Now, now. I have had trouble sleeping over how best to write this post. The words don’t seem to come out right for this draft, I often find myself staring at the screen, typing feebly and jackhammer-ing the delete button two seconds after I thought I was about to start something. I’m no prolific writer, but after suffering from writer’s block for this entry for a fortnight, I’m convinced even the most revered poets wouldn’t be able to do the food at San Sebastián justice. All I can say is I LOVE it, I ADORE it, and damn right, I WORSHIP it. But that doesn’t say very much, does it? Pffffft.
And then I thought, if I can’t put it in words, perhaps I might be able to tell a story with photos instead, because they say that a picture paints a thousand words, no? So if I have 607 photos, which I do, then I would actually paint 607,000 words, yes? NO! I had to smack myself on my blubbery cheeks when I was contemplating the lazy way out of this post, because they, whoever they are, obviously haven’t been to San Sebastián.
Yesterday night, I figured that there was no better way to talk about the food at San Sebastián than to actually fly all of you over for the raw experience, but gee, I’m sorry, I am only a insignificant morsel of a blogger and I don’t have the power and money to make that happen.
What should we do about this dilemma? What should I do?
I looked through the photos for the 104th time and then it hit me. I don’t just love San Sebastián because it’s great. I don’t just adore it because it’s awesome. I don’t just worship it because it’s out of this world. Many places are such, New York City is one of them, Bali is another but what really sets San Sebastián apart from my other favourite countries is that it seduces me. Each time I walked down the streets in Parte Vieja, my senses were heightened with every bar throwing me a teaser with peekaboos of, you know a sexy leg of ham somewhere, an orgy of pintxos sprawled indecently on the bar tops at another, and at hours when children have gone to sleep, a tight huddle of sweaty bods with arms leaning out to grab the next-sexy-pintxos like hot groupies in the mosh pit of a rock concert. Gosh, just sitting here in my sweats thinking about this makes my toes tingle. I feel like….Angelina Jolie already, pouty lips, tousled hair, sultry eyes, sculpted body and endless legs. Only that I’m really not. But who’s to say what reality is? You do know the world is really how it makes you feel, isn’t it? San Sebastián makes me feel like a bad chick in black, expensive leather, prowling the dark alleys for handsome pintxos, fleeting from one bar to another in search of the most sensual experience that I call promiscuous eating. Cheat on the foie a la plancha with the other foie a la plancha. Feel free. Go wild. All this without the guilt of actually cheating, burning a hole in your pocket or compromising your integrity.
I have never been a fan of pub crawls in London. I turn scarlet red after a few sips of certain types of alcohol and I don’t particularly enjoy the merciless teasing, nor do I love the pub culture of not actually eating but drinking beer till the cows come home. I would much rather sit down somewhere, and have a good meal with good wine than to suffer from low self-esteem and a premature hangover coupled with scraping hunger pangs. I do however fancy the Basque version of the pub crawl, also known as txikiteo or pintxos crawl. In fact, if I could live like this everyday and spend my hours in the dusk indulging in a txikiteo, I might actually not feel as tired after work as I usually do during the weekdays. A txikiteo is basically a food-and-drinks trail through different bars. You snack on pintxos (Basque version of tapas), have a few sips of txakoli (a type of sparkling white wine) or other types of drinks that you fancy, and move on to the next to repeat the experience. How is that not way more appealing than a pub crawl?
We have covered so many bars in the three short days we were in San Sebastián that it is hard for me to list every single thing we ate. It pains me a little that I can’t do this because everything was lip-smackingly delicious. I couldn’t fault anything, and I really don’t want you to miss out. But seeing as to how long this post is getting, and how much longer it will get with photos and all, I will just highlight my favourites here. Before I launch into the food, I would like to thank food bloggers, Goingwithmygut, Heavenwildfleur and website Todopintxos for some recommendations (there was one more blogger who tweeted me too, please let me know who you are so I can acknowledge you here).
Now, moving on to the bars that are must-visits in my opinion. Remember, even if you don’t strictly adhere to this food trail, you’ll still emerge happy as a lark. Just look out for the crowded bars, and note what everyone is eating, point that to the staff (some speak English, so you can just ask them about the food or simply ask for an English menu) for dishes that are cooked to order, or grab a plate and fill it up with the displayed pintxos, and enjoy! Don’t forget to pay for what you ate; most bars operate on trust, and it does get very chaotic in a bar when everyone’s picking out food from the bar top, so just let the staff know what you had (usually they have elephant memory and will remember, if not, they will ask you for confirmation)!
1. La Cepa
We were urged to try the jamón here and the minute we stepped in, we knew why. It is probably THE place to go to for Iberico ham, even the beer taps were shaped like jamón. We were there early in the evening, so the bar was rather empty and we managed to get a candy-filled table, all to ourselves (you would usually have to stand…). The jamón de Jabugo, or iberico ham from the town of Jabugo, was excellent, nutty as usual and perfectly sliced. It costs us about £10 for a plate like this, and this was served with crusty bread, as with all other pintxos. I made a mental note to pick some up from grocers for our trip back to London.
We also tried the hongos in San Sebastián. These are wild mushrooms that taste meaty, velvety and are so incredibly expensive but absolutely to-die-for. We love hongos a la plancha, which means grilled mushrooms, and in particularly, those served with a raw egg yolk. The eggs there were insanely fresh, rich, just look at how orange it is! This dish prides on the quality of the mushrooms, for it is cooked simply with a dash of pepper, salt, some herbs and a drizzle of olive oil. Excellent stuff. A small plate like this would cost €5 at La Cepa, but I say it’s worth it! We returned the second night for 2 large portions, priced at €10 each!
2. La Cuchara de San Telmo
This bar is extremely popular and well-known for its modern take on pintxos. It was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s food documentary series – No Reservations. It’s a little hard to spot, as it’s off Calle de Agosto, but it’s somewhat in a small dead-end street that is perpendicular to Agosto, and pretty near La Cepa or Martinez, so make sure you land on this bar by hook or by crook! Come nightfall, this small, narrow bar is packed to the brim, don’t be turned off by this, instead push forward and order the following (all pintxos here are cooked to order). I assure you that you won’t regret this. If you don’t know already, I absolutely adore this bar.
You must have the bacon-wrapped scallops. The scallop was very fresh, fat and sweet, incredibly succulent and seared to perfection. The best seared scallops I ever had. I use plural, because we returned on the second night for another round of those. This only costs €2-3.50 by the way. How much cheaper can good scallops get? You can’t get such quality fare in restaurants for this price!
Anthony Bourdain had the foie with apple jelly and judging from his face, I think this foie kicked his ass. He loved it and so do I. Creamy, rich liver that is really, orgasmic. It is served on a bed of apple jelly (I thought it was more like puree…) and it worked perfectly. Do not share this one. This, my dears, is also about €3.50 apiece, foie this awesome that is even better than ridiculously expensive foie gras served in restaurants? Beat that! Again, we had a foie each the second night we visited.
We spotted many people having the squid ink risotto on our first visit, and so we ordered this on our second. I have never liked risotto, but this, oh this changed my mind!! The rice was perfectly chewy and moist, and packed full of flavours from the sea. Highly recommended. Again, only about €3 for a portion.
3. A Fuego Negro
This is another very popular bar that does modern pintxos. I think it is more than that. I think it deserves a Michelin star on its own! You see streaks of genius in its inventive food, there were traditional pintxos sitting on the bartop that were good too, I would say, do less of those and get a handful of those molecular gastronomy-esque babies they cook to order.
The Spanish tortilla, which is an egg omelette with fried potatoes, is amazing. Simply delicious, buttery, slightly creamy and fragrant, even better if you manage to get it served warm (visit earlier when the crowds aren’t there yet and you might have a chance of eating it warm). We came back on the next day for seconds.
This was one of the highlights of my trip. Yes, trip. Ham and almond coffee with sweetbread cookies. We know that sweetbread is made of the thymus gland or the pancreas of lamb or calf…but trust me this is delicious despite the ingredients. The almond milk (not that nasty powdered medicine-y off-putting stuff we get in Asia!!) is creamy and rich, laced with a good hint of coffee and savoury ham. Hard to imagine that this tastes good? Well, you have to try this. The sweetbread cookies were like fried morsels of savoury meat and impossibly tasty, they went very well with the coffee. I’m going to try to make this at home at some point.
Yes what we have here is a dish that is called Dove, Shot, Pum!. Complete with an exclamation mark. This is a playful interpretation on the hunting of wild doves. You’ll see a tiny silver ball in the upper right corner of this picture, which is the ‘bullet’. This supposedly has hit the wild dove (breast meat) and plum juices are splattered over the plate in bloody-red splotches. The thin wafer writes Pum! and this indicates the sound of the shot made. I didn’t get to try the wafer, but suffice to say this dish was good. The breast meat of the wild dove was very flavoursome, more so than chicken, and surprisingly tender!
A Fuego Negro is a little more pricey than other bars, but perhaps just €1-2 more per dish. Excellent stuff here, be sure to visit!
4. Bar Ganbara
There was a huge display of big-ass hongos of every sort on the bar, and thank heavens, we were perched right in front of it. Some were as big as my hands, and this sight tempted us to get another plate of hongos a la plancha to share. I was disappointed that this wasn’t served with a raw egg yolk, but still it was good, although a teeny bit too salty for me. The meatiness of the mushrooms made up for it. I was starting to think that hongos are more valuable than foie here, because this mushroom platter upped our bill to €50 (including other pintxos), a hefty price tag that we had yet to see till our time at Ganbara.
We were recommended to try the txangurro here, a spider crab tart that is popular in Basque. These were some very flavoursome and juicy shreds of crab meat put into a pastry base! It’s better to pop the entire tart into your mouth because there are plenty of juices, and when it tastes this good, waste not.
I love my anchovies, and so I had to drop by this bar, which specialises in all sorts of permutations with anchovies in it. I was very intrigued by the anchovies with foie, and it was faaaabulous. Somehow, the sharp vinegary anchovy complimented the creamy foie pate very very well. Delicious.
We also tried the calamari which was superb! Impossibly tender pieces of squid in a light and crispy batter – very good finger food and hard to resist.
The anchovies seem to be very popular in this bar, even Juan Mari Arzak and Sir Ian McKellen visited!
Having being smitten with the foie at La Cuchara de San Telmo, we were determined to look for the best foie in town on our last day. I did my research and found it at Aralar. The foie a la plancha was really, one of the crowning jewels on our txikiteo. We had two each in one sitting, even the boss was amused at our huge order and because he thought we were Japanese, he asked us if it was ‘oishi’. We said yes, obviously!! So fans of foie, you have to camp out here and have as much as your body can take. Knock yourself out!
Right, these are my top picks for pintxos (gosh just spent more than an hour writing this post), try them and let me know of your new recommendations too! Pardon the quality of pictures, most of the time we were eating in dark settings. I hope I did the food at San Sebastián justice! Oh well, if not, I tried my best.
*Updated: This post was featured on Freshly Pressed on WordPress.com! Check out my other Freshly Pressed post here!
Check out my other food and travel stories in San Sebastián and Bilbao!
Also check out my other food adventures.
All the bars I visited are located in the Parte Vieja and some may not be opened on Sundays. Bars may also be closed during siesta hours! Here are the addresses.
Calle 31 de Agosto, 7, 20003 San Sebastián
La Cuchara de San Telmo:
off Calle 31 de Agosto, 28 Trasera, 20003 San Sebastián
A Fuego Negro:
Calle 31 de Agosto, 31, 20003 San Sebastián
Calle de San Jeronimo, 21, 20003 San Sebastián
Calle de Pescaderia, 5, 20003 San Sebastián
Puerto, 10, 20003 San Sebastián