatoes, nothing special. But the seaweed came in two forms: cold, green leaves tossed in dressing, and a big fried stalk of seaweed. I think I’d order it again. So that’s it for A Fuego Negro. Most places you want to keep eating, but you know if you’re going to do that bar-hopping thing and try all kinds of pintxos, you must move on.

One place I need to mention is Astelana. Somehow I came out of there with only one picture of it, although I think we must have gone at least once everyday, even if it was just for something quick (although that’s not untrue of going to other places in San Sebastián). It’s right in the main square in the old town, with tables outside, which lend themselves to a nice drink and a bite if the Basque weather happens to stop raining and go nice for a while, which it did, so we took advantage. This was also one of our first spots to hit up because of one piece of key food: mushroom and foie ‘pies.’ They’re more like puff pastries stuffed with mushroom and foie, but pie is so much faster to say. You can see them on the far right edge of the picture, sitting, about to be snatched up. You can also see all the other pintxos, waiting. Astelana has yet a different take on the pintxo that various restaurants in town share: in addition to the already made stuff on toast, they have prepped food out that you point to, and they take it and put it in the deep fryer, or throw it on the grill, or heat it up for you, so it’s just like fresh. They do skewers of shrimp with mushrooms (drool…) or pork, or savory crepe-like things with all kinds of fillings, and seafood, and croquetas. Oh, and they also have a menu where you can order something like beef cheeks. It’s not a bad establishment at all, and quite a handy location.

Now I’m going to throw everybody off and go back over to the other side of the river, back to Gros, to go to one more pintxo bar that definitely merits mentioning. El Patio de Ramuntxo sticks in my mind because of a Balearic wine we discovered there on our first trip to San Sebastián. I haven’t been mentioning wine or drinks too much because my main focus is the food, but most of these places have a decent selection of wines by the glass from different parts of Spain, so you can try them until you find something you like and then stick with that. Since having AN/2 (the red from Mallorca) that first time, I’ve had it a few more times and always been happy. Because the wine was all I remembered from the first time, I was kind of surprised how good the food was here. I guess I shouldn’t have been. It is San Sebastián, and this place by no means looks shabby or cheap. And it was a great relief from the smoky, overcrowded bars of the old town, to be able to all take a seat around our barrel of a table and hear each other speak. It was made all the more enjoyable by some delicious food. To start: some foie risotto with a few shavings of parmesan cheese. Creamy, and rich, and creamy. Basically all I look for in food. Next was another go at beef cheek, which sadly wasn’t as good as some previous places. Then some white asparagus. I took a bite, they were tasty, but I’ve always liked green asparagus more. Then we got some confit artichokes, served with a sliver of crispy garlic, a frisee salad, and some lemon dressing. Too bad there were only three of these and four of us. I wanted to try a croqueta, to see how good they could be, because if it was going to be done right, it would probably be in San Sebastián. Instead of the typical, cylindrical shape, it was a perfect sphere and pretty good, not mind-blowing, but topped off with some sweet sauce that took away from it. Finally we got some razor clams with lemon sorbet. No complaints here. Everything at El Patio de Ramuntxo is presented with the standard San Sebastián touch, that’s to say, a stripe of sauce here, a sprinkle of sea salt there, perhaps some shavings of cheese or light herbs, and it all makes for some pretty edible food. So that wraps up the pintxos in San Sebastián, but I must add one more bit, one little surprise, or one dessert to finish off the post, if I may. Who would’ve guessed that in addition to finger-licking-good food, green hills, and beaches that San Sebastián would also have some killer chocolate con churros? Not me for one, I have yet to find it in Barcelona and thought it only existed in the south, but oh no friend, I am wrong. One would think the tough part would be getting the churros right, but there are plenty of churrerias here in Barcelona that know their fried food. Oddly, you can’t get a cup of good chocolate that doesn’t taste like it’s been made with water, or doesn’t come with a pudding-skin single on top (Seinfeld anybody?). But there’s this big diner type place right in the middle of the old town, it’d be so easy to pass because it looks a little too ‘down-home’ with the smell of fried eggs drifting through the air and sawdust on the floor surrounding long benches and tables. They’ve got the chocolate right, and the churros. Nothing’s too sweet, the churros would be neutral, if it wasn’t for the helping of sugar they sprinkle on top when served. And the chocolate is dark and rich, not too sweet, and thick, like Spanish hot chocolate should be. If I remember right, this place is open everyday, so it’s best visited when you’re about to leave the land of pintxos and need something soothing to comfort you. They look (and smell) like the also do a good, hearty breakfast of eggs, toast, sausages, and bacon, but I can’t pull myself away from my chocolate long enough to try it. And the rest of my stomach space is reserved for pintxos.

All the following are +34 country code for Spain

C/ San Francisco, 32

Aloña Berri
C/ Bermingham, 24

Cuchara San Telmo
off C/ 31 de Agosto

A Fuego Negro
C/ 31 de Agosto, 31

Íñigo 1 (on Plaza Constitucion)

Patio de Ramuntxo
Peña y Goñi, 10

Santa Lucia (churreria)
Kalea, 6