Where to eat in and around San Sebastian (Spain)

What I ate at San Sebastian!

To say that San Sebastian’s culinary options defy expectations is not at all far fetched.
The city that sits on Spain’s northern coast is one of the world’s most Michelin decorated, second only to Kyoto in terms of stars per square metre.
For visiting food cognoscenti, the conundrum remains one of what and where to eat.
Does one plan a night of txikiteo (Basque term for pintxo bar-hop)? Or reserve well in advance for a seat at one of the city’s – and its surrounding’s – constellation of Michelin stars decorated restaurants? Or better still, go slightly off the beaten track to far-flung eateries frequented by chefs?
Grazing on small plates, also called pintxo in Basque, is the backbone of San Sebastian’s flourishing dining culture. Made all the more important to stave off hunger before lunch or dinner (typically starting late at 1.30pm and 9.00pm respectively), most pintxo bars provide standing room-only space to crowds of diners jostling for a bite of the snacks displayed gloriously on the bar counters.
The sandstone-paved old town of Parte Vieja is a good place to start for your txikiteo. Hit up La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle 31 de Agosto, 28, 20003 Donastia) for its famously affordable foie gras with apple compote; unlike most pintxo bars where you point and shoot from the counter, you order from the blackboard here.
Ganbara

 

Exercise restraint to make space for Ganbara (San Jeronimo Kalea, 19, 20003 Donostia), which serves the season’s freshest assortment of sautéed fungi with nothing more than sea salt and a disc of oozy yolk.
Make a beeline for Bar Nestor (Calle Pescaderia, 11, 20003 Donostia) that shot to fame with the famously hard-to-get homemade tortilla; to secure yours, come at 7pm to reserve a slice and show-up at 5 minutes before 8pm for your fresh-out-of-oven egg omelette.
Borda Berri

 

Then nip over to Borda Berri (Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12, 20003 Donostia) for cooked-to-order small plates; the roasted octopus with quince, cod tripe in pil pil sauce, crab ravioli and Euskal pork ribs “kebab” are all excellent.
For a sweet ending, swing over to La Vina (Calle 31 Agosto, 31, 20003 Donastia) for a slice of what some say is the best cheesecake in the world. If you prefer not to risk a stock-out situation of the Basque burnt cheesecake, come after lunch.
Elkano (kokotxa is on upper left and grilled turbot on bottom right)

 

Once you’ve had your fill of pintxos, it’s time to escape to Elkano (Herretieta Kalea, 2, 20808 Getaria). Located in the fishing village of Geteria on the Bay of Biscay, about 35 minutes by car from San Sebastian, this 51-year-old restaurant run by second-generation owner, Aitor Arregui, was the city’s best-kept secret until it was awarded its first Michelin star in 2014. Many top chefs claim this seaside eatery fields the best charcoal grilled whole turbot in the world and they are not wrong. Served with nothing more than salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon, the turbot filleted at the table boasts flesh so moist and skin so gelatinous that the ones back home seem bone-dry in comparison. But beyond the turbot, the menu also beams with other well-regarded dishes like kokotxa, a piece of flesh taken from underneath the chin of the hake or cod fish, served 3-ways (fried, grilled and with pil pil sauce) and line-caught squid served alongside a puddle of onion jam suffused with its own ink. The restaurant’s uncluttered approach to showcasing its produce has won it a huge following and it shows in the packed room.
Asador Etxebarri’s Palamos prawns

 

Talking about packed, unless you plan well in advance, it will be close to impossible to snag a seat at Asador Etxebarri (Plaza San Juan, 1, 48291, Apatamonastrio, Biscay), which opens for lunch just 6 days a week, and once for dinner on Saturdays only. Set in a 200-year-old stone house deep in the Atxondo valley, about an hour’s drive from San Sebastian, this asador (grill house) is hailed as the holy grail of grill houses and for good reasons. Former forester-turned-chef-owner, Victor Arguinzoniz, has spent the past 26 years studying the art of mastering the grill. Instead of charcoal, he utilizes different types of logs – including vines, oak and applewood – to gently suffuse his ingredients with smokiness. And with an entire army of self-invented kitchen contraption, he labours over the grill each day, taking pains to ensure that the sheerness of the locally sourced produce is allowed to shine. His food is remarkably simple yet brilliantly tasty. Fresh buffalo cheese arrives all fluid and smoky, a perfect accompaniment to the crusty country loaf while Palamos prawn is cooked ever so gently on the grill that the crustacean remains juicy yet imparts a lovely smoky tang. Carnivores should not miss the grilled chuleton (bone-in beef rib) that arrives with an even coat of char. Even the desserts – think smoked milk ice cream or apple crumble with cheese ice cream – are not an afterthought.
Kokotxa’s red tuna with peach salmorejo, pickled vegetables, beetroot and fresh cheese

 

If you don’t want to venture too far, a bijou eatery named for the gelatinous flesh underneath the chin of the hake fish or cod is worth a visit. Located in the heart of the old town, one Michelin-starred Kokotxa (Calle del Campanario, 11, 20003, Donostia) by chef-owner Dani Lopez offers a refreshing departure from the fancy creations of his big-name Michelin-starred compatriots. Diners have a choice of the smallish a la carte menu or one of 2 prix fixe menus (pick from the 6-course Market Menu and a more extensive 8-course Tasting Menu). Basque country seasonality drives the host of menus, which features classics with a dash of modernity, think grilled hake fish with pil pil emulsion, seaweed and edible sand of dried shrimps flecked amaranth seeds or red tuna with peach salmorejo, pickled vegetables, beetroot and fresh cheese.
Mugaritz’s sprouted teff with garlic and hazelnut

 

Still, a trip to San Sebastrian is incomplete without a reservation at one of its famed temples of haute cuisine. Mugaritz(Aldura Aldea, 20, 20100, Errenteria, Gizpuzko) by chef-owner Andoni Luis Aduriz is technically one of the most important. Located about 20 minutes away from San Sebastian, this modish-looking, wood-swathed house is where Aduriz concocts the bold dishes that have earned him 2 Michelin stars and a 6thplace on the Word’s 50 Best 2015 list. A dreamer, philosopher and chef, Aduriz, orchestrates a unique menu that challenges diners to think well beyond the realm of deliciousness. From the 20 plus-course menu of bite-size creations, grass-like sprouted teff, a grain from Ethopia harvested from the restaurant’s backyard, arrives with garlic and hazelnut ensconced while a box of lacquered duck neck appears stuffed with herbs and dry grains. Even if some of the courses come across as completely bizarre (think germinated chia seeds roll wrapped up with lobster ceviche within), Andoni would have succeeded in delivering the thought-provoking culinary journey that he promised.
Azurmendi

 

Another fixture on the radar of food cognoscenti is 3 Michelin-starred Azurmendi (Legina Auz, s/n, 48195 Larrabetzu, Bizkaia) by Eneko Atxa. Located just an hour from San Sebastian, the Azurmendi complex – which also includes an edible garden, a green house, a vineyard, a winery and bistro, Prêt à Porter – is cutting-edge and built with sustainability in mind. Not only is the premise constructed with environmentally friendly materials, it also recycles wastes and uses renewable energy. If you’ve not been told, a meal here is truly a marathon (we left San Sebastian at 12noon and got back past 8pm). It starts with a succession of snacks like the edible lemon tree “bark” chips at the green house, and proceeds to the indoor tropical garden where you enjoy more snacks like anchovy mille feuille from a picnic basket. It concludes with a trip to the stainless steel-clad kitchen where you graze on one-sip items like hibiscus infusion. Lunch or dinner proper takes place in a classy, 50-seat dining room where you are offered a choice of 2 tasting menus: “Erroak”, a menu of Atxa’s classics since inception or “Adarrak”, a more extensive menu showcasing Atxa’s culinary gymnastics with Basque flavours. Watch out for all-time Atxa signatures like the “egg”, where a portion of an egg yolk is removed and injected with truffled consommé, and steamed squid “noodles” with an intensely flavoured squid reduction infused with roasted onions. Go easy on the richer dishes – like tomato-infused spider crab broth with dollops of sea urchin emulsion – so as to make space for the city’s most ambitious tasting menu.

Akelarre’s foie gras salad

Another fixture on San Sebastian’s food scene is Akelarre (Paseo Padre Orcolaga, 56, 20008, Donostia, Gipuzkoa). Perched on Igueldo Hill overlooking the azure blue Biscay Bay, this 40-year-old restaurant by mustachioed chef-owner, Pedro Subijana, serves up panoramic ocean views to go with the 3 Michelin-starred Basque-inspired cuisine. Unlike some of the more internationally acclaimed restaurants that dispatch more than 20 courses in one seating, Akelarre fields no more than a quartet of snacks followed by about 8 courses from the menu – pick from Aranori (8 courses), Bekarki (8 courses) or Classic (7 courses). While each may vary in approach, all 3 menus pay homage to the richness of the Basque country as evinced by the course of perfectly roasted scampi with a medley of raw and smoked monkfish served in a briny mussel broth. If you’re looking for avant garde, you won’t be disappointed with Subijana’s brilliant dish of foie gras salad (foie gras fashioned as salad leaves tossed with real salad greens).
Nerua

Now, most people go to The Guggenheim in Bilbao for the art museum but even if you don’t have an appetite for art, a trip to Nerua(Abandoibarra Etorbidea, 2, 48009, Bilbao, Vizcaya) at The Guggenheim is worth the schlep if only to discover the unique, purist-style cuisine by chef-owner Josean Alija. In an airy but minimally embellished dining room with linen blanketed tables, Gehry’s plaited Hat Trick chairs and a floor to ceiling window offering limited views, Alija arouses the palate with a succession of dainty plates, each dressed in a light broth with elegantly complex flavours – some earthy, some with a bitter tinge and yet others savoury like a meat broth – masterfully distilled from a mélange of vegetables and beans. A cube of rare bonito arrives in a pool of green pepper oil suffused with a refreshment of tomato jus while Alija’s signature dish of baby tomatoes are injected with aromatic herbs and teamed with a consommé of capers providing a gentle hint of acidity. Alija could even make a complete vegetarian dish of potxa (Basque bush bean) stand out with an ethereal bath of chickpeas, onions and herbs. The progression of flavours in the tasting menu is exceptionally well-paced just like in a kaiseki meal. But instead of dashi, Alija’s abstract plant-based essences come to the fore, sometimes comforting you and at other times disarming you. Now, that is exemplary art of the culinary kind worthy of a detour.

Note:
When budgeting your eating itinerary, please take into consideration the cost of transportation. Cab fare from San Sebastian to Bilbao will cost you more than 200 Euros both ways (ours cost about 270 Euros because our driver got a little lost).

© Evelyn Chen 2013
Please note that the reviews published on this blog are sometimes hosted. I am under no obligation to review every restaurant I’ve visited. If I do, the reviews are 100% my own.

 

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2 comments

  1. You have a very nice blog here, I read it quite often to keep up to date on new restaurant openings. I was also in San Sebastian during the week of the Gastronomika, but I did not spot too many Singaporeans in the old town when I was out. Anyway, I thought that you should know that from the airport in Bilbao there is an hourly bus direct to San Sebastian at at very reasonable 16 Euros.

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