Friday, October 28, 2011

San Sebastian, Part I

Oh, where do I begin? San Sebastian is something else: cute and quaint w/ well-preserved historic architecture, beautiful urban beaches, tight-knit and family-oriented communities, and most importantly great food. This was the best part of our trip in terms of food. We ate at 2 three-Michelin starred restaurants Arzak and Martin Berasetegui (thanks, Lesley!), countless pintxo bars, out of our pension's microwave oven, and (do I dare admit) one Chinese restaurant. Since the Arzak and Martin Berasetegui meals warrant their own postings, I'll stick to a few pintxo bar reviews for Part 1.

The first time I was in San Sebastian my traveling buddy learned of a locals' favorite, La Cuchara de San Telmo. I remembered the food to be amazing, and wanted to share the experience with my new traveling buddies. We went there first on our pintxo crawl. Bacalao with polenta and salsa verde, orzo risotto with a sharp cheese, pulpo a la plancha with braised cabbage, braised beef cheek over potato, cochinillo asado with apple puree and chimichurri. The compositions were not terribly spectacular or inventive, but the cookery was sublime. Every protein was melt-in-your-mouth tender, well-seasoned, and flavorful. TM's only complaint was that the cochinillo had rubbery skin (read: not as crisp as she's able to make it). But did I mention that every dish was 3-4 euro each?

Our next stop was a A Fuego Negro, a bar well-known for somewhat experimental cuisine. It was an extremely busy Saturday night, so we ordered what was quick and easy for the kitchen (an incidentally, what was advertised on the servers' shirts): kobe beef sliders. The sliders came out raw. Lesley and TM wolfed theirs down, but I couldn't stomach the texture of the mushy, room-temp manipulated meat. The pinxtos on the bar looked okay, but we moved on to a couple of other places including La Vina and La Cepa. Sorry, I was too drunk on rioja and estrella damm at this point to remember to take pictures of these last two!

Over the course of the next few days, we hit on a bunch more pintxo bars. We would start with one or two selections, stay if we liked them, move on if we didn't. Overall, our favorites were Astelena, Bar Goiz Argi, and Bar Nestor.

Astelena was interesting because they would display raw ingredients on their pintxo bar, and then take it back to cook when ordered. Were they concerned that people wouldn't order their raciones?? We choose the shrimp and filo, mushrooms w/ jamon and peppers, duck w/ star fruit and currants, and frog legs w/ crema and avocado. Every item was deep fried (perhaps too long) and hence one-note, except for the duck, which was pan-fried.

Bar Goiz Argi was chaos. Small, crowded, too uncomfortably busy to have any kind of serious enjoyment in the experience. Nonetheless, we ordered a handful of things: bacalao in a red pepper sauce, skewered pork, white anchovy with pickled peppers, and calamare a la plancha (not pictured). A bit salty overall, but solid bar food.

We chose Bar Nestor by accident; Bar Zeruko, our original choice, was closed. I remembered the name from someone's recommendation, and when we walked in and saw people hunched over thick, sultry slabs of rib eye steak we knew what we were eating for lunch. The barman showed us two raw steaks to choose from, and we were on our way to complete bliss (and later, heart burn in TM's case). The meat was from the most flavorful, happy animal we had ever encountered. Cooked to a perfect medium-rare, the steak oozed gameyness and matched perfectly with raw tomatoes doused in grassy olive oil and flaked sea salt.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


It has been awhile since we've blogged. Before we get any grief, I'm just going to say a lot has happened and we will share details all in good time! In the meantime, some notes about our recent trip to Spain starting with Madrid...

Getting up at 4am to catch a FlyAway shuttle to LAX so we could catch our 7am flight to Miami, and then a 3 hour layover in the airport followed by a 8.5 hr red-eye flight to Madrid and a 45-min train ride during the morning-rush hour was not exactly the best start to our trip. The beautiful sunrise from our plane window, however, prefaced wonderful things to come.

The first thing we did after dropping off our bags at the hostal was to grab some grub at the local supermarket. I'm sure it was a regular old supermarket to the Spaniards, but to us it was glorious! Row upon row of every variety of cured meats, as far as the eye could see.

We came back with a bounty of jamon, machego, olives (0.59 euros! for a pack), sardines, cornichons, marinated tuna, a fresh baguette (1 euro), and some really fresh sweet grapes. I couldn't (and didn't) wait to dig in. This unadorned supermarket food was better than anything of the sorts we've had in the States.

After an 8-hr nap, we were ready to explore Madrid. We left the hostal around 9pm, just as the Spaniards were getting ready to eat dinner. Since it was a food trip, we more or less made a bee-line for La Latina, Madrid's home of tapas. We walked up and down the entirety of Calle de la Cava Baja before deciding on Taverna Tempranillo, a relatively modern but somehow still divey tapas bar. The tapas we ate were more like pintxos (small bites on bread)

A semi-cured cod with raw tomato and raw pepper, sauteed baby squid with caramelized onions and aioli, duck procuitto with a warm tomato sauce. All on crusty slices of a country loaf, aka Loretta bread! Everything, especially the super-tender perfectly caramelized squid, was punchy and flavorful. We washed everything down with 2 euro glasses of local wines and thanked our lucky stars we were in Spain.

The next morning we rose early to take our daily breakfast of cafe con leche (it's the milk that makes it so delicious!) and tortilla de patata (how does it get so flavorful and dense?) and made our way to Parque del Buen Retiro. Given that our budget was super tight and reserved only for food expenditures, we took our time at this very pretty and very free park.

Deciding that we would partake of supermarket leftovers for dinner, we stopped by the Mercado de San Miguel for a late lunch. This market is reminiscent of Mario Batali's Eataly, but without the ridiculously over-priced food and useless retail section. Instead, we found stall upon stall of prepared foods including oysters, tapas, cheeses, cured meats, wines, croquettes, breads, and sweets.

Each stall had its specialty and we chose a few samplings, including seared pimientos de Padron with sea salt, olives with anchovy and pickled peppers, Spanish oysters, cured salmon over a fried green tomato, and marinated seafood (mostly mussels) with pickled peppers and onions. Yum, yum, and yum again. Who would have guessed that there is such good seafood in the landlocked Madrid?!