San Sebastian holds the most Michelin stars per square metre of any city in Europe, only surpassed by Kyoto, Japan on a global scale. Given its size, this an impressive accolade, it clearly exudes culinary pedigree. Unfortunately, my friends and I are not financially able to visit these theatres of gastronomy. San Sabastian is, however, also famous for its numerous pintxos bars. These establishments serve small, tapas like snacks, typically served on a slice of bread, which are traditional in northern Spain and especially popular in the Basque country. During my three day stay in the city I spent most of my waking hours munching my way around these bars, therefore, I see fit to give you my top five.
More a restaurant than a traditional pintxos bar, Janssee offered cold pintxos on the bar top, a menu of hot small plates and a more traditional restaurant menu. Having arrived in the city at 9pm after an exhausting train from Toulouse, we were starving. It wasn’t until 10pm that we were out prowling for food. It was during this hunt we found Janssee, a modern eating space with a lot of locals gathered around the long bar and outside the venue. We took a seat at the back of the restaurant along with a few cold pintxos from the bar. My highlight of these was the anchovies, olives and roasted red peppers all speared onto a cocktail stick. The salty fish, bitter olive and sweet pepper were a welcome combination of flavours after the rich, butter heavy French diet. From the hot small plate menu we ordered; patatas bravas, baby squid calamari, beef fillet and a cod tortilla. The beef fillet was rare, tender and clearly a well-aged cut, served with roasted red peppers and intense Spanish olive oil; simple and delicious. As a die-hard fan of patatas bravas, everything from the bland salsa to the aioli, which was lacking in garlicky gusto, was disappointing. The star of the evening was the tortilla de bacalao; being on the Atlantic, cod – or bacalao, as it is known locally – is abundant in San Sebastian and very fresh. Unlike many Spanish omelettes, the eggs in this tortilla were sloppy on the inside, just how I like them; and the cod was succulent yet flaky. It was finished with a handful of parsley and lots of black pepper. I feel guilty putting Janssee last on my list, the service was brilliant, the food was tasty but it lacked tradition and just isn’t a proper pintxos bar.
Located in the old town, where most of the traditional pintxos bars can be found, Ganbara focuses more on its wine list than its food. I suggest you visit this particular bar to sample Txakoli or Chacolí, a slightly sparkling, very dry white wine with high acidity and low alcohol content produced in the Spanish provinces of the Basque Country. If you fancy something with a little more oomph, their house rioja was dense and chewy. As for the food, I urge you to try the deep fried white asparagus. Light, crispy batter encased a delicate asparagus stem, there was a marriage of flavours when eaten with the Txakoli wine. My favourite pintxo from this bar was the grilled aubergine slices which sandwiched minced pork cooked in a creamy tomato sauce, the whole stack was topped with melted Basque sheep milk cheese. My travelling companions disagree with me here; their favourite pintxo were the scallops and prawns doused in a slightly spicy take on marie-rose sauce. Aesthetically, this light bite was very pleasing as it was served in the pink shell of the scallop. I enjoyed the presentation of this pintxo but the flavour reminded me too much of prawn cocktail at Christmas. I would suggest visiting Ganbara at the start of a pintxos bar tour to wet your whistle with a glass of the local bubbles, or at the end of the evening to engage in some proper drinking when you have lined your stomach to soak up the booze.
- La Cepa
There are numerous pintxos bars on Calle de Agosto in San Sebastian’s old town, La Cepa really stands out from the rest. When you wander past you can’t help but notice the innumerable cured hams hanging from the ceiling. Pata Negra is a common name for jamόn ibérico, its direct translation means ‘black paw’, referring to the black hoof of the animal – a sign of quality – or the black Iberian breed of pig. La Cepa prides itself on serving some of Spain’s finest jamόn ibérico so this is how we started our lunch, with a plate of silver slivers of the translucent meat. The fat melted on my tongue, like butter, and didn’t taste too dissimilar, certainly the best ibérico I have eaten. From the cold selection of pintxos on the bar, we ordered smoked salmon and prawns tossed in a yoghurt dressing atop a soft slice of white baguette. Finished with a squeeze of lemon it was clean and invigorating. Next came our hot dishes. I ordered a plate of grilled octopus doused in extra virgin and a bold sprinkle of paprika. Keeping octopus simple is essential and this dish was a testament to that philosophy. My companions ordered a selection of croquettes, from which we unanimously agreed that our favourite was the creamy mussel option. This particular croquette was not potato heavy like many I have tried before; when broken open, large chunks of mussel, cooked in white wine, trickled out in a river of cream and parsley sauce. La Cepa was excellent for a light spot of lunch, the seafood plates were variable, however, what makes it place at number three on my list is the almost religious obsession they have with Spanish cured meat.
Few ingredients are more quintessentially Basque than cod (bacalao), it can be found in nearly every pintxos bar in San Sebastian, in some shape or form. Munto, a small family run restaurant, was my favourite bar for cod, the sheer abundance of the fish in the bars around the city made this a difficult decision, but it takes a deserved second place. The most typical preparation of bacalao in the Basque region is ‘a la Bizkaina,’ meaning that the fish is gently fried in olive oil and dressed with a sauce of red choricero peppers, onions, garlic and tomato. With a slight variation on this classic, the chef opted to expel tomatoes from the dish altogether. The enormous cod fillet quivered at the sight of a fork and flaked apart, the sauce hit all the right notes. The sweetness of the onion played beautifully against the smoky peppers, this was my favourite of the two cod plates we ordered. However, once again, my dining companions did not agree. For them, the quickly seared fillet drizzled with a tangy chilli and citrus salsa served on a thin slice of crunchy toast was superior. One thing we did agree on, however, is that Munto’s cod pintxos, despite all the fierce competition, stood out and were truly memorable.
A restaurant’s popularity often suggests its quality and that is certainly the case with Zeruko. Locals and tourists stand shoulder to shoulder, elbowing for position at the hectic bar to guarantee their order. Generally, this chaos is conducted with some decorum, but all social etiquette was disregarded when the most obnoxious family I have ever had to share air with, shunted their way forward. Waving wads of coloured bank notes at the staff, pushing elderly regulars and spouting uncouth noise, these mouth-breathers made the entire place uncomfortable. Rude just won’t cut it. Away from the heathens, we found sanctuary among a mountain of hot and cold plates and it was here we forgot about the poor start. We were mesmerised by the tender octopus skewers and the anchovy, olive and pickled chilli canopies. Keeping it fishy, we followed with smoked salmon and caviar toast, it was good, but caviar is wasted on me. Next came two plates, sharing a theme of quail eggs; one egg, topped a fragrant slice of blood sausage which balanced upon a slice of bread; the other egg sat on juicy pork belly. These meat dishes were seriously tasty, providing you like pork. I’ll finish my account of Zeruko with my favourite pintxos; an entire soft shell crab, dressed in a balsamic based sauce and wrapped in a tortilla. The reason Zeruko is number one on my list is simple; their dishes were a fusion of traditional Basque pintxos and more haute cuisines. It was evident that care and attention went into subtle flavour combinations that evolved typical pintxos into dishes we were unable to find in the other bars. Coupled with the beautiful presentation and the friendly, informative service, choosing a number one was simple. Without the ghastly encounter at the start of our visit, Zeruko was faultless. If you are in San Sebastian, you must visit.