I have to admit, I’d never really thought of San Sebastian as a holiday destination.. As I’d not really been aware of its existence. I know, it’s shocking. But no matter, because I now know that it exists – and more importantly, I know what an absolutely great holiday venue it is.
San Sebastian is famous for their take on tapas, which they call pintxos (pronounced pin-chos). Pintxos are essentially small plates of food that are eaten at bars, usually accompanied by a drink or two. In a way, it is the ultimate bar food: small, delicious. Some bars have a selection of pintxos laid out on the counters, which you pick and choose from, some do a “cooked to order” menu, and some do a mixture of both.
Ordering pintxos is an art in itself. Most pintxo bars are completely rammed with customers, and one must be brave and make your way into the sea of people to shout your order to the people behind the counter. Most bars have the menu written on a chalkboard behind the counter, usually in Spanish. The servers usually don’t speak very much English, and you should have seen me fumbling and trying to order food with my almost nonexistent grasp of Spanish…
But you know what, you don’t need to know very much Spanish to feast on pintxos. You just need to know some key words… (I might have mistranslated some of these words, so please correct me if I’ve made a mistake as I’m not known for my language abilities!)
Gambas = prawn
Vieira = scallop
Txipiron (“chi-pi-ron”)= squid
Bacalao = salted cod
Txangurro (“chang-gu-ro”) = crab
Antxoas (“an-chos”) = anchovy
Cochinillo = suckling pig
Costilla = ribs (I think)
Carrilera = beef/veal cheek
Jamon = ham
Pulpo = octopus
Foie = foie gras
Queso = cheese
Hongos = mushroom
Morcilla = black pudding
Txakoli (“cha-ko-li’) = sparkling white wine, the signature wine of the Basque country
We visited a number of pintxo bars, and literally bar hopped for much of our time there. On one of the days we actually had a three hour lunch! Then attempted to climb Mount Urgull – which is not a good idea after a heavy lunch, let me tell you.
LA CUCHARA DE SAN TELMO
One of the my favourite bars. This teeny little pintxo bar was always filled with tourists (mainly British ones, interestingly), but this was definitely not one of tourist trap places you worry about going to when on holiday… because the food was absolutely delicious. All the pintxos here were made to order, and were all excellent. In fact, the food was so excellent that we ate here three times, and tried at least two thirds of their menu!
Bacalao faroe contitado con patata y breza – Salted cod with potatoes and a herb sauce. Crisp skin, tender cod flesh that flaked away with the touch of a fork, finished off with some smashed potatoes. Incredibly good, and I can happily declare a newfound love for bacalao. Despite it’s name, it’s not actually very salty at all – so don’t get too worried!
Carrillera de ternera al vino tinto – Beef cheeks braised in red wine. I don’t think I’ve actually eaten beef cheeks prior to this, but you can sign me right up to the beef cheek fan club. It’s a great cut of meat which becomes incredibly tender when cooked this way.
Cotxinillo (cochinillo) letxal asado x 6hs – slow roasted suckling pig (I assume for 6 hours). The crackling was much better than I ever expected in a small humble pintxos bar – it was amazingly crispy, and I was very impressed. I did think they’d gone slightly overboard with the sprinkling of sea salt flakes though, as it was a little on the salty side.
Foie cuchara con compota de manzana – Foie gras with an apple compote. I tell you something, the people in San Sebastian really like their foie. It was featured on the menu of most of the places we went to! I suspect it’s because they are very close to France.. I just wonder how often the locals eat foie, as it’s not really the healthiest thing in the world! This was good, but just a little too rich for me. You’d love this if you’re a foie lover though.
Manitas de ministro con tximi txurri – Pork trotter with chimi churri sauce. I can’t believe they eat trotters in Spain, I thought it was a Chinese thing!
Pulpo roca con hojas de berza asada – Octopus with a side of cabbage (or at least what tasted and looked like cabbage). This had a great sauce, which had a hint of citrus.
Queso de cabra relleno de verduras asadas – goats cheese wrapped in ham. This was ridiculously good, and even R who normally finds goats cheese too overwhelming loved this.
Risotto (forgot to take down the actual name of this dish) – this was made with orzo, which is a rice shaped pasta sometimes called risoni. This totally blew me away, and I have since recreated a risotto dish made with orzo in my own kitchen. I preferred the texture of the orzo to the more ‘claggy’ texture of arborio rice – the orzo just makes the risotto taste lighter, if that makes sense.
Viera – pan seared scallop. Now, La Cuchara normally has a ham/bacon wrapped scallop dish on their menu. Unfortunately, we never got to taste it as we didn’t know what scallops were called in Spanish on our first visit, and it wasn’t on the menu the next two times. However, the server at the counter recognised me and and must have sensed my desperation to try this (haha)… He took one look at me and went like “Oh, viera!”. In any case, he offered me an alternative of a grilled scallop, but with no ham. Which I obviously said yes to – and I’m so glad I did, because check out the SIZE of that monster scallop. It was absolutely scrumptious, and perfectly seared.
This is the madness you’ll be face with in La Cuchara during dinner service… absolutely bonkers, but so worth it. Despite it being extremely crowded, it is very civilised and you actually have friendly chats to the people around you whilst waiting for your order to be taken. This system would never work in Malaysia, as everyone would just push forwards and be kiasu ‘afraid to lose’ (reminiscent of the horrendousness of the Malaysia Night at Tralfagar Square).
Much less madness at 12pm on a Sunday afternoon… you can actually see the counter.
La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 de Agosto, 28
This place was part pintxo bar, part restaurant. I only took notice of the bar though, and we visited twice, primarily for one pintxo which I absolutely fell in love with…
… this one: bacalao and pimento pepper served on a slice of crusty white baguette. This was SO GOOD! I suspect the reason why I enjoyed it so was because the entire pintxo was deep fried – how would it be possible to not like this? This is one of the pintxos that are displayed on the counter, and they even ‘heat it up’ for you when you order it. Be warned that ‘heating it up’ means popping it in the deep fryer again though.
Solo Mio – seared beef fillet with a slice of pepper. This was good stuff, the beef is a bit on the rare side though, so best to steer clear if you’re queasy this. This was made to order.
Brochetta gambas – grilled prawn bruschetta. Good, but just not as good as the brochetta gambas from Bar Goiz Argi…
Txangurro – crab and pepper mix, served atop some bread. Very flavoursome, and bursting with crab. A little oily, but when who cares when you’re on holiday? Hehe.
Hongos – mushrooms. This was a fairly popular pintxo, and was something which was being served in a number of bars. Casa Gandarias adds their own twist to it by adding some ham, because who can say no to ham?
Bar Casa Gandarias
Calle 31 de Agosto, 23
A FUEGO NEGRO
This bar prides themselves on their modern and creative take on pintxos, and offered some very interesting dishes which I enjoyed.
Makobe with txips – Mini kobe beef burger with banana chips. Best bar snack ever! It was just the right size for it to be chomped down in two easy bites.
Oreja skabetxada con mole hezado – pickled pork ear with frozen mole. I don’t know about you, but I’d never eaten pig ears before and was quite curious as to what this would taste like. The best way I can think of describing this would be to call it a more cartilagenous (is that a word?) version of pork belly. I enjoyed this.
Txitxarro-gerezia-menta-ardia – mackerel, sheeps cheese, mint and cherry. Basically a mackerel tartare with cubes of sheeps cheese, served atop a cherry meringue base. Refreshingly different.
Txangurro-aguakatea-regaliza – crab, avocado and liquorice. A very modern take on the traditional Basque txangurro (brown crab) tart. And SO good! I absolutely adored the liquorice ice cream, and I’m normally not a liquorice fan. Great combination of tastes, textures and temperatures.
Paloma, tiro, PUM! – Wild dove breast with beetroot sauce (or beetroot blood in this case). This was such a fun dish, where it was plated to look like blood was splattering from the dove that had just been shot. They even had a little edible sign with the word PUM on it, which I thought was really cute. The dove was perfectly cooked as well.
Y un huevo – con hongo y jamon – egg with mushrooms and ham. This was no ordinary eggs and ham, and the liquid yolk like liquid had hints of mushroom in it. The paprika like powder on the top was actually ham bits, I only wish there was more of this.
Bakailu (bacalao) enkarbonao con pepitas de pimiento – “coaled” cod with pepper pips. Yes, yes. More bacalao. What can I say, I am obsessed.
A Fuego Negro
Calle 31 de Agosto, 31
This place was similar to La Cuchara, and had some very good dishes.
Arroz bomba de txipiron – Paella rice with squid. Flavoursome, with just the right amount of bite in the rice grains.
Carrillera de ternera al vino tinto – Beef cheeks braised in red wine. This was very similar to the one at La Cuchara, and it was hard to pick a favourite between the two. The meat was more tender at Borda Berri, but the sauce was more flavoursome at La Cuchara. A tie then perhaps?
Risotto de hongos – risotto with mushrooms. One of my top 3 pintxos of the trip. The meatiness of the mushrooms was extremely evident in every mouthful, and it was so good that we went back to have another plate as a post-dinner ‘snack’. Like the risotto in La Cuchara, this was made with orzo. Such a revelation!
Queso de kabra tostado – grilled goats cheese. Goats cheese tastes so much better when cooked this way, I don’t know why we don’t do this more often here in England.
Viera asada con pure coliflor – Scallops with cauliflower puree. Nothing like fresh and well cooked scallops to make for a wonderful dish.
Kallos de bacalao – cod guts/tripe. I found this a little too slimy for my liking, but R liked this.
Fermin Calbeton 12
BAR GOIZ ARGI
Brocheta de gambas – prawn bruschetta. This is what Bar Goiz Argi is famous for, and I can see why. Perfectly grilled prawns topped with the best salsa I have tasted in a long time. Excellent.
Chipiron a la plancha – grilled squid. This couldn’t have been more simple – grilled squid topped with olive oil and chopped parsley. Yet it was so delicious, and a perfect example of how you don’t have to do very much to good ingredients.
Hongos – this was one of the things I picked from the counter. By this time I’d already copped on to the fact that I was a huge fan of their mushrooms, so this was a no brainer really.
Ma Juli – salmon and anchovies on bread. Good, but nothing mindblowing. I’d rather have another brocheta gambas over this I would think.
Bar Goiz Argi
Calle Fermin Calbeton 4
This place is famous for their anchovies, and they offer a selection of 14 different variations of anchovy pintxos.
We tried four types – from front to back: foie y compota, papaya, jadinera (salsa) and huevas de erizo mar (urchin roe). My favourite was the papaya version, it was refreshingly different and not something I’d ever thought would work together.
Calle de Pescadería 5
Txipiron relleno y jamon iberico – squid stuffed with ham. The stuffing was nice and creamy, but I must say I didn’t taste too much ham in the filling though.
Txipiron a la plancha – grilled squid with caramelised onions. This was good, and the caramelised onions added a nice sweet touch to the squid.
Tarteleta txangurro – brown crab tart. The creamy crab filling was delicious, but the pastry could have been a little bit more crumbly and buttery. I like my pastries to ooze calories.
Munto also served this massive plate of fried stuff, which I think was cheese. I saw a group of people next to us eating it, and was extremely intrigued by it. Shame I was already bursting with food, so didn’t get a chance to try it! Next time, perhaps…
Calle de Fermin Calbeton 17
Platter of jamon jabugo – I almost squealed in delight when this was brought to the counter, as it was meat galore! Pricey, but oh so worth it.
Tortilla bacalao – cod omelette. I had seconds of this, as it was so good. They were very generous with the bacalao in this, and there was an abundance of cod flakes in the tortilla. I can only imagine how good it would have been if it was piping hot. Mmmm.
Hongos a la plancha – grilled mushrooms, served with an egg yolk. Now, this plate of mushroom goodness did not come cheap (it cost about 18 euros, much more than all the other pintxos in San Sebastian), but it was mindblowingly good. You know the meatiness of Portebello mushrooms? Well these ones were twice as meaty as Portebellos. Absolute heaven. I don’t think it even needed the egg yolk, as it was already amazing on its own. If I could I would not eat any other type of mushrooms, ever.
Ham sandwiches. We actually packed a few of this away on our last day in San Sebastian, as we (correctly) suspected we would have difficulty finding dinner in the airport at 9pm.
Calle 31 de Agosto, 7
HIDALGO 56 – Gros
The only bar in the Gros district that we managed to get to… there was too much food, and too little time!
Antxoas… a humada – smoked anchovies. I was very impressed with the presentation of this, with smoke and all. The lady was obviously proud of this dish, and even pre-warned me when she was about to lift the cover, so I could take a photo. The anchovies themselves were plump, juicy and perfectly cooked.
Volcan de morcilla, yema, pasas, y manzana – black pudding with egg yolk, raisins and apple. Now I never tend to order black pudding as I’m not a huge fan of it’s texture, but had to try this because it sounded intriguing. Am very glad I did, because it was really, really good. The raisins and apples added balance to the salty black pudding, and the egg yolk brought everything together.
Lasana de hongos crema de foie gras – mushroom risotto with cream of foie gras. This was only so-so, and I couldn’t taste much foie gras, I suspect the balsamic glaze completely killed any hint of foie gras there might have been in the dish.
Paseo colon 15
Also worth a mention is BAR ZERUKO – I was really looking forward to eating here, but they were CLOSED! They were on a month long break, and we were there right in the middle of their holiday. All the more reason for me to go back….
* A special word of thanks to Rachel of The Pleasure Monger, Guan of The Boy Who Ate The World, Ann & Jeff of Pig Pig’s Corner and the site Todopintxos for all the pintxo recommendations.