Musings (more like rambling thoughts) of a Cardiff based lawyer obsessed with food and wine
Donostia – San Sebastian has got to be one of my absolute favourite places in the world. It is located in Pais Vasco (the Basque Country) in the north of Spain nestled right up on the French border. It sits in a stunningly beautiful bay with not one but three amazing beaches (now that is just greedy).
Whilst beaches are nice, the best thing about Donostia is the food. It truly is a foodie paradise. My friends and family rightly think I am obsessed with food, but compared to the average Basque I have a mere passing interest. These are a people who collectively take food very, very, very seriously indeed. To them food is never just fuel to survive on, it is to be savoured and enjoyed with a passion. They are my kind of people and Donostia is the jewel in their foodie crown. Whilst Michelin stars abound, pintxos is what I came back for time and again.
Most watering holes in Donostia will have a bar groaning with gorgeous looking finger food which you can just pick up (and usually plonk on a plate supplied by the bar) .
Payment is strictly on an honour system basis, but be warned they alway know (god knows how) what you have had so you can’t take the p*ss. In most bars, a number of specials (often hot) can also be ordered and don’t be put off if a place has no or only a few plates of food out on the bar as some of the best places – for instance La Cuchera de Telmo and Bordi Berri – only serve made to order stuff and boy is it good. I tend to go for the hot stuff as they allow the kitchen (usually tiny) to show off and what you get is usually of an incredibly high quality and obviously freshly made.
The temptation is to get a plate in the first bar you visit and load it up. My advice is don’t. Pace yourself as you fill up on pintxos surprisingly quickly and loading up in one or two bars only means you miss out on others.
Most bars have English menus, but it is worth trying to get your head around the Basque language – no mean feat but Google translate helps – or Spanish as many of the boards are not in English and are not fully replicated on the printed menus.
The idea is to bar hop – one, max. two pintxos (pronounced pinchos) in each one (not called tapas up here) with a drink (usually a small glass of wine called Txakoli/Chacoli – a light bone dry basque white with a slight spitz and poured from a height, a red Rioja or a zurrito – a small glass of beer – or a cider – old school scrumpy style) and then move on to the next one.
As there are over 400 bars in Donostia (a very walkable city – with most bars concentrated in the compact old town ) there is no shortage of choice. If you choose well this can be one hell of a classy way to do a bar crawl.
On any crawl you may come across the odd dud, but as there is fierce competition these are generally few and far between
Here are a few of my personal favourite pintxos places in Donostia from this trip (a few that would normally be on my list – such as the excellent Bar Zeruko – were closed the November week of my visit)
1. Bar Alex
Larramendi, 10 (Centro) http://www.baralex.net
This is in the Centro area rather than the Old Town and is a short walk from the Art 7 apartments (highly recommended) where Mrs. S F and I stayed. The owner is a great wine lover and always has an excellent selection (mainly Spanish but not your bog standard stuff) of wines by the glass and the bottle (all at very reasonable prices). We had a lovely Mencia from Bierzo in the North West of Spain and well as an equally nice wine from Toledo.
The food is also pretty darn good in this bar. Whilst there are a few pintxo on the bar the main offering is from a specials board and include hot, cold, savoury and sweet offerings.
There signature dish is Migas (fried breadcrumbs) with mushroom and a slow poached (at 62°c) egg and is stunningly good. Only available Fridays and Saturdays am afraid.
On visits here another good dish we had was a lovely pan fried piece of foie in a Pedro Ximenez (sweet sherry) sauce with candied walnut and an apple sauce. Cooked to a perfect wobbliness, it was beautiful.
Again this was packed full of flavour and accompanied by a lovely crisp parmesan tuile.
2. Bar Antonio
Begara, 3 (Centro)
Another Centro bar, with a very good offering of hot and cold pintxos and raciones. It is a good stop off point before plunging into the often busy and raucous bars in the old town. Staff don’t speak much English but are very friendly and I always seemed to make myself understood (albeit with some light joshing from said staff as to my awful pronounciation) and got what I thought had ordered without pointing.
They have an number of cold marinated dishes on the bar including a lovely Cecina (cured smoke beef from Leon) with parmesan
and some equally good anchovies.
On the hot front they have a myriad of interesting options. We went for a piece of foie (they love their foie in Donostia) that came in a beautiful carmalised sauce with some really intensely favoured dried raspberries (perfect with the rich foie). Not your average tapas this.
They have a fair few decent wine by the glass (we had a Vina Real Crianza). This is one of my favourites bars outside of the old town and they also have (so I have been told – need to try) a very good sit down restaurant in the basement.
3. A Fuego Negra
31 de Agosto, 31 (Old Town)
In the maze of bars that is the old town this is one of those that take pintxos to a new level. Here most of stuff they offer are on boards on the wall made to order rather than on the bar. Beautiful dishes, that would not look out of place in a Michelin starred establishment’s tasting menu, come out of a miniscule kitchen.
The dish they are famous for and which every tourist (including Mrs. SF and I) go for is the Makcobe with Txip (tx- is pronounced ch – in Basque) their playful and delicious take on a burger by a (in) famous burger chain. It involves a mini Kobe beef burger, tomato flavoured bun and plantain chips.
Other offers include a cracking risotto laced liberally with Idiazabal (a smokey hard Basque cheese).
Can be a bit touristy (menus in English although somethings do see to get lost in translation) this one, but well worth a visit with an excellent selection of wines by the glass.
4. Bar Nestor
Pescarderia, 11 (Old Town)
This a traditional hole in the wall bar bar, in the old town, where “simpatia” is the name of the game. None of the mini haute cuisine you see in many other Donostia bars here, but don’t think this is a bad thing as what they do they do exceptionally well.
The offering is pretty much limited to plates of cheese, cold meats (perfect looking lomo, chorizo and jamon), plus tomato salad (just tomato, salt and olive oil – but delicious), padron peppers, a tortilla people queue up for and grilled steaks (chuleton de buey) of gargantuan proportions. These steaks look just awesome.
Decent wines by the glass plus beer and Basque cider made this a buzzing place and rightly so.
We wished we had room for the steaks which was being consumed all around us, but it was last stop of that particular night and after earlier pintxos and a fabulous lunch even I couldn’t manage it (much as I wished I could have – next time).
5. La Cucheria de San Telmo
31 de Agosto 28, up side street by church (Old Town)
Another tiny little joint in the old town. Not easy to find and always packed, it is well worth hunting down
Expect to stand and expect stunning food here. How the tiny kitchen turns out the stuff they do amazes me. The menu (they have menus in English) is on the wall and can be ordered as pintxo, raciones or main meal size. Below is the mains/raciones size menu but all of them come in pintxo size and boy are they good.
We have dry aged beef – chargrilled to a crunchy perfection on the outside and a beautiful ruby red on the inside, with a lovely yellow cap of fat attached to the the meat. It was tender as you like and packed full of flavour. Quite simply a sensational piece of meat which came came with a lovely feta stuffed cherry tomato.
This place is class and a must visit.
6. Bordi Berri
Fermin Calbeton, 12 (Old Town)
This is another classy place that only has hot made to order stuff on offer. All are without exception beautifully cooked and packed with flavour.
a pig’s ear with a romesco sauce, which was crispy on the outside and buttery soft and unctuous on the inside (don’t be put off by the fact is an ear – it was surprisingly nice)
and a subtly curry spiced pork “kebab”.
Again this was cooked to a perfect tenderness and packed full of flavour.
Decent red and white wines by the glass are served here, as well as beer etc.
This is another must visit place.
7. Astelena 1960
Plaza de la Constitucionc(Old Town)
Last stop off on last night this one and what a very good one it was to sign off on. Lots of interesting meat and seafood on the menu here and a really good selection of wines by the glass. We had an excellent Ribera del Duero which really hit the spot when paired with the steak, egg and chips dish I ordered
The steak dish was €4.30 (so around the £3.50 mark) and comprised of a juicy steak (done just how I like it), a fried quail egg (nice and runny) atop a mound of fried onions and matchstick chips. Added to this was an intense red pepper ketchup.
This “little” plate (actually quite substantial) ticked all the boxes for me. With a big glass of very good wine from Ribera del Duero it came in at a ridiculously cheap £6.00 in total!!! How they make any money on this basis is beyond me.
We also had some very good jamon crocquetas
Donostia – San Sebastian is a must go place for any foodie. Good food can be had across the range from high class top of the range Michelin star establishments (more on one of them next week) to hole in the wall establishments. At the later we ate really well and drunk good wine for less than €25 (£20) a night (4 pintxos plus and the same number of glasses of wine). For the quality of what we got this represents a seriously good bargain.
Would I go back? Been there 3 times in a row and already booked to go back next year. I just absolutely love it.
There are so many good bars in the Old Town and Centro areas we didn’t get to Gros which is the other side of the River (have on previous visits) which has a number of good bars and is well worth a trip if you have time.
My advice is take an umbrella as it rains a lot and I mean a lot in Donostia.
If you want a little bit of pintxos paradise without going to Donostia, in South Wales, try the very good Bar 44 in Penarth (or Cowbridge). Must get around to reviewing that place.
We flow from Stanstead to Biarritz Airport with Ryanair (Easyjet also fly there) and got a bus direct from airport to Donostia (45 mins). Can go via Bilbao but at time of writing no direct flights to Donostia from UK. For longer trips (taking in La Rioja) we have gone by Brittany Ferries to Santander or Bilbao from Plymouth or Portsmouth. Bonus here is ability to load up the car with goodies.
We stayed at Art 7 Apartments which are very nice and good value. Located in Centro area it is about 15 minutes walk from the old town and easy to get around the place as close to both bus and train stations and taxi ranks. For self catering (why bother !) it is close to a very good deli with a butcher and also a fishmonger.
We bought the book below on a previous visit. We have found it an invaluable guide to the best bars.