We wanted to go to San Sebastian for two reasons: the food and the beach.
Unfortunately Lady Luck wasn’t smiling on us for the latter – it rained most of the time we were in San Sebastian, so beach action was out.
But the food definitely lived up to our expectations.
San Sebastian has the most Michelin stars per capita, beating better-known cities such as Paris. It’s famous for its pintxos (pinch-ohs), the Basque version of tapas. Bars line the gorgeous streets of the Parte Vieja, the Old Town, happy people spilling out their doors with a bite-sized delight in one hand, and a glass in the other.
On our first night in San Sebastian, we didn’t fare too well. Being in a new city with no idea where to go (I had done a lot of research about the best places to eat but we were tired after travelling and just wanted something in our stomachs), we launched ourselves into the first bar we saw, sat ourselves down and then proceeded to look in amazement at the huge variety of food spread out across the bar. The sound of English all around us pointed out the fact that we’d inadvertently stumbled into a touristy version of a pintxos bar, where the food was – while tasty – slightly more generic with no real wow factor.
Still, we did our best to try several different pintxos (did our best – eating’s never that difficult for me!) but were left wondering what the hype around this city was all about.
The second night changed all that, as we were introduced to a variety of gastronomic pleasures. I’d booked us on a pintxos tour with San Sebastian Food, thinking it was a great way to get to know the city and discover its food gems.
Eli, our guide, was a fantastic host, her infectious enthusiasm rubbing off on our group of nine and her love of food clear in the way she described the different types of pintxos we consumed through the night.
One of the great things about pintxos – besides the fact that they’re damn delicious – is the social aspect of eating them. The Spanish hop from bar to bar, sampling each house specialty, usually coupled with a glass of txacoli, the local white wine (always poured from a height) or beer. People rarely sit, instead standing around the bar or barrels used as makeshift tables. At every bar we visited, there were groups of four or five people, lots of laughter and plenty of eating and drinking. Most of the time, we could barely make ourselves heard, such was the fun going on around us. This social side is what makes pintxos so uniquely Spanish.
Eli took us first to a bar where we munched on prawns in a light vinegary dressing. Here we had our first taste of txacoli – yum! – and some of our group tried their hand at pouring it.
Next we moved on to Gandarias, famous for its solomillo (sirloin steak). Matt and I came back here two more times after the tour to savour this delicious steak, lightly seared and served on bread with chillies.
We sloshed through the rain to Bar Zeruko, a modern pintxos bar, where our group sat down for the first – and only – time on the tour. We were served salted cod, which we seared briefly on our individual grills, the smoke from the charcoal giving the fish a lovely flavour. We ate the cod atop a cracker smothered with a creamy topping (I can’t recall exactly what it was) and washed it all down with a lettuce juice chaser served in a small test tube. Interesting and delicious.
At Borda Berri the food was slightly more upscale – fine dining pintxos – including veal cheeks in wine (melt in the mouth), pork ribs, pig’s ear (the ear was delicious and crispy but the fatty, fleshy part behind a little too rich) and the tastiest risotto I’ve ever had.
We ended the night eating amazing cheesecake with local port at La Viña, followed by gin and tonics at Atari Gastroteka.
The next night, feeling much more confident, Matt and I ventured out to several different bars, tasting the specialties with a few too many glasses of txacoli, and ended our feast at A Fuegro Negro. The menu here was entirely in Basque so we did a lot of looking around at what other people were eating and choosing our pintxos that way. We ended up with mini Kobe burgers and delicious black rabas (fried squid stewed in its own black ink that we initially thought were tempura mushrooms).
Our final night in San Sebastian was a Monday night – not a good night to go out eating, as most places are closed.
There are so many more bars we didn’t get a chance to eat at, so we’ll definitely visit San Sebastian again – and hopefully this time without the rain.