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


Unknown said...

I've been there before!

Anonymous said...

A superb long post. I want to live in Senra, Alona Berri and A Fuego Negro for a week. And Cuchara San Telmo and Ramuntxo for a month.

But what about other new places in Gros? Lagar, Zabaleta...

We need more...

Unknown said...

You make everyone want to go to San Sebastian with your delicious precise descriptions. I want to go back and have it all. Unique and yummy food. I can just taste the foie pies.

Dazy said...

All of the food are tempting. They sound scrumptious and healthy too! Always a winner as far as I'm concerned :) Keeps me pushing to the dining.

Anonymous said...

We just returned from San Sebastian and thoroughly enjoyed all of your recommendations (except that we didn't make it to Aloña Berri). Your recommendations were orders of magnitude better than Frommer's!

FYI, Dakara is another good one we found -- excellent foie with port reduction and sirloin topped with foie with a berry reduction (both €3-4), among others.

Thanks very much for this useful post!