With a lunch as sensational and wonderful as the one we had at Asador Etxebarri in Axpe, going almost anywhere else after would likely be a colossal letdown. Fortunately, for our little group, we weren’t heading just anywhere. The small coastal city of San Sebastián, known as Donostia in the native Basque language of Euskera, is as close to a food nirvana as a culinary enthusiast is likely to get. A small city packed with Michelin stars and phenomenal product and restaurants small to large, San Sebastián is the perfect follow-up to Etxebarri and so it was for us.
Needless to say, we did not have huge appetites that evening, but San Sebastián has the perfect antidote to the limited appetite – pintxos! Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas, but nowhere are they more inventive and spectacular as in San Sebastián, where they come in both traditional and modernist guises. After settling into our quite comfortable small hotel, Casa Nicolasa, extraordinarily well situated directly across from the world-class La Bretxa Market, we got comfortable and headed out for an evening roaming the streets, gin joints and food halls of old San Sebastián.
While some went to take care of laundry, a few of us availed ourselves of an array of Spanish vermuts at Bar Gorriti right behind La Bretxa. I love the same thing about vermouth as I love about gin – variety. I love the fact that each vermouth is unique, even though they generally fit within a broad structural definition. As they have with gin, Spaniards have truly taken to vermouth and produce a cornucopia of different and generally superb products. Like I did earlier at La Moncloa, I, along with my trip-mates, engaged in tasting a sampling of Spanish vermuts, all sweet reds. Each was aromatic and delicious over ice and our barkeep could not have been friendlier or more helpful.
Done with our vermuts and the rest of our group reconvened, but still not yet particularly hungry, we took advantage of a beautiful evening to stroll towards La Concha, the curved beachfront emblematic of the city.
Instead of food, we began a search for the birthplace of the Spanish GinTonic. The Gin and Tonic cocktail has been around for a long time and it isn’t a Spanish invention, however, it was the Spaniards and especially the Basques here in San Sebastián that elevated the cocktail to new heights, giving it personality and variety well beyond the good, but generally ordinary cocktail that had existed prior. The Spanish craze for GinTonics grew out of an infatuation by Spanish chefs as they rose in prominence within world cuisine. According to Jose Andres, this trend grew in San Sebastián during the Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia conferences. Chefs, such as Andres, the Adriá brothers and many more would gather after the conference at local bars serving GinTonics. The leader of the pack was a bar known as Dickens Bar or Cocteleria. This was the bar that we were searching for. We found it, but it was closed on this night at this time. Fortunately for us, though, right up there with Dickens as a place important in the history of the development of the Spanish GinTonic, the non-intuitively named Museo del Whiskey (which as might be expected has a tremendous selection of whiskeys too), was open and quite ready for our business. With a plethora of different gins, tonics and garnishes, we each had a different concoction that was as fun to watch being made as it was delicious.
Now that our appetites had become lubricated, we were ready to begin our pintxos crawl. Our first stop was La Cepa, a popular pintxos bar in the old quarter near La Concha Bay.
We started with a plate of well-fried and salted pimientos de padrón, the Russian roulette of peppers, though truth be told, even the hottest padrón is still relatively mild to anyone experienced with hot peppers. Still, the occasional piccante stands out enough from the others to keep the continued downing of them interesting.
It was here, however, that of even greater interest, we had our first vision and taste of Getaria style Txakolina, fizzier and lighter than the Bizkaiko ones we had in Bilbao. Much like Asturian sidra, this style of Txakolina is poured from on high.
From La Cepa, we moved on to a relatively new pintxos bar (1999), one with high creative aspirations that hit the mark each time. La Cuchara de San Telmo, like most pintxos bars, was short on space, but it wasn’t short on quality cooking. Our first dish was a beautifully prepared portion of roast suckling pig with wonderfully crackling skin.
A pintxo of baked goat cheese covered by an escabeche of onions and other vegetables was full flavored and multi-textured.
The foie gras at La Cuchara is justifiably well known. It is seared and smothered with an apple compote. It was tempting to stay and try more, but that would have defeated the purpose of the pintxos crawl.
Our final stop of the evening was at Bar La Ganbara, which specializes in mushrooms. Our first bites, however, were what is perhaps the single most famous pintxo – the Gildas that are pictured at the top of this post. Named for the movie character of that name played by Rita Hayworth, Gildas have racy connotations that were conveyed by one of the few extremely suggestive movies allowed in Franco era Spain. My friend, Gabriella Ranelli provides a superb background story here. Having a cool story helps, but these simple little bites – “a little bit green, a little bit picante and a little bit salty” – are truly extraordinary regardless.
Their specialty may be mushrooms, but the menu goes well beyond fungi. Seared duck foie gras over artichoke hearts were delightfully savory with just a hint of sweetness from the artichokes.
A plate of a variety of roasted and sautéed mushrooms was accompanied by an egg yolk that was there to provide a rich and creamy sauce and a side plate of blister-fried Basque guindilla peppers. This was a mushroom lover’s paradise!
As if the assortment we had already devoured wasn’t enough, we ordered a plate of amanita caesareas sliced paper thin and served raw with olive oil, salt, lemon and a sprinkling of herbs.The flavor was delicate with a light, nutty notes to it.
Our stomachs now totally full, we ambled back the short, but moody distance back to our pensión for a well-deserved and sweet-dream filled sleep.
The following morning started with a stunning blue sky. We were to meet for breakfast, but I arose early enough to go out for a jaunt on my own. The narrow streets remained atmospheric, but now instead of feeling moody, they were joyous underneath the bright blue sky.
While the food in San Sebastián is the area’s major lure, it is by no means the only one. The beaches are beautiful and the climate supports using them through multiple seasons. The area is generally temperate enough to support the growth of palm trees. For many, including myself, the city is a veritable Eden.
I made it back to meet the group for breakfast. We walked a short way down the street towards the Puente del Kursaal to a pintxos bar, Bar Café Santana, with a diverse array of breakfast sandwiches. The bread was fresh and crusty and the various contents were well prepared and tasty. This was a superb spot for a good, inexpensive breakfast.
From the café, we strolled back to La Bretxa to explore this fabulous market. It is not as large or extensive as some markets in Spain, but there are few, if any that display their wares, especially those in the fresh seafood stalls, more beautifully. The only negative was not having a kitchen to cook these fabulous ingredients in.
After our wander through the market, we popped back onto our bus to head east out of San Sebastián, past the legendary Michelin three star restaurant, Arzak, to the small port of Pasaia, where we would get on the small ferry to cross the bay to the small, but extremely scenic little village of Pasai Donibane (Pasajes de San Juan).
The town is literally a one road town in its heart, but that, along with having a small museum that was once a home to Victor Hugo, makes it all the more charming. We stopped in for a quick visit to see one of Gerry’s old friends at Casa Camara, located right over the water. The restaurant has a rather unique feature that really made me wish that we had more time to actually have a full meal there. Right in the center of the dining room stood a large opening in the floor looking directly upon the sea. There were a couple of sets of pulleys running from the ceiling to two metal cages in the water below.
We hauled up one of the cages to see a host of energetic blue lobsters awaiting their fates as culinary centerpieces. The other cage held langoustines. This was the coolest lobster pound that I had ever seen!
We stopped in tot the kitchen and chatted with the owner, while the cooks continued prepping for the upcoming lunch service.
We still had a little time to play with before our next destination, so we strolled to the small Plaza de Santiago and the little bar/restaurant off to one side of it, Yola Berri. The weather had begun to turn and a light drizzle had commenced, so we sat under an awning. We ordered some Txacoli and Gerry demonstrated how to pour it.
We also ordered some gambas a la plancha. These were briny, sweet and full of juice.
They were so juicy, in fact, that Gerry, while demonstrating how to twist off then suck the flavor-packed heads, was perhaps a tad too enthusiastic in his twisting, resulting in squirting those fine, umami-rich juices all over himself. The rest of the crew, learning from el maestro’s ministrations took care to avoid the same fate and thus savored every drop of the vital juices along with the sumptuous tail meat.
To this point Gerry had been having a rough few minutes, however, his luck turned as the establishment’s proprietress had some stain remover, which she assiduously applied to all of the effected areas.
All cleaned up and temporarily sated, we left this lovely, little fishing village for one of greater fame and even greater glory.
That stop was the legendary fishing village of Getaria, the home of both Elcano and Elkano. The former was Juan Sebastián Elcano, born in Getaria and the surviving leader of of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world. Magellan was killed in the Phillipines and Elcano took command of the one remaining ship of the five ship Spanish expedition of 1519, making it back to Spain in 1522. Elcano later died on another expedition.
Elkano is by far the most well known restaurant in Getaria and one of the most well known in all of Spain. It was our intended target on this day, until we learned that it would be closed for vacation. While that was a disappointment, Getaria is not a one restaurant town and, so we chose another.
If Elkano is 1a, then it’s sister restaurant, Kaia Kaipe, is 1b. We may have all felt a bit down by not being able to go to Elkano, but ultimately, Kaia-Kaipe made us not feel like we missed anything. The meal we had was spot on delicious. If Elkano is better, it must be truly extraordinary indeed.
As at Elkano and other Getaria restaurants, the main attraction is the grilled turbot, which are grilled in special metal fish baskets.
Poached bonito del norte, an albacore tuna, started us off. Nothing like what is typically found in cans in the United States, this tuna is firm, but juicy, tender and flavorful.
It was washed down by a bright, delicious 2014 Txakolin Gorria from Txomin Etxaniz in the area just outside of Getaria. I’m not sure that I had ever tasted a Rosado form of Txakoli, made from hondarrabi beltza grapes, before, but this was refreshing, light and totally delicious.
We missed the lobsters at Casa Camara, but we didn’t miss them here. The next course was a salpicon de bogavante, or lobster salad with a nice slice of perfectly cooked lobster tail wetted by a tasty lobster sauce and off to the side a chopped lobster salad.
The salpicon was abetted by another Txakoli, this time a white Getariako, the 2014 from Agerre. The strong minerality and chaste acidity made a fine match to cut through the creamy richness of the lobster.
Turbot may be the culinary king of Getaria, but it comes with quite a court. Hake Kokotxas (cheeks) came two ways. On the left was a salsa verde and on the right, batter fried. Hake cheeks are a prized local delicacy. They are extremely tender and melting with a beautiful, clean flavor. These were all superb starters, but the heavy artillery was about to roll out.
Kaia-Kaipe has one of the finest and most ridiculously reasonable wine lists in all of Spain, if not Europe or the world, with over 40,000 bottles in its cellar. The wine list is 86 pages long! For the next course, we dove into it with two vintage 1981 Riojas. Perhaps an unintuitive match for seafood, these two wines nevertheless were brilliant and paired gorgeously with the richly flavored next course. Both Reservas of the old style (did they make it otherwise back then before the advent of Robert Parker?), these brick-red wines (Viña Albina from Bodegas Riojanas and Viña Real from CVNE – Compañia Viñicola del Norte de España) were still full of red fruit, elegant, soft and drinking brilliantly!
That next course consisted of one of my favorite things – fresh spider crab roasted in an oven. The flavor was pure and heavenly, lifting me back to my favorite childhood food memories. That the meat was removed from its shell and had no pieces lurking within was total luxury.
The main event was rapidly approaching. We had just been enjoying some remarkable aged wines, but this was a deep list with some special prizes lurking within. I’ve had some old wines before, but never one as old as the one I ordered to share with the table. It was a 1947 Viña Bosconia, still youthful and vibrant, but soft and with a complex nature. This was an astounding wine! It was no accident that it came to our attention as Gerry has long been a fan of the old wines of R. Lopez de Heredia, calling the 1947 Viña Bosconia “the best red wine that I have ever drunk.” I can’t disagree.
Perhaps the roasted turbot at Elkano is better, but I can’t say that I have ever tasted a more perfect fish than the turbot that we were served at Kaia-Kaipe on this day. Brought out whole and divided at the table, there was a wide range of textures and flavors depending on the cut of the fish with each offering up its own secrets of pleasure.
The fish was bathed in its own juices as well as a proprietary sauce from the restaurant, all of which served to enhance its inherent, juicy deliciousness. Each morsel was devoured as we kept going back to clean up everything but the bones.
This spectacular meal was brought to its wonderful conclusion with a chorus of song from a table of elderly Basque gentlemen lunching together and a glass of house-made pacharan, the finest of the trip. A bottle of the same was gifted to one of our travelers. Thankfully, she shared it!
Somehow, we managed to pry ourselves away from the table with its beautiful view of the working fishing harbor of Getaria.We had to head back to San Sebastián and dinner at a Michelin three star restaurant!