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.

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