I’ve always been enamoured of San Sebastiàn and it has always been a dream of mine to visit this small Basque town with such a big reputation for its food culture.
San Sebastiàn boast of the most (if not the second most) number of Michelin stars per capita in the world.
Aside from the Michelin starred restaurants like Arzak, Akelarre, Martín Berasategui, Mugaritz, San Sebastiàn has an exciting range of pintxos, the basque country’s answer to Spain’s tapas). Pintxos are small bites served in bars and eaten with copious amount of alcohol, with lots of merry making, conversations and laughter.
They were traditionally small bites (eaten in one or two mouthfuls) that were skewered with a cocktail stick on a slice of baguette but they have now been interpreted in many ways that some say is similar to haute cuisine, I prefer to call it inventive pintxos.
San Sebastiàn sits along the coast and along the border of the French Basque country. Even though we experienced rather grey weather while we were there, the weather did little to dampen our moods and spirits.
The town is a mid-size town and the main areas are pretty walkable. While the old town and port area was lovely, the thing that left an imprint on me is the pintxos experience.
The Pintxos experience
It is as local as it gets. It can be busy, chaotic and confusing but don’t allow it to deter you. Some of the more popular bars can be very full and you need to know what to order, and how to order, otherwise, you would be left standing there without a bite.
On some occasions, we look at the counter or around us, and point to the pintxo we find most interesting. Most of the pintxos bar counters have a colourful display of an assortment of cold pintxos but keep a look out for the menu (ask the server or check on the chalkboards) for hot, made-to-order pintxos that I find much better.
The locals enjoy bar hopping so they may have a drink and order just one or two pintxos before moving on to the next bar. The bars also have a few specialties to call their own. The city’s tourism board publishes a guide to pintxos hopping and the list of bars with the pintxos you should be orderin so do get a copy of that once you arrive in San Sebastiàn.
It may seem surprising but you would be full from a night of pintxos hopping. I usually go local with the alcohol and order txokoli, Basque country’s local dry white wine. Otherwise, you can order reds from the nearby Rioja region, a bubbly cava, sangria by the jug or some local ciders. The Basque region produces ciders and there are a few cider houses just out of San Sebastiàn town. Unfortunately, we did not manage to visit them as they were not open for the season. We managed to try a few of their local ciders at the bars in San Sebastiàn – Let’s just say that I still prefer French style ciders that are dry, crisp and tannic.
One of my favourite pintxos that can be found in every bar is the gilda – it is a stick with pickled peppers, cured anchovies, and olives. Sounds like nothing much? They just have the perfect combination of spice, acidity and goes exceedingly well with alcohol.
Some of the more memorable pintxos we had are (in no particular order): a creamy “risotto”(made from orzo) with Idiazabal (a local cheese) and braised beef cheeks with grilled bell pepper sauce at Borda Berri, most awesome baked cheesecake at La Viña, Smoked bacalo (salted cod) and lobster on toast at Zeruko, gilda and a chicken salad re-imagined at A Fuego Negro and foie ala plancha (foie gras on toast) and the best croquettes at Atari Gastroteka.
You can never eat too badly in San Sebastiàn. The only question is whether your stomach is ready for all the food it has to offer. You can literally eat non-stop for the entire day in San Sebatiàn. Food is synonymous to culture in San Sebastiàn – my kind of paradise.
The Michelin starred dining experience: Arzak
J booked a table at Arzak (3 star restaurant) for my birthday (belated) to coincide with our trip to San Sebastiàn. He made the reservation six months prior to our trip. It wasn’t a surprise and it was what I had been looking forward to in months! I’ve heard so many good things about the kitchen run by Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter, Elena Arzak.
I won’t go into too much details about the meal but the meal was and will be one of the most memorable ones in my life. The restaurant is a stand-alone small building, located just about 10-15 minutes out of San Sebastiàn’s town centre. The restaurant was fully booked the evening we were there. Our reservation was at 7:30pm and I think all the people at that time were tourists. The locals came in a lot later.
We ordered the tasting menu (the best way to try the restaurant’s food). The symphony of amuse bouche were delightful and playful – it was almost like Arzak’s interpretation of pintxos. They definitely engaged all your senses. There was a scorpion fish “croquette”, Mango skin wrapped with served with tonic water, tomato and raspberry juice with melon and jamon, marinated white tuna and strawberry, jiaozi of prawns and moringa – all were really good while being exciting.
My favourite dishes of the meal had to be the monkfish with sea buckthorn and the pigeon with seeds. The roasted pigeon breast and leg was served with jus and seeds in different forms (grapeseed, sunflower seed and pumpkin seeds). The combination was sublime and dish was executed to perfection. There was nothing to fault it.
The grilled monkfish was divine. It was perfectly cooked – so tender, fleshly, flavourful. It seems like the monkfish is a popular ingredient in the Basque country; I tried another monkfish dish at Neura restaurant in Bilbao which was excellent too. I wish that I can find this on the menus in Singapore restaurants more.
The meal was mindblowing; presentation of food was interesting, dishes were done very well and more importantly, I didn’t find the food pretentious. Service was attentive without being too close for comfort. The only problem was that I could feel my dress bursting at the seams by the end of the meal; I could hardly finish the last of the petit fours which is saying something because I usually don’t forgo my petit fours!
The only complaint if I had any were the desserts. They were a little unadventurous compared to the entire menu. The black lemon (lemon curd encased in a black crispy shell looked interesting but it was similar to a lemon curd/cream in a shell. The huge chocolate truffle that cracked open to review a carob core with creamy chocolate with more chocolate sauce was a little too rich for me after such a heavy meal though it was nice.
The four days we spent in San Sebastiàn was truly a gastronomic journey. It really doesn’t get any better than this!
Food in San Sebastiàn
Calle Fermin Calbeton 12, +34 943 430342, closed Mon
Try the Idiazabal cheese “risotto”. The braised beef cheeks are good too.
Calle 31 de Agosto 3, +34 943 427495
Try their signature baked cheesecake
Calle Pescaderia 10, + 34 943 423451, closed Sun evening and Mon
Try the lobster on toast and smoked bacalao
A Fuego Negro
Calle 31 de Agosto 31, + 34 650 135373, closed Mon
Try the gildas, “Chicken salad”
Calle Mayor 18, +34 943 440792, opposite the basilica of Santa Maria
Try the croquettes and foie ala plancha
3 michelin star restaurant
Av Alcalde Elósegui, 273, 20015 San Sebastián-Donostia, Guipúzcoa, Spain
You can drive or take a cab there. It is about 10-15 minutes away from the centre of San Sebastiàn town.
It is best to make reservations on the website as soon as you have confirmed your trip itinerary.