San Sebastian, or Donostia as the locals call it, is a food lover’s heaven. A city with the most Michelin stars per capita and over 200 Pintxos bars! Food seems to be the backbone of this beautiful city situated on the bay of La Concha, meaning ‘the shell’, on the north coast of Spain. This was primarily a holiday but inevitably I was going to work a little being surrounded by such enticing and tasty food, ranging from the simplest fresh tomatoes to some of the finest Michelin star tasting menus.
We flew into Bilbao, a short hour journey through the lush Basque hills and countryside. San Sebastian offers a wide range of hotels (remarkably only one 5-star hotel though), small guesthouses and a plethora of Air BnB style properties. We opted for a great little Pension, a small family-run hotel, called Casa Nicolasa in the middle of the old town overlooking the bustling La Bretxa food market. It was the perfect location to explore the historical centre with its Pintxos bars, and both La Concha beach and the surfing beach, Zurriola.
Unfortunately, the weather for the first couple of days wasn’t the best. It’s the north of Spain so don’t go expecting your average Spanish beach holiday. Don’t get me wrong though, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. We had a stunning couple of days and even found a few hours where we stopped eating and drinking to lay on the beach to top up on our vitamin D, before returning to the rain and grey skies of London.
Being a food and restaurant photographer, I meticulously studied my Lonely Planet travel guide and the internet for recommendations to compile a (long) list of ‘must visit’ food destinations. One tip we quickly discovered was that a lot of restaurants and bars are closed on a Monday and/or Tuesday so make sure you know when your favorite spots are open!
Pintxos, meaning ‘spiked’ or ‘thorned’, is the speciality here. It’s basically tapas but for the Basque country. Many are found displayed on the countertops of the bars in the old town with the trademark skewer through them. Some of the best we devoured, however, were ordered off the menus. The idea is to have a bit of a Pintxos crawl and sample just one or two dishes in each bar. It’s best to get in there early as many of the popular bars are crammed by 8.30pm. On our second evening we joined the Pintxo Hunting tour courtesy of San Sebastian Food where we walked through the streets and were treated to 6 of the best dishes San Sebastian has to offer. Our guide, Iñigo, was Basque born and bred and extremely proud of his heritage and, of course, their food. His knowledge and advice was second to none and made sure we were supplied with a great selection of dishes accompanied with equally delicious local wines, cider and sherry.
Here are a couple of our favorite Pintxos bars that shouldn’t be missed:
1) Borda Berri
We couldn’t resist trying a couple of dishes here. This Pintxos bar doesn’t have the usual cold offerings on the bar. Instead, as a sign over the bar states, ‘they cook’. After squeezing through the door (it’s a popular choice with both locals and tourists), we ordered the traditional Risotto de Idiazábal (local smoked cheese risotto), which was wonderfully rich and comforting. We also tried the slow cooked Octopus, which was beautifully tender and succulent.
2) A Fuego Negro
A modern take on Pintxo. With it’s dark interior and dramatic styling the food follows a similar path. You won’t find your traditional Pintxos dishes here. You can either find a place at the bar to order individual dishes including the Wagu slider, which was damn tasty, or sit in the restaurant and make a whole evening of it with their extensive tasting menu. We chose just to sample a couple before moving on to another bar.
With a slick, contemporary interior that looks more in-keeping with a London restaurant, it’s very different from most of the traditional Pintxos bars. We went here for the croquettes and were spoilt for choice – ham, cheese, squid or steak. We also couldn’t resist ordering a plate of the Iberico ham and a perfectly simple but delicious fried goats cheese salad smothered in local honey.
4) La Vina
A Pintxos tour wouldn’t be complete without a trip to La Vina for a piece of their famous baked cheesecake. This was hands down one of the finest cheesecakes I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve lived in New York. Our tour guide gave us the tip of pouring over a bit of Pedro Ximinez sherry to take it to another level. He wasn’t wrong! I could eat a slice of this cheesecake everyday.
San Sebastian isn’t just about Pintxos though. It has more Michelin stars than you could possibly fit into one city break. It includes 3 of the top 100 restaurants in the world according to www.theworlds50best.com. We managed to squeeze in a couple during our visit.
First up was lunch at Kokotxa hidden away in a corner of the old town next to the impressive Iglesia de Santa Maria church. With its simple, modern interior the focus here was definitely on the food. Seven courses of local, seasonal produce created with imagination and passion. Highlights here included the chicken with crispy skin and sweetcorn served in a deep broth, and the incredible Ox fillet encased in crunchy ashes on a bed of macadamia nuts. Here they offer two menus; the full tasting menu at €82 or the market menu at €58 which makes Kokotxa a great and more affordable way of experiencing Michelin star dining in San Sebastian. You can also eat off the a la carte menu but, in my opinion, you’d be foolish not to experience one of the tasting menus.
On our penultimate day, I proposed to my girlfriend (she said ‘Yes’) and we celebrated with dinner at Mirador de Ulia high in the hills on the east side of San Sebastian. Famed for its beautiful view it certainly didn’t disappoint. We were seated right by the window so we could watch the sun set over the city and were given an array of yet more beautiful Basque dishes with a modern twist. Highlights included a melt in the mouth square of pork belly infused with chick-pea, a gnocchi of foie gras, a simple but wonderful tomato dish, slow cooked duck with glazed apple and almond praline and the after eight desert.
On the morning of our final day we headed to the San Sebastian Food School to sample one of their new classes. Founded by Jon Warren, who packed in his job in the City of London eight years ago, San Sebastian Food offers food tours, wine and sherry tastings, gourmet shopping, numerous events and now a cookery school in their state of the art facilities located in what used to be the spa at the 5 star Hotel Maria Cristina. Classes include Pintxos, Meat and Game, Paella and Fish and Seafood.
After another evening on the trail of pintxos, with it’s copious amounts of food and numerous glasses of the local txakoli wine, cider and a couple of sherries thrown in for good measure we were a little blurry eyed but excited by the morning ahead. We met our guide and tutor, Eli, at the gourmet food shop situated next to the hotel foyer before heading out to the La Bretxa food market to learn about the history of the market and the ingredients we’d be cooking with. Back at the cookery school we met Cristina, our chef, who, along with Eli, taught us how to prepare the various seafood dishes we’d be eating for lunch, starting with a simple pintxos named Gilda, after the Hollywood movie star Rita Hayworth. It’s a combination of olive, anchovy and pickled guindillo peppers and tastes divine. After devouring these we tackled the more complicated dishes, which included the impressive flambé langoustines in lashings of brandy, a wonderfully deep and rich traditional fish soup and the traditional Basque crème custard for desert. After a busy morning we got to sit down to eat the fruits of our labour and washed it all down with yet more local wine!
If you’re in San Sebastian for a food experience, I can’t recommend enough trying out one of their courses. I personally wish we’d been able to try the Michelin Star Secrets class as they have some great chefs on board.
San Sebastian isn’t just about the food. There’s the annual Film Festival that takes over the city, the stunning view from the top of Monte Igueldo with its run-down fun fair and rickety funicular railway, the beautiful manicured gardens at the Miramar Palace and enough history and architecture to keep you occupied for weeks. It’s a destination we’ll return to soon.