Pinxto Paradise: 5 Pinxto Bars in San Sebastian

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.

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GGGOOOAAALLL!!! Football in Spain Part II: Copa del Rey in San Sebastian

Editor’s note: We’re going to do something a little different on ThePoeLog and declare this “Soccer Week.” Guest editor and soccer expert XFE has kindly written up a series of posts on the soccer games we went to in Spain. Part 1: UEFA in Bilbao is here.  

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The next game on our agenda was in San Sebastian, and was a contest scheduled as part of the Copa del Rey. The Copa is a tournament that allows teams from across Spain to compete for a title. The teams not only include those in the top tier of the league (La Liga), but other teams from lower divisions who are selected based on both competition and a lottery. The tournament starts in September with 83 teams and will work down to a single winner by the following May.

The game we attended was one in the round of 32 where teams play a home/away format to determine the winner. This means that each pair of teams plays twice to determine who will move on to the next round. Each team plays one game at home and one game away and the aggregate score of the two matches determines the winner.

The match we attended was the second leg between the home team Real Sociedad and Las Palmas, which is the team from the city with the same name that is the capital of Gran Canaria, one of Spain’s Canary Islands off northwestern Africa. Real Sociedad had lost the previous match 2-to-1 so they needed to score at least two goals in order to win the aggregate and move on to the next round.

Unlike our previous experience in Bilbao, we did not run into any traveling fans from Las Palmas, at least that we know of, and since the stadium is removed from the central city, it was tougher to identify fans that were out for pintxos before heading to the game.

Poe and I absolutely love the old part of San Sebastian and were perfectly happy grabbing vino and pintxos in the city center before grabbing a taxi for the 10 minute ride to the stadium.

Once on the stadium grounds, we saw fans streaming in from the neighborhood as well as what seemed like 50 different public buses that were convening near the front entrance. As is our custom, we quickly purchased a scarf with the colors of the home team and headed to our seats.

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The Anoeta Stadium opened in 1993, but appears to have used a 1970s design and left much to be desired aesthetically, especially after Bilbao’s shiny new San Mames stadium. But it was holding a good crowd that night as we took our seats in the second level at about midfield. The tickets, which our hotel concierge had helped us get, were really good and among some of the best in the stadium. It was clear that we were seated among several of the city’s diehard season ticket holders.

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As kickoff time neared, we did seem to notice some angst amongst the small group of locals next to us. They were particularly bothered by the heavy cigar smoke wafting up from a few rows in front of us. Poe and I also found the smoke to be annoying and on some level nauseating, but the woman next to us was frantically waiving her program to disperse the smoke, all while glaring at the group of smokers two rows ahead.

So as glaring continued and smoke rose through the stands, the game finally kicked off. It was clear almost immediately that these two Spanish teams were not quite on par with some of the other popular Spanish clubs or even the teams we had just watched five nights prior. The game took on a ragged sense and the fans sense of disappointment was clearly evident as each missed pass or bad shot was met with loud groans or halfhearted sighs of disappointment. The crowd became further disappointed when midway through the first half, Las Palmas scored meaning that on an aggregate basis, the home team was now trailing 2-0.

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Halftime was Poe’s favorite part because immediately every single person around us broke out their own bocadillos – sandwiches – to eat during the break.

Halftime became welcome relief for the fans as their hope for making it to the next round of tournament play seemed all but lost in the current score. So as the second half started and a fresh round of cigars were lit, Poe and I moved to some open seats at the end of our row for fresh air and the second half.

Things were underway and it was not long before Real Sociedad had their first goal of the match, which instantly injected the fans with a fresh dose of hope for a victory. The goal was almost a cruel treat for the fans surrounding us as it did not represent hope for a team struggling to come back against a perceived weaker opponent.

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One of the offending cigar smokers.

As the half continued, the cheers grew louder, the jeering at mistakes grew more vile, and the hand talking became more dangerous to those sitting nearby. Somewhere in this stretch of fans, Poe and I were able to pick out most of the foul Spanish language we learned as kids growing up in El Paso and southern California, respectively. It was around this time when the woman down the row from us pointed out that one of the player’s mothers was a woman of questionable morals, perhaps even accepting money in return for affection. Several more chances for the tying goal were missed until the crowd threw in the towel as the final whistle blew.

In the end, Real Sociedad was not able to overcome the deficit and the fans quickly filed out of the stadium to return and fight (ok cheer) another day.

Copa

Check back later this week for my final post on a La Liga game in Bilboa.

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.

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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.

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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…”

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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.

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.