San Sebastian, Part I: A Culinary Journey

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In the Bay of Biscay on the northern coast of Spain lies the glittering Basque city of San Sebastian, Spain’s best-kept secret. It is not a large city by any means, but it sure manages to punch above its weight in more ways than one. Its outsized influence is felt in several areas, including economic, political and cultural, but it is surely in gastronomy that this seaside resort is unequaled not just in Spain, but around the world.

Although it has a population of only about 185,000 — less than that of Yonkers — San Sebastian has managed to garner 16 Michelin stars in all, including three three-starred restaurants. (Compare that to New York’s seven three-starred restaurants and population of more than 8 million.) This makes Donostia, in the Basque parlance, the city with the most Michelin stars per capita on the planet.

But, as my husband and I discovered on a recent week-long sojourn there, you certainly don’t have to go to a fancy restaurant to enjoy good food in San Sebastian, for delicious dishes abound at every turn. From the multitude of pintxos (Basque-style tapas) bars to taverns serving up traditional fare, there is something for every taste and budget.

Arzak occupies the same building since its inception in 1897 when it was run as a tavern by Chef Juan Mari Arzak’s grandparents.

My culinary journey in this Belle Époque refuge for the beau monde began at Arzak. Run by father/daughter duo Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, their eponymous restaurant was the first in Spain to win three Michelin stars. That was back in 1989. On Juan Mari’s watch, Arzak has managed to hold on to this top honor for close to a quarter century — an uncommon feat indeed.

A young Juan Mari Arzak already at work in the family’s restaurant.

I have to confess that this was my favorite restaurant in San Sebastian. The nouvelle cuisine Basque — essentially French-influenced, lighter traditional fare — which it imaginatively serves up day after day, certainly has a lot to do with it. But, Arzak offers something else — something that is intangible and rarely found in this corporate age. At the risk of sounding sentimental here, the special sauce at Arzak is the pervading feeling of family. Elena, after all, is no less than the fourth generation involved in this enterprise which is benevolently presided over by her charismatic father. The atmosphere created by Juan Mari is one of warmth and intimacy and it is this which made dining at Arzak a truly special occasion for my husband and me.

Juan Mari and Elena Arzak in the spice room which contains more than 1,400 specimens. In 2012, Elena won the prestigious Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef award. Juan Mari and Elena also collaborate on a London outpost. Ametsa located in Belgravia’s Halkin Hotel is staffed by three chefs who have worked at Arzak.
The dining room at Arzak.
The kitchen preparing for a busy evening.

But let’s not forget about the food, each dish more delicious than the other. Mr. Arzak is a master at creating ridiculously satisfying combinations of contrasting flavors and textures. As I was leaving the restaurant, he asked me how I had enjoyed the meal. “Everything was wonderful,” I replied. “Yes, but did you really feel it?” he wanted to know. After all these years, it’s clear that the pioneering chef is still passionate about his craft.

A few of the amuse bouches on the menu included:

Clockwise from top left: Chorizo and Tonic served on a squashed can of tonic. The chorizo was wrapped in a thin slice of mango and bathed in tonic water. Simple and delectable!; The Anchovies and Strawberries were pleasantly sweet and salty; Hemp, Mustard and Lobster: sautéed lobster served with crispy hemp bread and a mustard vinaigrette. The clothespins are a whimsical allusion to lobster claws which share the same word in Spanish – “pinzas”; Red Codfish on a crisp pastry filled with brandade, a purée of salt cod, olive oil and potatoes. The different textures that all came in one bite made for a luscious mouthful.
The Ovo-lacto consisted of a very soft poached quail egg coated in breadcrumbs and served with liquid gorgonzola and a triangle of cheese marinated in port.

The main fish course included:

Fish steak with potatoes. Fillet of sea bass marinated with gin and served with several flavors of potatoes. The potatoes are those thin, brightly-colored translucent sheets. Crisp, salty and packed with flavor, they make for extremely tasty potato chips. The dish was served on a glass plate placed over a video loop of crashing surf.
Monkfish green witch was housed in a rice balloon and came with cloves of confit garlic and a parsley seaweed sauce. The fish was very moist and juicy and the rice shell addictive.

For the main attraction, we chose:

Pigeon and terpenes. Roasted pigeon in a citrus and pine sauce. Tender and tangy.

And for dessert:

Golden footprint and ladybird. A footprint of black sesame bread sat atop caramelized fruits. The liquorice ladybirds were filled with vanilla yoghurt and separated by a sprinkling of caramel crumbs.
Dry ice poured over nutty crisps.

And last but not least, the whimsical petit fours:

The Ferreteria Arzak. An ironmongery consisting of chocolate keys, bolts and screws.
Juan Mari with Jacopo Focacci, the Italian Maitre d’.

After a breather of a couple of days, we headed to Akelaŕe, located 20 minutes outside of town. Helmed by Pedro Subijana, who, like Juan Mari Arzak, is a founding father of new Basque cuisine, Akelaŕe also boasts three Michelin stars and has been hailed a “temple of international gastronomy.”

The first thing you’ll notice about the simple and elegant space are the stunning, “forever” views of the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean. For this reason, I recommend going to Akelaŕe for lunch (which is what we did) or for dinner during late-setting summer days. The highly desirable window seats book up quickly, so you have to act fast, but good views can be had from numerous tables.

The low key entrance to Akelaŕe. Akelaŕe is the Basque word for witches’ coven. The dining experience there was “bewitching” indeed.
The view from a window seat.
The Sea Garden is an Asian-inspired amuse bouche. Atop a layer of “prawn sand” lay an oyster leaf, a chocolate shell containing mussel broth, a sea urchin sponge, green beach pebbles made out of corn and seaweed tempura. The items were to be eaten in order from left to right. It’s difficult to explain, but the locally-grown simple oyster leaf tasted just like the sea. Amazing.

For the first course, there was:

Fresh Asparagus with Tear Green Peas was “spring on a plate” with the in-season white asparagus and delicate green Spanish peas. These “tear” or “lágrima” peas are harvested in limited amounts and cost upwards of $300/pound.
Egg with Caviar, Cauliflower Purée and Chive Butter was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. It’s an Akelaŕe classic.
I was alarmed when the waiter indiscriminately poured salt and pepper on the seared fois gras until I realized that the “salt” flakes were sugar crystals and the satisfyingly crunchy “peppercorns” were made out of wild black rice. This is a rich dish which could be a meal in and of itself.

For the main course, both my husband and I opted for seafood.

Hake and its Kokotxa with Oyster Leaf and “Mussel Beans.” Say what? Some of you foodies out there may know that kokotxa is a Basque specialty which literally translates as “fish cheeks” because that’s exactly what it is. The hake is a very popular fish in the area and the kokotxa is the meaty, delicate flesh around the fish’s mouth. It is the butterfly-shaped pieces above. It was absolutely delicious. I actually liked it even better than the fish.
My husband had the Turbot with its “Fake Kokotxa.” As turbot is naturally kokotxa-less, one was created out of fish broth. The fish was topped by a crispy piece of turbot skin and covered in a pil pil sauce which is a Basque emulsion prepared with cod juice, garlic and olive oil.

And for dessert:

A Different Apple Tart consisted of layers of puff pastry and apple and praline cream covered with edible apple “paper.”
The custard-y Orange “Tocino de Cielo” Sheet with Fruit Leaves was sweet and tart and crunchy. A flan-like dessert traditionally found in Southern Spain, “Tocino de Cielo” means “bacon from heaven.” The origins of the name are a mystery as there isn’t anything remotely bacon-like about this dessert.
And finally … the petit fours served alongside a cortado – an espresso cut with steamed milk.
A happy crew keeps the kitchen humming.
The one and only Pedro Subijana who has presided over Akelaŕe for over 35 years.
The premises house a classroom where new recipes are tested, demonstrations are given and cooking lessons are taught. Mr. Subijana also teaches a master class at San Sebastian’s new Basque Culinary Center which is headed by Ferran Adrià and counts the Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal among its advisors.

Last but certainly not least, we also had reservations at the area’s third three-starred restaurant owned by internationally-renowned chef Martín Berastegui. Putting away three such meals in the space of a week, however, proved to be too much. Even two can result in a Michelin overload.

So, with a twinge of regret, we opted to forego this one in favor of a meal at the bodega-style Bodegón Alejandro in San Sebastian’s Parte Vieja, or Old Town. Little did we know when we ate at this casual and popular tavern that it is actually run by Martín Berastegui’s restaurant group, MB. Bodegón Alejandro, in fact, has been in his family for decades. We should have known that some sort of Michelin greatness was behind the scenes for everything we ordered from a menu which offers a fresh and simple take on local classics was absolutely delicious.

The restaurant is down a flight of stairs. The name essentially means Alejandro’s bodega or tavern.
Although the restaurant is in a windowless, subterranean space, the room is a comfortable one. An added plus about the restaurants we visited in San Sebastian is that the tables are never crowded in. You’re not sitting elbow to elbow and the din is at a low, comfortable level. You can actually hear your companions speak.
The amuse bouche – an item that happily seems to be de rigueur in every restaurant in San Sebastian – was a scrumptious cold white asparagus soup. The “bread basket” consisted of wafer-thin slices of toast. The menu at Bodegón Alejandro changes daily and reflects the seasons.
This is, hands down, one of my favorite tapas dishes in Spain – small green peppers or pimientos – roasted in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt. They are addictive.
The white asparagus (which was abundant during our springtime visit to San Sebastian) is just wonderful. I wonder why we don’t see more of it in New York. In any case, the dressing here was simply made out of a soft-boiled egg. I was given a small teaspoon with which to scramble the egg inside the shell. I then poured the runny yolk over the asparagus and voilà – a dish that was so simple and so tasty.
Dessert was a pistachio soufflé served with a dollop of coffee ice cream. What more could anyone ask for?

I also have to credit Bodegón Alejandro with introducing me to txacoli (pronounced cha-ko-lee), an effervescent, crisp, dry Basque white wine. With its low alcohol content and subtle fizz, it is perfect for summer. There are rosé varieties of txacoli too and as soon as I returned to New York, I ran headed to my local wine shop to stock up on what has quickly become my favorite warm weather libation.

Not surprisingly, txacoli is a great companion to pintxos. And there is certainly no shortage of these delectable, inexpensive snacks in San Sebastian. The thing to do is go on a pintxo-bar hop or txikiteo as it is known in the Basque language. A few of my favorite pintxo palaces include the following, all located in the Parte Vieja:

Hailed as “the pinnacle of pintxo prowess” by The New York Times, A Fuego Negro, lives up to the hype with its modern take on traditional tapas.
A popular menu item at A Fuego Negro is the “Mackobe,” a mini wagyu burger served with banana “txips.” The glass contains a surprising and delectable tomato purée, mussels and béchamel concoction. A nice cold beer pairs well with pintxos, be they traditional or modern.
A favorite spot that is popular with the locals – when we were there, we only heard Spanish spoken around us – is an old-timer classic, Ganbara.
More selections at Ganbara.
But, there are so many good – no, great – pintxo bars in San Sebastian that it can be overwhelming. It’s just impossible not to eat well there. The man behind the bar is pouring a glass of txakoli which is theatrically served by pouring from on high. It has something to do with activating the fizziness, I think.
Enticing displays appear in virtually every doorway. A few more popular tapas bars include Astelena, La Cuchara de San Telmo, Atari, Zeruko and Gandarias.
There’s no shortage of pastries and chocolate either.

But wait! That’s not all! In addition to all the wonderful places to eat, there’s the central underground market, the Mercado de la Bretxa, essentially San Sebastian’s supermarket. A popular destination for locals and tourists alike, it is where scores of butchers, fishmongers, cheesemongers, produce sellers and bakers put on a daily dazzling display. A few of the vendors are pictured below …

So why is San Sebastian such a gastronomic heaven? Is there something in the water that makes Michelin stars appear to grow on trees? Perhaps the answer lies in part in the natural abundance of food. The city is wedged in between the bountiful sea on one side and the fertile green foothills of the Pyrenées on the other. Perhaps also, the culinary excellence can be attributed to the emergence of the nouvelle cuisine Basque pioneered by Juan Mari Arzak a quarter century ago which has upped the ante for every self-respecting restaurant, tavern and tapas bar alike. I’m not sure exactly what the answer to this question is. All I know is that it will be a long time – if ever again – that I will eat as well, morning, noon, and night, as I did in San Sebastian.

San Sebastian, Part II coming tomorrow …

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