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I am always nervous about ordering at a new restaurant. Will it be good? Will my meal be best item on the menu? My greatest fear is that I will choose poorly while one of my dining mates hits the deliciousness jackpot resulting in my stewing while they relish. I call this feeling ‘food envy’, which for me manifests itself as an almost uncontrollable impulse to toss my plate aside and lunge at another’s food. When eating out food envy always seems to be a possibility until you can find someplace where chefs execute scrumptious miniature gourmet morsels that are so cheap that it you don’t like them then there is no worry. And if someone else has something better than you then you can easily have the same without breaking the bank. I suppose, while I am dreaming, I would like for that place to be by the sea and have sandy beaches and a pumping nightlife. Wait! That place does exist! Actually it is a whole city called San Sebastian in the Basque Country in Spain and it is a foodie paradise that is void of food envy.
While searching for worthwhile culinary adventure, on Twitter, I asked for suggestions about worthwhile destinations and promptly Linda Fox (@foxychops) suggested San Sebastian. I quickly learned that San Sebastian has many quality restaurants in a small area and an extraordinary gusto for food. Additionally, the city has large and clean sandy beaches, stunning vistas and a lively nightlife. I still had some questions about activities so I emailed the San Sebastian Tourist Office and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they were responsive and very helpful. I was sold.
There is an old saying that says that ‘heaven is where all the cooks are Spanish.’ Growing up in an Italian family with a rich food culture I’d never have believed this, especially since my only experience with anything even remotely Spanish was a dish called Spanish rice, which I remember from my elementary school days as being pasty rice goop that could crawl down a wall. However, I’ve since learned that this statement may be true, especially of the Basque Region.
A pinch of gastronomy that is arguably the base of Basque culture is the pintxo (‘peen-sho’) which is a variation of tapas common throughout Spain. There is no strict definition for a pintxo – in fact there are too many varieties to even count – but the word means ‘spike’ because there is often a wooden spear skewing the bite sized snack. Some places tally the bill by counting the toothpicks on your plate. The accepted legend is that tapas / pintxos are the result of a 13th Century law imposed by King Alfonso X either for health reasons or to prevent drunk driving. Since then pintxos have become a key ingredient of the San Sebastian cultural palette. This can be seen nightly when the town’s streets fills up with people on pintxos bar hop called a txikiteo (‘chickie-te-o’) that happens from about 7pm until the famously late Spanish dinner time that barely starts by 10pm. Besides being fun, the txikiteo is one of those rare authentic cultural activities that is assessable to tourists.
The heart of the San Sebastian’s pintxos district is the Parte Viaja which the cobble stoned lined old town that is full of pubs and numerous taverns serving the local snacks that range from basic to gourmet and cost between €1.50 to €3.00 apiece. Glasses of beer and wine run about the same price. However, don’t limit yourself to the Parte Vieja because there are notable taverns all over the 180,000-person city.
Some notable restaurants:
Alona Berri- Located in Gros, about a 20 minute walk from the Parte Viaja, this is one of the most famous pintxos restaurants in San Sebastian. Owned and run by Jose Ramon Elizandro, Joserra (pictured at top), who is a seasoned veteran of the San Sebastian food scene, this small restaurant needs to be on any txikiteo. Alona Berri is much more posh and experimental as the tag-line “Alta cocina in Minitura” (upscale food in miniature) implies. The service here was excellent and the food resembled a tasting menu at a chic restaurant. The only exceptions being the causal atmosphere and featherweight bill totaling €70.00 which included 15 pintxos, 2 glasses of wine, a bottle of wine and an after dinner drink. One of the best price to quality restaurants that one could ever expect to experience. Take your food and drink at the bar for a 7% discount or enjoy the excellent service sitting down and enjoying the spectrum of interesting and tasty miniature dishes.
Bar Gorriti- At the edge of the Parte Vieja you’ll find this nondescript and very authentic tavern. You might be tempted to only stick your head in, thinking that you’ll find something better down the road, which you might, but the great thing about a txikiteo is that you don’t have to commit more than €1.50 and 10 minutes. Bar Gorriti has the same pinxtos found throughout the whole quarter but I found them among the largest that I saw. Take a minute to peruse the pictures on the walls to see how the adjacent square, which used to be the main market that is now underground, has looked over the decades.
Bar Nestor- Famous for its tortilla which is generally regarded the best in San Sebastian. Don’t expect to just walk in and get a slice of this revered potato pie, you will have to plan ahead and possibly reserve a piece. Tortillas are only served twice a day at 1:00 and 8:00pm. Try stopping by at least 2 hours before hand if you do not just want to try your luck.
A Fuego Negro- Right on 31 Augusto which is a main vein pumping through the Parte Vieja you’ll find this unique restaurant run by the next generation of pinxtos artists. A Fuego Negro is an updated pintxos bar and restaurant which pushes the envelop both in terms of superbly executed pintxos mini soups such as tomato puree, mussels and béchamel and décor that is a refreshing contrast to traditional wooden interiors.
Ganderias- No trip to Spain would be complete without indulging yourself in a big plate of jambon serrano (ham) and a steak. Ganderias is a straightforward steakhouse that serves tender aged beef by the kilo so bring your appetite (i.e. skip the last three or so pinxtos). Ganderias is very reasonably priced, especially considering the quality of meat. We escaped with a bill of only €75.00, which included a mixed ham plate, kilo of steak, bottle of wine, bottled water and after dinner drink. The portions were too big for one person and it was accepted, and perhaps even expected, that everything be split between at least two.
If you that want to bring your new found pintxos love home to impress your friends or just want to develop your cooking skills, I recommend the pintxos cooking classes run by Tenedor Tours. Besides being a great way to spend an afternoon you learn how to make your own pintxos so that your Basque experience will live on. Recommended by the San Sebastian Tourist Office, Tenedor is run by transplanted New Yorker Gabriella Ranelli de Aguirre. The class is advertised as 3 hours long (ours lasted longer when you include eating time) and costs €125 per person which includes the lesson, food and wine. Gabriella brings the group on a pretty solid walking tour to stores to buy and sample cheeses and meats while she shares her anecdotes that she has accumulated while living in San Sebastian for 10 years. Besides the many useful cooking tips we learned, Gabriella focuses on pintxos made of common ingredients that can be easily made at home. Our lesson included how to make six types of pintxos, homemade mayonnaise and gazpacho. Groups are limited to about 8 and lessons are given in a super nice flat in the Parte Vieja that is fully equipped and spacious enough for the group to move about freely. For a budget traveler €125 may be out of range but consider that food, wine and a unique experience is included. We have recreated the recipes and utilized the cooking tips all with great success!
All the excitement of a complex yet assessable tasting menu, San Sebastian cuisine is the perfect getaway from food envy that will satisfy any foodie. As previously mentioned the Tourist Office is a huge help. Even if you do not book online for the activities make sure that you stop by the office to get updated information and to book your activities such as sailing, a pintxos tour and of course the cooking class. Walking tours also originate there for €6 and provide a decent city overview in terms of both the history and orientation. San Sebastian is very popular with the Spanish so getting a room in high August season will be more challenging and expensive. Moreover, because of its proximity to Pamplona many people use it as a base for their bull running excursion so plan a head for the first week in July.
Where to stay:
NH Aranzazu- Good customer service, big and clean rooms and reasonably priced. This hotel is a distance from the Parte Vieja and not practical to walk but the bus is close by and frequent and there is a beach with walking distance. Cabs run about 6 – €8 depending on the time of day. www.nh-hotels.com/NHAranzazu