Musings (more like rambling thoughts) of a Cardiff based lawyer obsessed with food and wine
For food and wine lover like myself and Mrs. SF, Donostia San Sebastián has pretty much the full package. Whilst the fabulous pintxos bars are the main draw for me and Mrs SF,
where we can graze to our heart’s content and drink very decent wines at rock bottom prices, other attractions abound.
On top of the pintxos bar, Donostia San Sebastián (population 187k) has a fabulous selection of formal sit down restaurants. It has a massive 17 Michelin stars (three 3 star, one 2 star and six 1 star), with only Kyoto in Japan having more per head of population.
To put this in context, Wales (population 3.1 mill.) has 7 stars and famed UK foodie city (and darling of Jay Raynor) Bristol (population 450k) has 4 stars (and that includes the Pony and Trap which is, out in the sticks, a good 30 minute drive from the City centre). From this it is fair to say Donostia San Sebastián seriously punches above its weight.
Mrs SF and I like to have at least one “posh” sit down meal during any visit (pretty much every year) to Donostia San Sebastián and we tend to have it at lunch time. This is the main meal in Spain and the Basque’s, like much of Spain, eat seriously/ridiculously late in the evenings.
If I am honest the prices at the 3 star palaces of gastronomy in Donostia are a bit too rich for my blood.
If you go for a decent wine(s) (thank the Lord these places don’t tend to gouge on the wine prices) or their suggested wine pairings with the degustation menus (at Martin Berasategui the suggested wine pairings with their grand tasting menu comes in at €140 a head) you can be looking at potentially upwards of €800 for lunch for 2 people. All very lovely I am sure, but that is a shed load of cash to drop for one lunch.
I love food and drink (Mrs. SF would say I am obsessed by it), but there is a limit and around £300 (still an awful lot of money and reserved for special occasions only) all in (booze and tip) for lunch (for me and Mrs. SF) is probably mine. As a result, we tend to go for places (of which there are plenty) in Donostia that are the next rung or so down for the 2 and 3 starred gaffs.
We have had some fabulous sit down food and wine in Donostia at the likes of Rekondo (cellar to die for), Kokotxa (1 star and great value) and Bodegon Alejandro (no stars, but just fab), but this trip I fancied the swanky restaurant on the hill.
Deceptive close as the crow flies (I reckon you could zip wire down to the beach in about 20 seconds), 1 Michelin starred Mirador de Ulia is a 15 minute €10 ish cab ride from the City centre. Don’t even think about walking and this advice is from someone who averages 10 miles a day walking whilst in Donostia.
When it comes to location Mirador de Ulia takes some beating.
It is perched on the hillside overlooking Zurriola beach and Gros, with views of the “Parte Viejo, Monte Ugueldo and beyond
With huge windows you drink in the view and to be honest you look at your food or the view rather than inside. It is, however, a pleasing space with plenty of room between the tables.
Whilst we perused the menu, we had a house aperitif to sup on. I am not a huge cocktail drinker,
but this lime, vodka and gin number was a pleasing mix of sweet and sour and a nice hit of alcoholic.
We very quickly decided on the tasting menu (€105 inc IVA), which looked to be an interesting mix of seafood and meat, classic and off piste dishes.
First up was a generous plate of 4 amuse bouches.
A melt in the mouth fish ball affair, a seaweed cracker avocado sandwich, a bao (spicy chicken) and local salad leaves (very nice, but salad leaves and a lone chilli struck me as an odd things to have as an amuse bouche) were interesting without wowing in my view. The fish ball affair was probably the pick of the bunch.
Course 1 – Salted prawns with a dill cream
Things picked up considerably with the first course, which was a salted prawn number.
Pretty as a picture, the prawns were raw and brined and sat in a lovely light dill creme infused with foie. Finished off with beetroot roses and grated truffle, this was a heady mix of briney sea and pungent earthiness. Clever stuff, which required a delicate touch – duly applied by the kitchen here.
Course 2 – Tomato filled with tomato and green codfish
A seemingly simple dish, this had great depth and layers of flavour.
The “stuffed with tomato” tomato may sound a bit boring, but there was a real intensity to the flavours (the stuffing was like a turbo charged ratatoille) and also some nice textual contrasts.
The fish was pollack (green cod) and had that slightly firmer texture characteristic of bacalao to it. The real star of the show was a killer black olive reduction – stunningly good and jammed packed with black olive flavour without any of the sometime astringency you get from black olives. Spherifications, which were little citrus flavour bombs, added nicely to a very balanced package of flavours.
The whole ensemble had a distinct Provençal feel to it, with lovely clean tasting flavours.
Course 3 – Crayfish salad
Beautifully fresh seafood salad, with a very generous amount to crayfish (I thought it was a lobster by the size of it). The meat was so sweet and fresh tasting and was complimented by a zingy salad with cucumber and avocado and the same citrus spherifications that came with the previous course.
The tomato ice cream was very refreshing, with the sweetness of the tomato coming through nicely.
Classy dish that married the sweetness of the crayfish/lobster, with the fresh as a daisy salad and spikey citrus flavours.
Course 4 – Steak tartare
A rather interesting take on a classic steak tartare, with the egg yolk forming a wrap around the tartared meat.
Pickled onions and a rather good savoury granita of cucumber, apple and celery added a refreshing counter point to the rich meat and egg yolk.
The meat itself was of top draw quality and coursely chopped rather than minced, which gave it a bit more texture than many tartare dishes I have had. Good flavour to the beef too.
On the side was what looked like a sweetie and we were told to pop it in our mouths at the end by our waiter. The “sweet” instantly popped in the mouth giving a pleasing hit of warming whisky. Not perhaps entirely in keeping with the dish, but a bit of fun none the less and very pleasant (even for a non whisky drinker like me).
Course 5 – Clams with white garlic emulsion
With a Michelin star gaff, you expect a bit of theatre with your meal and this was duly delivered with a stunning clam dish cooked at the table.
The waiter on delivering the clams lit them up and we watched as the flames licked around the shells and the clams slowly opened.
On them popping fully open they were transferred to our plates which had on them a sort of cracker and a bowl of herb infused rice. A garlic emulsion was there to dip the, just cooked, fresh as a daisy, clams into. Beautiful dish using the freshest of ingredients.
Course 6 – Carabinero
Carabinero are the king of prawns in my opinion. These red beauties are packed full of flavour and the head is offered to the honoured guest (to suck out the brains of the not so wee beastie).
Here the whole head had been dehydrated (I assume by very, very low and slow cooking in the oven)
and this massively concentrated that flavours (outstanding in a standard carabinero and super charged here).
The prawn flesh was succulent and sweet and infused with subtle citrus notes. The addition of the roe added another flavour dimension, with a real taste of the briney deep.
Another cracking dish.
Course 7 – Fish
An enigmatic title and a mystery to the diner as to what it would be.
What turned up was an exemplary bit of tuna belly, cooked to a perfect rare.
The addition of sour cherries acted as a nice counter point to the rich fatty tuna (which was really meaty in texture) and some Thai basil brought a nice fragrance to the dish. I can’t remember what the orange stuff was exactly, but it was very nice.
Another really good dish. One of the nicest bits of tuna I have had the pleasure of eating, only bested by one caught by the crew of a dive boat in the red sea I was on where we had the great fortune to have a Japanese chef who specialised in sashimi as one of our dive party (from sea to gob whilst still warm due to his expert knife skills).
This place really knows how to cook fish that is for sure.
Cause 8 – Apples with cider
Nice up was a palate cleansing sorbet number.
At the table a warm cider concoction (they are very big on cider in the Basque Country) was poured on the rather pretty “apple” causing the green outer shell/skin to melt away and exposure the inner apple sorbet.
Lovely fresh flavours that operated to reinvigorate the palate.
Course 9 – Low temperature duck
This dish would not have looked out of place in the Guggenheim and is a darn sight better to look at than a lot of the stuff in there (I am clearly a total pleb).
The duck was beautifully tender and full of flavour. The sous vide method of cooking has its fair share of fans and critics and I tend to sit in the fan camp, but it can be an overused method that brings an odd texture to meat and fish. Here it did its job in tenderising the meat, whilst retaining a pleasing level of rareness.
The apple (no idea what the osmosis title related to) and sunflower seeds brought nice textural contrasts, but the stars of the show was an intense hazelnut puree (full of nutty caramelised flavours – great with the duck) and a rich dark duck jus (made with the duck offal no doubt).
Beautifully plated dish that lived up to the promise of its looks on the flavour front.
Course 10 – Basil sorbet
Another palate cleanser, with a basil sorbet sitting on a citrus infused snow/sherbet. Very refreshing stuff, with a hugely intense metallic hit from the basil.
Course 11 – Tocino de Cielo
On to the desert and oddly (you may think) I was pleased there was only one. I tend to lean more towards savoury than sweet and thus prefer there not to be a multitude of sweet stuff on a tasting menu.
Tocino de cielo translate to ” Heaven’s Bacon” which is a nod to this desserts religious roots. Egg yolks left over after the whites have been used for fining wine were given to Nuns who then used them to make make a caramel custard dessert similar to Spanish flan.
Here the kitchen had moved the concept on by turning the custard into a chewy candied form ( complete with edible wrapping)
Add to this a lovely white chocolate ice cream (thankfully not too sweet) and some bitter cacao shards and what we got was a nicely balanced dish.
Going the whole hog, we ordered two pleasingly strong cortados to bring the very enjoyable proceeding to a close
These came with some rather fine petit fours in the form of macaroons, berry flavoured jellies, ganaches, some tuiles (caraway I think) and a chocolatey drink (in the test tubes – we were instructed to down these first – not sure why but very nice).
On the booze front, regular readers of the blog will be familiar with me constantly harping on about the difference in the levels of mark ups in Spain (generally very reasonable) as against the UK (generally very unreasonable).
The culture in Spain of not excessively marking up wine extends to the top end Michelin star gaffs and this place is no exception with mark ups of well below 100% on most wines. This makes such a difference to the final price and (lesson for UK restaurants here) tends to lead to me moving up the gears in terms of the wine I choose (i.e. I spend more as I feel happy to buy a more expensive wine).
The wine pairing offering with the tasting menu seemed to me at €82,50 per head (which would have made it €165 for Mrs SF and I) to offer less value than the main list.
As a result, I decided to delve into the decent (if a little light compared to some places in Donostia) wine list. Lots of interest here and much better value than the pairings suggested I thought.
Whilst lots of the reds appealed (at all levels), with a tasting menu a versatile white wine is usually the best option and I tend to go for a riesling or a grüner veltliner.
I am, however, a big fan of white rioja and adore the Remelluri Blanco from the Spanish wine genius that is Telmo Rodriguez. As a result when I saw this wine (the sommelier explained it was a 2014 rather than the advertised 2013) on the list here for a very reasonable €65 (it retails in UK at around the £50 mark – slightly less in Spain at around €45) I made up my mind on the wine front pretty much instantly.
A beautiful wine this (which is a blend of nine different grapes including marsanne, garanche blanca, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viura viogner and roussanne) with lovely aromas of melon and citrus, followed by a smokey minerality and fresh flowers.
On the palate there was baked spices, oranges and pears, as well as honeydew flavours. Very full, with great length.
Truly one of my favourite Spanish whites it worked very well with the seafood elements on the menu, but had enough weight to deal with the meat dishes. Very good food wine this.
Notwithstanding the versatility of the Remelluri Blanco, I had spied on the “by the glass” part of the wine list a Spanish wine at €6 50 (specifically a Pais Basco one) which I had not come across before in the form of Eklipse from Bodegas Itsasmendi
Intriguingly it was predominately made from pinot noir (a grape rarely seen in Spain, with the local hondarribi bektza red grape also in the mix) and I surmised it should be an ideal pairing for the low temperature duck dish.
On the nose there were aromas of cherry, cedar and a touch of the farmyard (a good thing in a pinot in my view). On the palate it has slightly tart red fruits and a streak of minerality/earthiness to it. I have come across. I thought it paired rather well with the duck.
With the dessert, I was intrigued by the presence on the list of sweet wines of a dessert cider and an iced cider (most of Northern Spain, including the Basques, is very big on cider), with the former from Pais Basco and latter from Asturias.
We decided on the 20 Manzanas Asturias number (€4.50 a glass), which my was an ice cider.
This stuff was a revelation, with the sweetness of toffee apple tempered by a lovely line of fresh appley acidity. This made it very refreshing yet still sweet and hugely moreish. In hindsight I wish we had bought the full half bottle (at €15 a steal).
Great with the tocino de cielo and something I would happily sup it on its own. Certainly will be looking to buy this stuff retail (have already found a source – about £12 for a 37.5cl bottle which makes the €15 price on the wine list here all the more commendable).
All too often places that have a fab location fail to deliver on the food front. I suppose the logic is they think people will come anyway so why bother with anything else. Luckily Mirador de Ulia bucks this trend and delivers top quality food and drink to go with the lovely views.
I like the fact that they don’t go too experimental, with a lot of the dishes relying on top quality local ingredients to shine.
On the bill front, the one they originally gave us was wrong, not have the pinot or the iced cider on it.
I am an honest soul and if I have had something that is being sold at a price (and I enjoyed it) I think I should pay for it. This was a simple mistake on their part and I would have been disingenuous to take advantage. I therefore pointed it out and we were advised of the correct sum.
With a tip and the exchange rate it came to just under £300. Certainly not cheap, but I thought fair value for what we had.
Would I go back? Absolutely – lovely food, great service, good value booze and very nice service. Add to that a fabulous view and both Mrs SF and I were happy bunnies. Great place for a celebratory meal (it was the week of my birthday- a rather large numbered one regrettably) if you happen to be in Donostia.
Address : Paseo de Ulia, 193, 20013 – San Sebastián
Tel: +34 943 27 27 20
Website: click here
Twitter: @mirador_de_ Ulia
Opening hours: Wed – Sat: 13.30- 15.30 and 20.30 – 22.30; Sun: 13.30 – 15 30; Mon- Tues: closed.