Warm, salty breeze carries more savory aromas through ancient, narrow alleyways into my nose. Alas, I cannot fit anymore deliciousness in me. Time to stumble home, like everyone else, including my new Aussie friends. I’m overwhelmed: so many bright flavors, colors; so many textures, so many ingredients paired perfectly together. All so fresh, so delicious, so beautiful. Smiling and shaking my head, I waddle away. San Sebastián, you got me. You got me gooood.
In Spain, small appetizers are called tapas. In San Sebastián (Donostia), a tiny Basque city and municipality on the northern coast, the name changes. And, the quality seems to, as well. I read about how delicious their pintxos are, but nothing could prepare me for the myriad of gastronomic delights ahead.
After taking the scenic 5.5-hour train from Barcelona through mountains and valleys, I’m ready to end bumping along on painfully slow, archaic rail cars. Fresh air, sun, and warm golden sand greet me.
My hotel is set along the spectacular Playa de Concha. Settled, armed with a good map, exploring the medieval Parte Vieja (old town), I have a short list of researched ‘best bars’ to hit during my three days here. Surf crashes as I stroll along the promenade, toward the bar district. At this point, any bar that can serve me something cool to drink and a snack is a winner. And there are many. Narrow stone alleyways echo hubbub going on inside. Which bar to start with?
When open to possibility, I’m always surprised by the results. The tiny bar is empty at Casa Vergara, kitty corner from the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus, a prominent church across the Playa de Concha. With good reason: they’ve just opened their doors–soon locals are drifting in–each wise cracking the bartender. I’m astounded by the vast assortment of snacks on offer. That’s why I’m here, in particular. I count 46.
Some are simply a slice of chorizo on a slice of baguette. Others are complex, multi-layered masterpieces. I spy cheese and fish together–and no apologies. Observing others, I grab a plate and a few pintxos, standing at the bar. Everyone’s customarily chucking their used napkins on the floor. Txakoli, a local light, crisp white wine that’s slightly effervescent, is served in a large tumbler, and pairs perfectly with pintxos. I take a bite of the Serrano ham/shrimp/chorizo combo, drizzled in sherry balsamic vinegar. Garlicky porky shrimpy salty sweet goodness. Damn. If the rest of the pintxos are this good, I’m in for a treat.
Known for their legendary tortilla española, a simple omelette with onion and potato, they only make it twice daily (1P.M., 8P.M.), so making a reservation for tortilla on one day, and arriving early to reserve a spot the next, are required if you want any. Nestor also serves steak on a level akin to most top-end steak houses. Massive cuts are selected by patrons from aging rooms, ordered by the kilo, and grilled to spec. Hard not to drool while waiting for the magic unveiling of tortilla. No matter. Their tomatoes with salt and olive oil are like home-grown, reminding me of my childhood.
The moment has arrived: the unmolded tortilla is being served. Everyone gathers round. Silence overtakes the normally gregarious bar. Slices are served by number in line as greedy eyes look on. I’m amazed: this tortilla doesn’t look like any of the others I’ve seen or eaten. It’s deep orange, and very runny. Are the eggs are still raw? If so, is that what’s desired? Continued silence answers my questions. I try it. It’s the most flavorful, delicate version of the dish. I understand now.
Tourists walk in, unaware of what’s occurring. They ask if they can order some of what we’re all eating. “No. You put on list for tomorrow.” Apparently, that’s too much planning for the couple, and they leave looking upset. Too bad they didn’t just sign up. It’s worth it.
Located directly across from Bar Nestor, I’d read of this place on travel sites and food blogs. All espouse its quality and creativity. It’s like walking into a food alchemy lab. Molecular gastronomy. There’s uncomfortably snug seating–if you can find a seat. Most are standing. I dive in, aiming for the counter.
I’m jammed up against my fellow diners, vying for a bartender’s attention. The counter’s replete with pintxos of all shapes, sizes, textures. Bubbling and sizzling plates whiz past. People are shouting, hands waving and pointing. Crowds rub up; I’m keenly aware of food aromas competing with overzealous cologne. Order after order is exiting a miniscule kitchen, yet an abundance of plates is already on offer around the bar.
Bizarre combos are at once gorgeous and delicious: foie gras terrine, goat cheese, with honey sherry balsamic, on toast; quail eggs with salmon roe and impossibly thin fried noodles; edible gold foil. I order a special item that has a straw called hoguera: a tiny piece of cod is served over a smoking mini-hearth with a side of puréed salad and crostini with (I’m not sure what that is on it). Okay, that’s weird. After trying a few funky dishes, I note how the bar continues to fill. Soon, I’m at critical mass for noise, cologne, and crowd–time to move on.
Mushrooms, veal cheeks, risotto (actually orzo pasta), foie gras and octopus–which everyone suggests–are their specialties. I try it roasted with smoked vinaigrette and quince. The gorgeous plate is giant–especially for €3.60–though I have second thoughts after trying it. It’s both chewy and gritty. Yeah, no. Alas. I meet some fun Australians in the process of ordering and translating. They’re already snockered and invite me to join them at the next bar, where things get blurry.
By the time we roll in, it’s late; crowds are thinning. Most pintxos are gone; the few remaining are basic. But there’s a local dry hard apple cider. Bartenders pull it in a frothy show, similar to Xtakoli. It’s very dry–too much so for me. Back to Txakoli.
Though low in alcohol, both cider (4-6%) and Txakoli (9.5-11.5%) are strong enough with sufficient quantity. My new friends buy another round, but I am fading fast. It’s been a long adventurous day, and a longer, more adventurous night. We share a last drink together, and part ways.
As I saunter along the softly lit waterfront, I’m overcome by more heavenly aromas drifting on warm salty breezes, immediately recalling how spectacular the food is. I’m stuffed, yet want to try what smells so good.
In the next month I taste tapas from all over Spain. And, while most are delicious, none stand out more than San Sebastián’s. Earlier, I was upset about being unable to make reservations at any Michelin Star restaurant here, thinking other restaurants would be merely average or good. But so many are superior, and unpretentious, not requiring a year’s advanced reservation or large bank account. So much great food.
You got me, San Sebastián. You got me gooood.
IF YOU GO
San Sebastián is a jewel of a city located on the Bay of Biscay. Unless you’re flying (expensive), it’s a long journey there by train, bus, or car, as it’s mountainous and remote. All major sights can be seen in a day. But San Sebastián is about lifestyle, not museums. Work on your tan. Pintxo crawl. Go on a hike. Take a tour into the mountains. Charter a boat. Whatever. It’s a great time.
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