First things first. A toast to Sunny D for pitching San Sebastian, Spain, to celebrate Melf's birthday and see us off on our big gallavant. The Amalfi Coast last June was a staggering act to follow, but this turned out to be a more than respectable sequel. In fact, by the end of the long June weekend, Sunny D quipped: "this might just be the perfect holiday destination". From my beach mat, I found it hard to argue.
San Sebastian, on the Basque-proud northwest corner of Spain, has sun, sea, sand, and more Michelin stars per sq km than any other city on earth. AND not too many big sightseeing icons that make one (or at least the Melf in your crew) feel vaguely guilty about your neverending gluttonous waltz of food-beach-bar, food-beach-bar, food-beach-bar. AND most people party in sandals and flip-flops (evidently my kind of people). AND, as I kept experiencing, locals in San Sebastian would rather set you in the right direction, than make a quick hapless-tourist buck off you, if they didn't feel like their wares or services were the right fit.
But most of all, San Sebastian has pintxos. Pintxos are the Basque term for tapas, historically referring to the piece of bread or jamon that the bartender would use to cover (tapa) your glass of pre-dinner wine to protect it from flies as well as line your stomach. As time went by they evolved into an art form of their own. In my books they are a tongue-twister (and temptor) of petite punchy parcels of pure pleasure, prepped, plated, and preening for patrons as far as the eye can see, especially in the Old Town area where we stayed. Peruse, poke about for the speciality of the house, pick up and plow into just one or a platter. Repeat a couple of doors down (so pace yourself).
Given there were 8 of us, we got everyone to pick a pinxtos bar, with the following 3 rules:
Follow the crowd. If you're a newbie with limited time, there's no point finding out the hard way why an empty bar is an empty bar
Listen hard to the languages spoken by the patrons in the bar. Stay if it's mostly Spanish (or the Basque dialect Euskedi), leave if it's mostly something else
Survey for 1 or 2 items that stand out; move on if it looks like just more of what you've already had
Given we also got a sangria, beer or the local wine Tixoli at each stop, our jaunt soon descended into a delicious graze-maze-haze. But here are a few spots that stood out, hopefully a helpful starter list for you.
A Fuego Negro
Thanks to Goz (who didn't travel with us) for this recommendation. A Fuego Negro was a glamourous looking avant-garde take on the old-school bar layout, reportedly started by 3 20-somethings who had earned their stripes working with the old guard in their earlier years. Sunny D and Melf strided in and said the magic words in any serious food establishment: "Could the chef do us some of his recommendations please". And so he did.
Above: Foie gras, and a shot glass of mussels marinated in a strange sweet and fizzy concoction of tomato and (I'm convinced) strawberry broth.
Above: Grilled scallop with truffle bits, and a delectable miniature-burger with banana(?) chips
Above: Signature Spanish jamon, and chunks of grilled tuna with some very fashionable foam
Quite the opening act. But as we found out, the old guard was nowhere near throwing in the towel.
Sunny D picked this one after he saw it in an Anthony Bourdain episode. Jamon seemed to be the headline act here (even the beer taps are jamon-shaped). Then I wandered on to the back and found mounds of gourmet mushrooms that made my eyes damn near pop out.
Lovely golden chantarelles aka girolles, and fist-sized porcinis aka boletus aka cepes! We went for a half-&-half sampler for €20. They came sliced, grilled with olive oil, sea salt and bits of parsley and pepper, and a raw egg for dipping. They weren't magic mushrooms, but they might as well have been. Melf describes it best: "What did you order? Is this foie gras?"
Sunny D, Babs and I went back hankering for more the next day. Our waitress recognised us with much amusement and threw in some chorizo on the house.
This one was my pick, after spotting their big seafood-on-ice display in their entrance. Their house special is grilled seafood skewers, but jamon, foie and mango also proved to be a genius combination. I was amused at how quail eggs are used as chicken egg substitutes for combining with jamon, chorizo or bacon to form pintxo-sized breakfast sandwiches.
Bar Etxaniz was a tiny hole in the wall, packed to the gills with such a good vibe that we had to elbow and dodge our way in. I gunned for the cuttlefish cooked in its own savoury ink, while kopibren couldn't resist the rude looking sausages.
Above: The vibe gets very good...and giggly.
Mejillon is Spanish for mussels, so this find felt like karmic payback for being deprived of expensive mussels in Bruges a little while back. Each platter here cost only €3, so we tried one with salsa verde, and one with a garlicky gravy. While waiting I peered along the bar's back wall, which showed explanations of how mussels are cultivated in various parts of Europe.
These photos below give a sense of the staples found in a myriad of bars. I'm not yet enough of an expert to say which bar to go to for the absolute best version of each, so best to follow (again) the locals, and your gut.
Above: Anchovy cocktail skewers. I really like this fresher, less briny variety compared to the super salty type you use to make paste in a sauce. (Right) pulpo aka octopus, served here with olive oil and paprika. I'd eat these every day if I could
Above: Sausages galore. Chorizo slices, and (right) morcilla aka black pudding aka blood sausage
Above: Cod, hake, tuna and monkfish are the big-fish staples in these parts. Unfortunately all 3 are severely overfished species, so I tried my best to take a see-no-touch approach on these. There were fantastic anchovy, sardine and squid options to serve as worthy distractions
Above: Gambas aka prawns were everywhere, on sticks and in little tarlets. I can't quite fathom the prepping process that must happen all day all night every day and night
Above: Slightly more unusual findings included "fish throats", which I think is the loosest bit of skin in the gill-belly area, judging by the fishmongers I was watching in the morning; and what looked like baby eel or noodles, but are called "gulash(?)" which a bartender said was some kind of local fish.
I found endless more bar recommendations when I really started digging into some background research after this stop, so if you've road-tested other bars that you think should definitely be checked out next time (I'm cradling ambitions of making this an annual pilgrimage), I'd love to hear from you.
Lastly, for the pintxos paragons among you, San Sebastian also offers a pinxto workshop every Saturday, hosted by local masterchefs. The workshop includes a tour of the traditional market, a walkaround of the bars of the Old Town area, and a hands-on session. I kept the brochure in my cargo pants throughout the stint before finally deciding that the €115 fee would have to wait till next time. Ah well. A great excuse to come back. In addition to all those Michelin stars.
A Fuego Negro
C/ 31 De Agosto / Abuztuaren 31-KO Kalea 31
20003 Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain
+34 65 013 5373
C/ Fermin Calbeton / Fermin Calbeton Kalea 24
20003 San Sebastian, Spain
+34 94 342 6259
Calle del Puerto 15
20003 San Sebastián, Spain
+34 94 342 8465