Pinxto Paradise: 5 Pinxto Bars in San Sebastian

San Sebastian nighttime eating scene

I love San Sebastian. I fell for it hard on our first trip there in 2012 and I’m still enamored. I legitimately want to buy an apartment there. I’m not exactly in a position to do so just yet but a girl sure can dream.

So what do I love about San Sebastian? Oh, just the culture, the architecture, the shopping, the people, the vibe, and the food. Especially the food. But first, a little background: This coastal city (known in Basque as Donostia) is a cross between Paris and Barcelona. With a gorgeous beach thrown in for good measure. It’s really just all too much of a good thing.

Which brings me to the food: San Sebastian is a serious foodie town with the most Michelin stars per capita in the world, second only to Kyoto, Japan. But when it comes to those mini works of culinary art known as pinxtos, I would argue that San Sebastian is home to the best.

Here are some of our favorites from this last visit:

Bar Txpetxa
Calle Pescaderia 5
If you want old school, this place is it. Txpetxa is a very traditional pinxto place featuring a fish-shaped menu hanging up behind the lacquered wooden bar. It’s primarily known for its antxoas or anchovies. The menu includes about 14 different types of pinxtos featuring its oceanic star, including one with blueberry jam which just sounds vile. I don’t know what would compel someone to put those things together. We skipped that one and ordered a couple of other anchovy-based pintxos. I, however, can’t stand anchovies, so to me, it tasted like cat food on bread. XFE has more refined tastes and he seemed to choke them down just fine. It’s tradition and I gave it a try.

Zeruko
Calle Pescaderia 10

Once we were done with our catfood and ready to give traditional pinxtos a swift kick in the scallops, we crossed the street over to Zeruko. This place is all about cool, modern molecular pinxtos. The mile-long bar display is a sensory overload as you try to make out just what ingredients are in each pinxto. Befuddled and overwhelmed, we settled on a few from the display (versus ordering off the kitchen board), including this gilded and grilled artichoke stuffed with a creamy filling topped with grilled scallops. We did not get Zeruka’s most famous dish, bacalao la hoguera, a piece of cod served up on a little grill that cooks in front of you.

A Fuego Negro
Calle 31 de Agosto, 31
Continuing on the experimental pinxto vein, we made sure to go nice and early to the much-hyped A Fuego Negro. We had tried to go the last time we were in the Parte Viejo, but the place was packed and we just couldn’t be bothered. On this visit, we had the Makobe with txips- a Kobe slider served in a tomato sauce bun with banana chips, and pajarito fritos, which was sort of their spin on chicken wings featuring some small—not chicken—bird. Pretty yummy and American-taste-bud friendly.

Sirimiri
Mayor Kalea, 18 (right next to—and affiliated with–our old favorite Atari Gastroleku)
The definition of Sirimiri is “a very light rain; stronger than mist but less than a shower.” What a great word! Sirimiri features a good mix of playful pinxtos with traditional. We had their version of “natxos” and some really wonderful roasted goat topped with pickled cabbage. They also, like their sister bar, make an unbelievably good gin and tonic, which Spain, and San Sebastian in particular, has elevated to an art form. Very small interior but wonderful, buzzy vibe.

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La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 de Agosto, 28
Saving the best for last: our favorite pinxto place in the whole wide world (so far). We love La Cuchara and every time we go (which can sometimes mean twice a day), we are constantly blown away by this place. How, oh how, does it not have a Michelin star? But don’t take my word for it: On our second night there, we struck up a conversation with a girl standing next to us at the bar. She told us she had been an apprentice chef at two-Michelin star Mugaritz and this was her last night in San Sebastian and she just had to eat at La Cuchara one last time.

We ate pretty much everything on the menu, revisiting some of our favorites from our last visit:  veal cheeks slow cooked in wine till they fall apart, bacon-wrapped scallop, cochinillo or suckling pig with an apple puree and topped with crispy skin. We discovered a couple of new favorites: grilled goat cheese with peppers, and roasted salt cod (bacalao) with tzatziki. And one dish that I did not care for: pig trotters. I am just not a fan of gelatinous proteins.

On our final night in San Sebastian, we reluctantly said goodbye to our bartender friend at La Cuchara and stumbled out onto the cobblestone streets with full bellies, trying to wrap our minds around all the new flavor combinations and textures we had had this trip. It’s impossible to pick a favorite pinxto, but I do know this: we will be back, San Sebastian. As soon as I win the lottery and can plunk down a down payment that apartment overlooking La Concha beach.

Running of the Bars: 5 Pintxo Bars in Pamplona

In Pamplona, we had a plan.

Well, not so much a “plan,” really. More like, a “vague, sort-of idea on some things that might be interesting to see and do.”

Pamplona store front
Apparently, a little Pamplona humor. This blue guy with the, ahem, huevos, was everywhere.

Unlike Bilboa and San Sebastian, where we’d actually been before and where I had made long lists of pinxto places we absolutely had to go to, we did not research Pamplona and it’s bar scene before we arrived. We didn’t even have a map.

But we did make up for that oversight, and in a big way.

Pamplona, like apparently all Basque towns, is a charming little city steeped in history. Honestly, you can stop in any town in Northern Spain and, after a few hours basking in their friendly glow and excellent wine, decide definitively that THIS is the place where you will someday retire and live out your days as mysterious and glamorous expats.

We didn’t even book a room until the night before we arrived. We were very lucky in that respect, getting a fairly comfortable room inside the city’s medieval walls at the Pamplona Catedral Hotel. After parking our rental car (a big selling point for the hotel), we got a map from the front desk and began exploring.

Pamplona - hotel

We had chosen to visit Pamplona for the same reason that I’m sure most Americans stop in: The Running of the Bulls.

I’ve been to a bullfight, but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan. I consider myself a pretty big animal lover, and I have a hard time even watching animals fight each other on National Geographic documentaries without squealing and covering my eyes when the kill comes.

On the other hand, I am from Texas, so I’ve seen plenty of animals being killed. And, when it comes to most indigenous cultural activities, even those I don’t necessarily embrace wholeheartedly, I tend to err on the side of, “Whelp, to each his own, I reckon.”

But, after watching the Esquire Network’s Running of the Bulls live coverage featuring the Men in Blazers the last couple of years, I came to a couple of realizations:

1) There are a bunch of lunatics in this world;

2) Lunatics tend to drink (for courage beforehand, and to celebrate cheating death after);

3) Ergo, Pamplona must be a pretty dang good place to get a drink.

Pamplona - Running of the Bulls sign
Hmmm, this picture appears to be missing the necessary wineglass.

So, on a cold evening in December, we bundled up and embarked on our own Running of the Bars, pledging to stop at every bar and pinxto place along Mercaderes and Calle Estafeta, part of the slippery 0.5 mile route that the bulls and their would-be victims barrel down on their way to the bullring. The rules were simple: we’d have one drink and share a pinxto before moving on to the next place.

It was a long, long night, with many, many stops. We even skipped a few places (especially towards the end), but according to my fairly consistent photographic evidence, we stopped in at around 12 or so bars. Who knew that such a small stretch of road could have so many bars??

Here is a list of a few of our favorites, and believe me: if they were stellar enough to stand out in our memories after that long blur of a night, they were really, really good.

Cafeteria El Mentidero
Calle Mercaderes, 13

This place was our jam. Our regular stopping spot, for coffee and a snack in the morning, for a late pinxto lunch and, of course, on our Running of the Bars. We had some decent bocadillow and papas bravas there, but my favorite pinxto was a piece of bread topped with chopped ham topped with grilled goat cheese and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. It was sweet and salty and savory and very, very good. One of my favorites on the whole trip, for sure. This place was badly lit and not exactly modern, but totally reliable and always open when we walked past it.

Irunazarra
Calle Mercaderes, 15

Right next door to our Cafeteria was this place: the exact opposite, design wise. A very inviting exterior gives way to a narrow space with huge copper barrels suspended over the main bar area and a long standing bar against the opposite wall. It’s also a restaurant and does a good job of separating the two areas. We had a pinxto with a sliver of jamon Serrano and some fried eggplant on a slice of bread. It was good, not particularly earth shattering.

Bar Guria
Travesía de Espoz y Mina

What I remember most about this place was the cool and modern décor (stainless steel bar) and the beautiful black and white tiles on the walls. The pinxtos were ok—I think we had a couple of fried things (including rabas. I definitely remember rabas) and a couple of fishy things on bread (probably bacalao). I know I’m being really informative here. They’re known for their txalupa, a piece of bread with a marinated sardine skewed to it and some sort of reduction on top, probably balsamic vinegar or something. It was a finalist in Navarre’s Pinxto Week 2012, a region-wide competition for the best pinxtos.

Bodegon Sarria
Calle de la Estafeta, 50

This place was primarily memorable for all the salted cured hams hanging over the bar. So, try the ham. The overall vibe was very warm and cozy with a wooden interior, a roomy bar and plenty of stools or standing space and tables and benches for those who wanted to linger or eat something more substantial, like, a whole ham, I suppose.

Cocotte Taberna
Calle de la Estafeta, 81

I’m not 100% sure this is the place where we had the most amazing pinxto in Pamplona. But when I go to the website, I see that they specialize in servings plated in Le Creuset mini cocotte, and well, that makes sense to me. This was one of our final stops of the night and by far, the best pinxto of the evening – a risotto with foie gras, mushrooms and a side of parmesan. I wanted to lick that mini cocotte after we scarfed it down.

A few other places we visited:

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Mini Meals: 5 Pinxto Bars in Bilbao

I might have mentioned that on our recent trip to northern Spain we ate all the pinxtos.

You might have thought that was an exaggeration. I assure you. It was not.

Bilbao - pinxtos
Let the carnage commence.

We really did eat pinxtos from morning till night. There’s just something about those little appetizer-sized wonders that I just adore. Maybe it’s all the bar snacks I grew up eating as a kid waiting for my mom to either finish her waitressing shift, or run through her tips while hanging out at said bar, a place of both employment and entertainment. Although, to be fair, those bar snacks were mostly bowels of stale Corn-Nuts or some chicharones.

Whatever it is, I’m like Cher’s Rachel Flax in “Mermaids:” I could exist on a diet of just hors d’oeuvres.

Plus there’s the fact that, in Spain at least, it’s all but mandatory that you accompany your plate of pinxtos with a 2-3 euro glass of better-than-average vino tinto or vino blanco.

And, I love the history of them: They came about as a way to save your place at the bar while you went to the bathroom, or stepped aside to call your homies on your phone, or, more likely since we are in Spain, dashed outside to have a cigarette. The bartenders would give guests little pieces of bread to put over their wine glass to show they were coming right back.

There is a protocol to ordering and eating pinxtos. You slide up to a spot at the bar, point at a couple of delicious looking ones, or order some heated ones off the board. In many places, you can just help yourself to the cold ones that are literally out in the open. Or, you can point and grunt and have them served on a plate. The bartender will keep your tab open till you’re done. Most folks just get a couple and then move on. We sometimes broke this rule, eating many, many options from the same place just, you know, for quality control.

Oh, also, a lot of the old Spanish men throw their paper napkins on the ground when they are finished. No idea what that’s about but thought it worth mentioning. I totally wanted to do this, but didn’t dare.

On that note, here’s some of our favorite pinxto places in Bilbao. There will also be separate posts on pinxtos in San Sebastian and Pamplona, where we conducting our own “Running of the Bars.” That would be a pinxto crawl of all the bars along the route of the Running of the Bulls. I have photos from around 12 or so locations before everything turned heartburn-y and blurry and I completely lost track/the will to eat/photograph anything else.

Do not let it be said that our research was not comprehensive or exhaustive, dear reader.

Alternatif
Calle Licenciado Poza 50

A wonderful, if extremely narrow, bar near the soccer stadium, San Mames. We came by here more than once before and after Athletic Bilbao games. The crowds were festive, the bartender was friendly, and he made a great gin and tonic. This one is a bit of a cheat because while they did have pinxtos, we actually just had a bowl of peanuts encrusted in salt. You would pop one in your mouth, swirl it around to get some salt off and then crack it open and eat the peanut inside. I cannot find them on the Internet anywhere, so I’m not sure what their proper name is, but they were perfect.

Gozatu
Maestro García Rivero, 6

This is actually a bar that we went to the last time we were in Bilbao. We had gone before a weekend soccer match, and it was full of families and fans and had a great atmosphere. Naturally, we headed right there when we got to Bilbao this time. We found the street it was on fairly easily (there are a bunch of pinxto bars on this particular street), but we couldn’t remember the name or exact location. So we stood on the sidewalk and looked it up on the blog (there was a photo with the bar’s name on a napkin) and realized we were standing right in front of it.

I must say, it was a lot less lively and inviting than last time, so we kept our visit pretty short. And, we stuck with a classic, pan con tomate y jamon – nice crusty bread smeared with tomato guts and topped with some nice salty Iberico.

La Fugitiva
Maestro Garcia Rivero 5

Just across the street from Gozatu was the new and very sleek La Fugitiva. I’ll admit, I was drawn in by their excellent awning and cool type font. Since it was new, so was our bartendress, who was friendly but a bit clueless about the pinxtos on offer. We settled on a special, which included six pinxtos. They were all pretty meh, including the potato and cheese coquetas pictured here. We ended up wishing we’d skipped the hard-sale special and just had one or two pinxtos. Cool atmosphere though.

Zintzoa
Gregorio de la Revilla 13

This became our new favorite pinxtos bar in Bilbao after the disappointment at Gozatu. Wonderful food and drinks, great atmosphere. It’s on a busy street corner and had outdoor seating so the people watching was fantastic.

We definitely had a few of what on the receipt appear as “muselina de bonito con piparra,” but which I believe were the tuna sandwiches/rolls with green peppers. Or maybe those were the “bonito del cantabrico con alegri,” which the INCREDIBLY unhelpful Google Translate said is “bonito del cantabrico with joy.”

Whatever they’re called, they were awesome. Tuna in Spain is dense, and briny, and doesn’t even need any garnishment, although the peppers are so, so good with it. It is completely different. It’s like comparing “Real Housewives of Potomac” to “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” They may sound similar and they may swim in the same Bravo waters, but one is very much of lesser quality.

Speaking of, I really want to watch “Mermaids” right now. (ALL FISH-HORS D’OEUVRE-RELATED PUNS INTENDED.)

Back to the Basque

Hola, mis gentes. And Happy New Year! (Where did 2015 go? Seriously. I can’t believe it’s a new year. I’m woefully unprepared.)

My travel-compadre-for-life and I have had a sort of travel rule for the last 10 years, which is: “Let’s go to new places. Places that neither of us have ever been.” After all, the world is a large, wonderful and varied place. We’ve hardly exhausted our options. There’s always some place new to go.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s one we’ve generally followed.

Poe at soccer
Me at an Athletic Bilboa game in 2012. Per XFE’s preference, he’s cropped out. Except the tip of his thumb.

The thing is, as we get to a stage where we’ve done quite a bit of traveling, we find ourselves wanting to go back to places we’ve already been. We want a second chance at something, maybe it was another day at that secluded beach in Vieques or a trip to the Big Easy without stitches.

And so, in December, while the rest of the world was buying Christmas presents and attending holiday parties, we instead found ourselves revisiting the Basque region of northern Spain. We just had to go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. And recreate that wonderful day of soccer in Bilboa. And stay in my favorite hotel again in my favorite European city.

La Cuchara san Telmo
A nice moody picture of La Cuchara San Telmo, our favorite restaurant in San Sebastian.

You know what? It wasn’t exactly the same as that first magical trip, when everything was unknown and each experience was completely new. For example, the late-night kebab place next to our hotel in Bilboa wasn’t as delectable as it was when we went there after the soccer match on our last trip (for one thing, I had had quite a few gin and tonics that evening….). But it was pretty fantastic, and in some ways, even better.

We did go to our favorite pinxto place in San Sebastian again. Twice. And it was freaking phenomenal. (Don’t worry: We also hit up a whole bunch of new-to-us places as well. We ate all of the pinxtos. All of them.)

My favorite hotel upgraded us to an even more ridiculously luxurious room than last time.

Suite_Terrace_Terrace_1600x900
This was our terrace. Just ours. We didn’t have to share it or anything.

We pretty much recreated that wonderful day of pub crawling and soccer in Bilboa, not once, but twice, watching two Athletic Bilboa games in the team’s fancy new stadium. We even got tickets to the swanky VIP suite for one of the games, which has completely spoiled me for any future soccer matches. Plus, we saw a match in San Sebastian, so we basically tripled our soccer gluttony compared to our 2012 visit.

IMG_3704

It was all slightly familiar and comforting in a lot of ways. While it wasn’t what some travel guides would call a “journey of discovery,” it was great to cut through all the angst of getting somewhere and not knowing what you want to do first or where to go for dinner. The whole trip had a bit of nostalgia to it. Almost every sentence began with, “Well, when we were here last time…”

IMG_3418
Another XFE hand shot. I feel like we’ve been here before….

The world is a very big and varied place and there are plenty of places to go, but sometimes, going to a place you’ve been before offers up the opportunity to take a little trip down memory lane and revisit old favorites. After all, we don’t stay the same and neither do our favorite destinations. And that late-night kebab place deserves a second, more sober visit (but probably not a third visit. I think we’re good on that one).

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.

Wait, what was this again and where did we eat it? (lacquered monkfish at Arbelaitz)
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.

The view from our hotel in San Sebastian.
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.

IMG_6433

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.

Hotel lobby
Hotel lobby
Our room
Our room
Our living room
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. Yes. A balcony.
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.

champagne on the beach

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.

Grilled artichokes, chard stems in batter, porcini mushrooms and jus of ham.
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.

Saddle of venison roasted with citrus, blueberries and rosemary purple potatoes.
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

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

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.

Nice church. Sure, I'll eat in the shadow of that plaza.
Nice church. Sure, I’ll eat in the shadow of that cathedral.

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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

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.

IMG_6499

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

braised beef
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!)

Blurry pigs ear.
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.

gin and tonic 2

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.

Take a Bow, Bilbao

Bilbao. The name itself fills the mouth. I’ll admit, at first, I kept messing it up. Pronouncing it like the last name of a certain famous movie boxer. I could not quite get my tongue around it. For the record, it’s Bihl. Bow. As in, take a bow.

And indeed, the resilient Spanish city by the bay should take a bow.

Bilbao has rebuilt itself several times, usually after being wiped out by a war. Surrounded by iron ore and located on the Biscay Bay, the city focused on its industrial growth, particularly exporting iron to Great Britain, and shipbuilding.

Several factors in the 1980s, including labor disputes and terrorism from Basque separatist group ETA, caused the city to switch to a more services-focused path of economic growth. It’s now home to major companies, particularly in the banking sector. And the whole city has been undergoing an urban renewal, kicked off by the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Bilbao Guggenheim Museum in 1997.

(Interesting side note: earlier this week, ETA announced that they are ready to disband after more than 45 years of fighting for Basque independence. I’m pretty sure our visit had something to do with that).

Bilbao was the first stop on our Spanish vacation and was a good introduction to the Basque region. We were attracted to the city by the fact that 1) there was an international airport nearby, so it was easy for both of us travelling from different directions to get to; 2) the Guggenheim Museum; 3) it was off the beaten path. But what really clinched the deal was the fact that there was a soccer game at the same time we were planning to be there.

The airport: XFE was already in the south of Spain for work, and I was flying over to meet him. The Bilbao airport itself is pretty lackluster and a bit depressing. It was small, particularly for an international airport serving 3.9 million customers, and it didn’t have any shops or restaurants. It was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also designed one of the wineries we went to later in the week. Overall, it was very modern, but in a cold, concrete-gray kind of way.

But, it was easy to get in and out of, so that’s a bonus.

The Guggenheim: We figured going to northern Spain in November was a risk, weather-wise. We expected cold, rainy and gloomy, so we thought it would make a perfect excuse to spend a day in a museum. It was indeed chilly and drizzly the day we went to the Guggenheim, but the inside was comfortable, and because it was November, blessedly free of masses of tourists (the Guggenheim had 4 million visitors in its first three years). If anything, the gray skies made a fantastic contrasting backdrop to the gold, undulating exterior made of sandstone, titanium and glass.

The museum is pretty massive with a total of 256,000 square feet, but it doesn’t feel that big. It was well laid out and focused on modern art. A couple of our favorites were the Jenny Holzer installation piece of large LED columns with phrases in English and Basque, and a current exhibit of works by Austrian painter Egon Schiele.

But the real star of the show is the building. It is breathtaking. We stayed at the Hotel Miro, which is spitting distance from the museum and had a waterfront room with views of the museum so we could see it day and night. It never got old.

I’ve heard it described many ways — like a giant ship in a nod to Bilbao’s maritime past, like a giant fish with scales made up of titanium, like a flowing river reflecting back into the River Nervion it hovers over. It was all of that and more. It was one of those buildings that somehow stirs an emotion in you.

The Hotel Miro was great, both in location (city center) and amenities. It’s very modern and small, and had a great breakfast including pour-your-own mimosas. It was close to the museum, shopping and the soccer stadium.

The beaten path: Bilbao was quite a surprise to us, but a very pleasant one. Neither one of us knew anyone who had ever been there, so we had no idea what to expect. But the city is a beautiful mix of old and new buildings with wide European avenues lined with trees and lots of pedestrian-only streets and bridges. There’s a fairly new metro system, but we never needed it during our two-day stay.

Thanks to the great location of our hotel, we walked everywhere. Our first night in town, we fought off jetlag by strolling over to the Gran Via and the Plaza Eliptica for a couple of hours of shopping. All the major Spanish chains were well represented, including Zara, Mango and Maje.

And meat. There were lots of meat shops.

On Sunday afternoon, we made like Spainards and strolled through the lovely Dona Casida Itturizar Park on our way to the soccer game. It was a gorgeous fall day, and everyone was out, pushing strollers, chasing kids and walking dogs. Usually, in that amazing way that European women have, all three at the same time and looking stylish while doing it.

We didn’t really make any dinner plans, but more often than not found ourselves eating pinxtos at the casual English-themed bar next to the hotel. There was a post-soccer/all-day-drinking feast at a donner kabob place near the hotel. At the time, I was sure it was the best restaurant in all of Spain.

I cannot remember the name of the bar next to the hotel, but it was very friendly and had some fairly good pinxtos.

Which brings us to our final deciding factor: the soccer game.

When we first started planning our trip, we looked up the schedules for three soccer teams in Northern Spain: Sevilla, San Sebastian and Bilbao. Only one was playing on the weekend we would be there: Athletico Bilbao.

Spain, like all of Europe, is crazy about soccer. It’s like a holiday when the home team is in town, and Bilbao was no exception. They regularly reach full capacity in their 40,000 seat San Mames, known affectionately as the Cathedral. (Don’t worry, they’re building an even larger new 53,000 seat stadium right next to the old one to open sometime in 2013 – the 100th anniversary of the original stadium).

It’s an understatement to say we were very concerned about our ability to get tickets to the game.

We contacted our concierge to get tickets but were told they weren’t released until the week of the game. His recommendation was that we stand in line at the stadium to buy them the day before the game. Not a very appealing option.

Instead, we took our chances with an online ticket broker, Viagogo, and had them delivered to our hotel. It was a nerve-wracking four weeks while we waited to see if the tickets would indeed show up, but they were waiting for us when we checked in at the Hotel Miro and the seats were fantastic. Front row. They were very expensive, but worth it.

Not surprisingly, the people of Bilbao make a whole day of the soccer game. We saw people heading towards the 4 pm game at around 10 am. We left our hotel at around 11:30 and headed to Calle Licenciado Poza for pinxtos and drinks.

We saw this guy from our hotel window heading to the game.

The entire neighborhood was draped in red and white Athletico bunting and every bar was flying the Athletico flag. We stopped at bar after bar—everything ranging from super chic steel and chrome numbers, to older establishments with plexiglass protecting their pintxos—and the whole vibe was very festive. Since they don’t serve beer or alcohol at the stadium (a widespread European rule that I’m not particularly fond of), things get pretty tipsy on the streets beforehand.

That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of families out and about. We particularly enjoyed one kid who sat next to us and just inhaled two bowls of the tiniest little garlicky snails we’d ever seen. They were miniscule, but this kid was pulling them out of their tiny shells like he was a machine.

We bought our traditional (and overpriced) team garb from a small shop right outside the stadium. We try to go to a soccer game every time we go to Europe and now have a pretty impressive collection of scarves (for me) and baseball hats (for XFE). I also might have accosted a group of young American students I happened to overhear on our way in as if they were our long-lost relatives. What can I say? I was carried away by the many glasses of 1 Euro tintos and the excitement of game day.

The new stadium rising up in the background of the old one.

Finally, we made our way into the Cathedral. The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric. European men, I’ve observed, are very, very demonstrative at soccer games. They cheer wildly and cry and throw their hands up in disgust and hug each other. It’s a pretty impressive display. On that particular day, the home team beat the Sevilla visitors 2-0, so it was mostly cheers.

No cheers for the broken stadium chair, though. Those wimpy EU chairs are not made for American butts. (To be fair, this is not the first stadium chair we’ve ever broken. We leave a trail of butt destruction)

As we marched out of the stadium, carried along by the exuberant crowd into the neighborhood streets, I decided I liked Bilbao very, very much indeed. And then I went into a bar and had another glass of tinto. Somewhere there was a very non-Spanish kebab calling my name.