How do you not fall head-over-heels in love with San Sebastian? With one of Europe’s best city beaches on its doorstep… rolling jade-green hills in the backdrop… more Michelin star restaurants per square foot than anywhere else in the world… and the quaintness of the Parte Vieja’s (Old Town) narrow streets which seem to blend seamlessly into the more modern neighbouring districts…. I could rave on and on and on. For me, this little Barcelona-esque-cum-French Riviera gem on Spain’s North coast has gone straight to the top of my list of favourite destinations in the world.
I’ll cover our meal at the legendary 3-Michelin* Arzak in a later post, but first up on the foodie catwalk has to be our culinary tour of the Old Town’s best Pintxo bars. The Basque country’s version of Tapas, the people of San Sebastian take their Pintxos (pronounced ‘pinchos’) very seriously indeed. Chefs here have elevated these little 2-bite snacks into an art form. The sight of the amazing spread of food laid out on top of bar counters alone is enough to set the salivary glands into overdrive.
You will find both traditional bars serving simpler classics as well as more modern, cutting-edge places pushing the boundaries of fusion and molecular gastronomy. Etiquette varies slightly from bar to bar. At some, it’s all about honesty – simply pick what you want from the counter and keep track of what you have eaten to settle the bill later. At others, especially those where the dishes are freshly cooked to order, bar-tenders will formally keep a tab of your orders. As a rough guide, most Pintxos are typically priced at €2-€3, and its customary to bar-hop through a lunch or dinner session across multiple places, having 2 to 3 snacks per bar. Wash all the goodness down with a glass of chilled, red Tempranillo from the nearby Rioja region or the local, lightly sparkling white wine (Txakoli) which bar-tenders pour from a height to aerate the wine further.
So here is the highlight reel of Parte Vieja‘s best, ordered by the 3 streets (calles) where majority of the good bars are congregated (Fermin Callebeton, Pescaderia and 31 de Agosto respectively). I could write a full post on each bar and their respective ‘claim to fame’ dishes, but I’ll keep things brief and let the photography (majority courtesy of Jo) do the talking instead, including captions with translations should you want to order the same things we had. Alternatively, pointing at whatever you fancy or looking at what everyone else around you is eating will work just fine as well. If you are on a diet or experience convulsions at the sight of glorious food, please turn away now.
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Bar Goiz Argi (Calle Fermin Calbeton, 4)
A bustling little bar at the top of Fermin Calbeton, the house speciality here is Brocheta de Gambas. Cooked fresh to order on the hotplate and topped off with a sweet, red pepper sauce, it’s simple, but oh so perfect.
Bar Txepetxa (Calle Pescaderia, 5)
It’s all about Antxoas (Anchovies) here. Bar Txepetxa boasts 14 different varieties of Pintxos all using some of the freshest and plumpest anchovies I have ever tasted. It’s nothing like the over-salted anchovies you get out of tin and the Antxoas con Papaya is to die for – probably my favourite traditional Pintxo of the entire trip.
Bar Zeruko (Calle Pescaderia, 10)
One of San Sebastian’s more modern Pintxo bars, Zeruko’s bar counter is quite a marvellous sight. It has the look of a Pintxos bar from the future or another planet almost. Unfortunately, the kitchen had closed by the time we got to it, so they weren’t taking orders on any of their board specialities anymore. There were still some very interesting choices laid out on the bar which we pointed and picked at. All of the Pintxos brought a smile to our faces. The cream of sea urchin was particular on the money – luxurious… creamy… a real taste of the sea.
La Vina (Calle 31 de Agosto, 3)
We were told by the owners of the Pension we stayed at that this was the best home-made cheesecake (Tarte de Queso) in town. And it was exactly that – baked on the outside… still soft and creamy on the inside, dee-licious.
La Cepa (Calle 31 de Agosto, 7)
Like most bars, La Cepa does a wide range of more traditional Pintxos which you will find spread out on its bar-top counter. But what sets this place apart is their cured Iberico Ham from Southern Spain (Jabon Jabugo). The meat had such a gorgeous depth of flavour which simply melted in the mouth. As good if not better than all the ’5J’ Jamon Jabugo we had in Seville a few years back. Also very satisfying (but a little more dear) are their Grilled Wild Mushrooms (Hongos a la Plancha) – with a meaty texture like abalone almost, the earthy, buttery flavour of the grilled mushrooms were perfect with the soft egg-yolk and light sprinking of parsley.
La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle 31 de Agosto, 23)
Mind the strong tourist following at La Cuchara, but this little, hidden-away bar just off the main street puts a modern, creative spin on classic Pintxos and other Basque-country favourites. Everything is cooked fresh to order and you will hear continuous shouts from the bar-man for more of the house speciality, Carrilera (Braised Calf Cheeks in Red Wine), to be cooked. An explosion of carnivorous flavour that will dissolve away in your mouth given how long the meat has been slow-cooked. Also very good are the Pulpo a la Plancha (Grilled Octopus with Salted Cabbage) and Goat’s Cheese Risotto.
A Fuego Negro (Calle 31 de Agosto, 31)
Saving the best for last, this was my favourite Pintxos bar of them all. The food is modern, cutting-edge, almost Heston Blumenthal-esque in nature. Mini Kobe Beef Burgers with Banana Chips (Makobe), Mackeral Sashimi and Oneja Cheese on a melt-in-the-mouth Cherry Meringue base (Txitxarro), and Salted cod ‘carbonated’ in squid ink powder (Bakaloo enkarbonao). Need I say more? If there is one contemporary Pintxos bar you visit in San Sebastian, make it this one. And if there is one dish you have at A Fuego Negro, make it their Txittxarro – it’s blimmin’ gorgeous.
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… I left my heart, in San Sebastian
Who needs proper sit-down meals when you have Pintxos this good. On the bus-ride back to Bilbao airport through the Basque region’s rolling hills, I couldn’t quite get Tony Bennett’s Jazz standard tune ”I left my heart in San Francisco” out of my head. Only it was San Sebastian, not San Francisco that was playing.
Time to save up to buy property here me thinks =P.
p.s. Muchos gracias have to go to Leire and her mother Carmen from the Pension Bellas Artes where we stayed, my colleague Alma (who is lucky enough to call San Sebastian home) as well as pigpigscorner and todospintxos for all their recommendations on all the best eats.