Eating well in San Sebastian

Even in culinary meccas such as NYC, Paris, and San Sebastian here, you can come across bad food. I’m referring to the left-out-to-dry-then-reheated-to-oblivion tortilla, the infamous burnt coffee found throughout Europe, the two-day old what they call baguette but what I call a poor attempt at bread baking/bread reheating and the frozen fried calamari (in a town known for its fresh tentáculos!) I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing every now and then when I am uncareful. True story. I thought it might be useful to map out the reliable establishments I’ve come across in the past five months here. I’ve even recommended what to order and where to get it, [so stray at your own discretion].

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La Cuchara

I had many a strange habit growing up, one of the ‘bad’ ones being my refusal to embrace my Asianhood and use chopsticks. Coming from a culture and family that had white rice at the table every night, I thought I was being clever using a spoon and not just any spoon. This was THE spoon: perfectly round and perfectly sized for my mouth. It was MY spoon. I figured with a spoon I could fit more in one bite, I could scoop up soupy rice and I could do this all more quickly and efficiently than with chopsticks. You’ll be happy to know I’m a grown-up, proud chopstick user now. But the Montessori kid thrives within and I continue to collect [spoons].

And speaking of spoons, I finally made it to La Cuchara de San Telmo:

Costilla de Iberico, Vinagre de Modena

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Hondarribia

Having spent the past few days exploring San Sebastián, Athena and I decided to take our first bus ride and venture out to Hondarribia, a small fishing village near the aeropuerto. A twenty minute bus ride (if you take the I-2 direct from Plaza Gipuzkoa in San Sebastián to Hondarribia) will land you in the charming little town on the coast of Spain and France (Hendaye is just a ferry away!). I’ve never been to Germany before but the architecture in Hondarribia, characterized by the small white houses with stark, contrasting trim, seemed very German. After googling ‘german house’, it seems my observations are not so absurd, eh?

Green

Our mission? As always, pintxos. First stop: Enbata, the 2006 champion of the Gipuzkoa pintxo contest.

Enbata

Conveniently located right off a major street, Calle San Pedro, Enbata was an easy find. The friendly staff made it even easier to order. I had the “tapa del día” to start:

Txipiron parilla con crema de arroz

Baby squid for brunch? Sí! The tentacles were nicely charred for that back-of-your mouth bitter delight. Athena had something more practical and brunch-like:

Txistorra con huevos y patatas

Basque sausage with eggs and potatoes–can’t go wrong with those. We both agreed that although tasty, these pintxos were still sub-par compared with what we’ve been having in San Sebastián. Friends and critics have been raving about Hondarribia’s food culture. Does it shut down on tuesdays? Apparently so.

Hongos Crujientes

I followed my squid with ‘crispy mushrooms,’ assuming I would get a dish of delicious, Basque hongos which have yet to disappoint. Womp womp…I should have known better. There is an obsession with deep frying in the Basque country, including tempura-battering and spring-roll wrapping. Is it an attempt to be more Asian? Or more American? Poor choice on my part. Overly oily on theirs.

We wandered down the street to Gran Sol, a pintxo bar recommended by the NY Times, Michelin Guide 2011 and a friend. Good things come in three, yes?

Gran Sol

This ‘birdy’ pintxo sitting on the counter should have been the first clue of imminent disappointment but no, we ordered regardless.

Pollito

I had the 2006 award-winning bacalao ahumado:

La Hondarribia (Pimiento piquillo, foie, mermelada melocotón y bacalao, todo sobre una tosta)

I enjoyed the combination of red bell pepper and foie. The sweetness paired nicely with the foie without overpowering it, without making it a ‘sweet’ dish. I believe the cod was smoked, which I tasted not even the tiniest hint of, and the marmelade was an unnecessary afterthought. Athena had a bite and claimed it was better than her cold foie pintxo:

Foie

At that point I realized tuesdays in January are certainly not optimal pintxo-hopping days in Hondarribia and my time would be better spent practicing my photography and searching for the castle, Parador, and having an afternoon café there.

We took a few escalators to see where they might lead us:

Escalate

We found ourselves at the top of a hill, gazing at the panorama of terracotta-shingled houses:

La Vista

The view across the water extended to Hendaye. Next time we will make it to France, perhaps for le weekend. Eventually we found the Parador atop another hill:

Shapes

We popped in for some less-than-mediocre café but in all honesty our intentions were to use their clean restrooms, check out the stunning view and explore the castle:

Original

If you’re in Hondarribia, definitely take a hike up to Parador and mosey around, especially if everything is closed for siesta or you happen to come during low-season like in January. There are great views of the sea and you can go meandering the old, wobbly-stoned streets lined with bars, restaurants, antique shops, and the like.

Bar Zeruko

I’ve been here only twice but already Bar Zeruko is one of my favorite pintxo bars. The chefs incorporate innovative techniques and flavors into their pintxos while maintaining some of their Basquenticity. So far I have consumed at least 10 different pintxos and not been disappointed. If this was the case in Boston, perhaps I’d take credit for consistently picking ‘the winners’, but only because I’ve lived in Boston all my life and am somewhat experienced at deciphering menu marketing jargon, aka reading between the lines or weeding through the bs. No, it’s not me. Zeruko just gets it right.

Kokotxa de Bacalao

Who would think to pair cod jowl with foie? The unlikely pair fare well together because the foie is neither greasy nor uber rich. The acidity of the gelatinized sherry-like sheet  balances the finish so your palate is left feeling clean, and ready for more pintxos.

La Hoguera de Bacalao

As Zeruko is known for its bacalao, we proceeded to order more. Last time (as in two nights ago), la hoguera seemed to be the crowd favorite. I didn’t order it then because I figured it was all show. In this case I love to be proved wrong. The smoke smell is more potent than it tastes. The actual flavor it imparts unto the tender bacalao is quite subtle and perfectly so. We ate as directed, ‘self-grilling’ the bacalao for one minute on each side then topping it on the herbalicious bread chip. Divine. However, I did find the oozy, fizzy shot of green (perhaps a combination of sparkling wine and some herb purée) to be superfluous.

Hamburguesa de Txipiron

Every txipiron pintxo I’ve had in SS so far, I’ve loved. SS is squid heaven. So fresh, so supple. Here the chefs made the txipiron into a tartare patty (hence, hamburgesa) and seared it on each side just enough to crust, not too much to cook it through. Here texture is everything. Sandwiched between the airy tinta cloud and a crunchy crouton base, the ‘hamburgesa’ is not your typical burger, but it succeeds. Don’t forget to dip in wasabi relish. Tasty, playful and Asianified.