San Sebastian Revisited (Six Months Later)

I have a weird blogging habit – I hate to put up my last post from a particular vacation.

I guess subconsciously I feel like it’s the last time I’ll savor a place. That writing that last post means that vacation is truly ended and in the books and only to be relived on the computer screen. It’s no longer a memory selfishly locked away in my heart. And it makes me very sad.

But one of the main purposes of this blog is to put down all the great things we saw, and did, and ate, so that I could remember them and share them.

lacquered monkfish at Arbelaitz in San Sebastian, Spain
Wait, what was this again and where did we eat it? (lacquered monkfish at Arbelaitz)

And still, I dilly dally.

This post about San Sebastian is the perfect example. It’s been sitting, partially written in my inbox since December 13.

Opening the email this morning sent a wave of yearning over me. I absolutely, unequivocally and totally fell in love with San Sebastian. Especially, the food. And the architecture. And the shopping. And the beaches. But mostly, the food.

San Sebastian, Spain
The view from our hotel in San Sebastian.

This elegant, seaside gem of the Basque Country was also the scene of the most awkward dinner I’ve ever sat through.

But let me back up. Waaaay, back. Like, to 2012. November to be exact.

We reluctantly left the Rioja region and headed up north, to the coast of Spain. Weaving our way up and over the mountains, we drove through at least a dozen tunnels. Apparently, the Spanish never choose to go around a mountain, they instead choose to go through them. Below us, small industrial towns dotted  the bottom of the valleys.

We followed a semi-coastal road, stopping in small seaside towns of Zumaia, Zarautz, and Gettaria.

Rioja region, Spain

Finally, we drove into San Sebastian and were immediately charmed. Just 20 km from the French border, San Sebastian looks like Paris with gorgeous Belle Epoque architecture and wide, tree-lined avenues, beautiful bridges crossing the river Urumea, and two stunning beaches, right in the middle of town.

We stayed at the newly renovated Hotel Maria Cristina, another Starwood Luxury Property. The hotel, which originally opened in 1912, has 136 rooms and suites, all done in soothing, cool grays, silvers, lavenders, and creams. It was plush and ornate and just majestic.

Lobby at Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian, Spain
Hotel lobby
Our room at Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian, Spain
Our room
Our living room at Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian, Spain
Our living room

We had a large suite with a separate living room and small Juliet balconies overlooking the public square below and the Victoria Eugenia Theater where the annual San Sebastian Film Festival is held.

Our balcony at Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian, Spain
Our balcony. Yes. A balcony.

Reluctantly, we left the amazing room to go out and explore. First stop, Zurriola surf beach to watch brave surfers battle the cold water. It was definitely warm for November (around the low 70s), but there’s no way that water wasn’t a tiny bit chilly. We sat at a bar on the boardwalk with outdoor seating and watched numerous people brave the water, only to running back to the beach a few minutes later.

Beach at San Sebastian

After walking around a bit and getting our bearings, we headed back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner at Michelin-star Miramon Arbelaitz. XFE had asked our hotel for dinner suggestions and they sent us a list of suggestions. After much research of websites, XFE choose Arbelaitz, which seemed quite innovative. Our hotel concierge made the reservation for us.

Unbeknownst to us, Arbelaitz was a bit off the beaten path. In fact, it was in a technology industrial park.

We had a 9 or 9:30 reservation, which we thought was late enough for the Spanish. However, we arrived to an empty restaurant. Could it be that even 9 pm was too early for dinner in Spain??

We were greeted by a lovely small Spanish woman, who led us to our table in the romantically lit and tastefully modern dining room and ordered the very affordable tasting menu, starting with fresh oysters. Show tunes played in the background (Cabaret, Gypsy, etc.) Next was a grilled artichoke dish, followed by a wonderful lobster royal accompanied by the sound of pot and pans in the nearby kitchen.

Arbelaitz, San Sebastian, Spain
Grilled artichokes, chard stems in batter, porcini mushrooms and jus of ham.

After the next course of marinated tuna, I’d finally had enough wine to broach the subject that had us burning with curiosity: where were the other guests? I gently asked the lovely Spanish lady if they were very busy this time of year. She explained that they were very busy during lunch with workers from the nearby technology companies. Then she went and got our next course, a divine lacquered monkfish with eggplant.

We were the only customers that night. The chef, Jose Mari Arbelaitz came out and greeted us, not once, but twice. We tried to convey how honored we were that he and (we presumed) his wife had opened up their restaurant just for us. I have no idea why they didn’t just tell us they weren’t open or that they weren’t taking reservations for dinner, or something.

As we silently ate our way through our saddle of venison roasted with citrus, blueberries and rosemary purple potatoes, we tried to not feel conspicuous. The meal was great, but the overall experience was very, very awkward.

Arbelaitz, San Sebastian, Spain
Saddle of venison roasted with citrus, blueberries and rosemary purple potatoes.

The next day, we wandered around the Parte Vieja (Old Town) section of San Sebastian, just enjoying the tiny, winding cobblestone streets. We had no plan, except a lunch reservation at Kokotxa, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the neighborhood, and the one of the very few to be open this slow time of the year (our first choices, Arzak and Akelarre were both closed during non-touristy November).

Koktxa restaurant, San Sebastian, Spain

But the problem with our well-laid plans is that all the streets were lined with pincho bars. We resisted the lure of the beckoning doorways with dark, patron-packed bars and rows of plates teetering with jewel-toned small bites. They looked like works of stained glass – red and green chiles, pink strips of Serrano ham, silvery anchovies, bright yellow mousses.

Pinchos or pinxtos

Our reserve was further tested when we did a walk-by of our chosen lunch spot. Unlike all of the pincho bars we had just passed, it looked dead. Really, really dead. We walked along the waterfront of the old fortress city and dithered back and forth, “Should we call and cancel? It’s kind of last minute. Yeah, but did you see it? There was nobody there. It’s supposed to be really good. I do not want a repeat of last night’s meal where we’re the only people in the place.” (Although the meal was, as I said, very, very good.)

We eventually capitulated to the lure of the pinchos. Our first stop, Atari Gastroteka, was located right in front of the pretty yellow Iglesia Santa Maria del Coro.

San Sebastian street
Nice church. Sure, I’ll eat in the shadow of that plaza.

Church in San Sebastian

It attracted us because it was pretty full, including a large group (dogs and children included) of Spanish-speaking friends leisurely holding court at a picnic table out front. The amount of plates and glasses and overflowing ashtrays gave testament to the fact that they’d been there for quite a while. That was enough of an endorsement for us.

We were quite unlike our delicate Spanish friends, who generally wash down one or two small bites with lots of conversation before eventually, slowly moving to the next place. Our American appetites and curious bellies demanded we try one of everything. Slabs of potato-stuffed tortillas, papas bravas, seafood salads on crostinis, crab-stuffed chiles, goat cheese with asparagus, and countless others were consumed alongside our new favorite Baigorri wine.

Papas bravas, San Sebastian

We went to a blur of places, washing down the little works of pincho art with amazing crisp white wines. We stopped in at the highly recommended A Fuego Negro, but it was too crowded for us to get close to the bar. Considering the huge array of choices we had anywhere along the street, we took our spoiled taste buds elsewhere and kept wandering.

But it was around 3 pm when we found our pincho heaven – La Cuchara de San Telmo. It was a bit off the beaten path, hidden down a side street, but it was by far the best place we ate, maybe even the entire trip. Since it was close to the end of lunch service (they close at 3:30 and reopen at 7:30), we were able to grab a spot at the bar and had a long meaningful relationship with the menu.

Menu at La Cuchara San Telmo, San Sebastian, Spain

Aided by a wonderful barman from Nicaragua who happened to know more about U.S. politics than either of us DC residents, we worked out way through San Sebastian’s most popular and innovative pinchos – one perfectly cooked bacon-wrapped scallop, braised calf cheeks in red wine, grilled octopus. The special of the day, the pigs ear on a chickpea puree was, unfortunately sold out.

Scallop at La Cuchara San Telmo, San Sebastian, Spain
bacon-wrapped scallop
braised beef at La Cuchara San Telmo, San Sebastian, Spain
braised beef

Never one to pass up a chance at pork, we asked them to save us one and swore we’d be back in the evening to try it. It was totally worth it. It was crispy and soft and salty and just perfect. We also added foie gras with apple compote and queso cabra topped with grilled vegetables to the pincho carnage tally. And, we might have revisited a few of our favorite dishes from lunchtime again (What? Being a tourist is very hungry work! And the portions are really small!)

La Cuchara San Telmo, San Sebastian, Spain
Blurry pigs ear.

We ended the evening chatting with a very cool young American couple from Denver who also ordered everything on the La Cuchara menu. After one last ginormous gin and tonic (served in large wine goblets with real juniper berries, naturally), we bid farewell to our friends, stumbled our big bellies back to our hotel and collapsed, dreaming of soft, succulent pig’s ears. It had been a big foodie day for us.

Giant Spanish gin and tonic

Unbelievable food, great wine and new friends.  It was the perfect end to our time in San Sebastian, and Spain. I truly cannot wait to go back.

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