The most epic food adventure of the trip took us to three of San Sebastian’s most well-reviewed pintxos bars. They showed us why San Sebastian is regarded as the culinary capital of the Iberian peninsula, how the local cuisine holds on to tradition while not being limited by it, takes inspiration from the sea and the mountains, looks forward and abroad for inspiration but manages to remain undeniably Basque.
Although not easy to find, you’ll know you’ve reached La Cuchara de San Telmo by the buzzing crowd of locals and tourists. You’ll feel the anticipation in the air and you’ll feel it too as you squeeze through the narrow bar to secure a spot.
La Cuchara de San Telmo takes traditional Basque dishes and elevates them to new heights, cooks them how they should be cooked and throws in a few surprising elements for good measure.
We started with a classic Basque dish of kokotxas de bacalao al pil-pil: delicate cod cheeks cooked with olive oil, garlic and parsley. Sounds simple but a seemingly magical transformation produces the sauce when the slow-cooked fish releases its natural gelatin to produce a rich, almost creamy sauce.
My favorite of the night was tako de buey Argentina con tximi-txurri: braised Argentine beef with chimichurri over potato puree.
Risotto cremoso de queso de cabra (creamy goat cheese risotto) was next.
And last: carrillera de ternera al vino tinto (red wine-braised veal cheeks).
We were so impressed with the small pintxo-sized portions we returned for dinner next night and tried goat cheese stuffed with vegetables, a sirloin dish and canelones. All were spectacular!
Just down the block was our next stop. A Fuego Negro is an eatery that re-interprets Basque dishes in an extremely modern and creative way.
We all started with txacoli, a slightly sparkling dry white wine produced in the Basque Country.
The meal at A Fuego Negro was a revelation. We asked the guy behind the bar to surprise us with his favorite dishes and he started us off with ensalada sucia con vegetales a la plancha (“dirty salad” with grilled vegetables). The “dirty” part of the salad was a dressing of olive oil pureed with black sesame seed and the vegetables were purple potato, zucchini, squash, eggplant and onion.
Next was a warm layered cup with a tomato base, mussels, béchamel foam and a chicharron topping. We didn’t know what to expect when this arrived the but the flavors played so well off one another.
We all enjoyed the kevap de cordero (sliced lamb nestled in warm flatbread) with pickled jicama and yogurt.
And the risotto was spiced with garam masala and chile powder and topped with puffed rice and fresh herbs. Such amazingly creative flavor and texture combinations!
The last stop of our txikiteo was Astelana.
As soon as I saw the menu I was stoked about this place… lots of options and diversity and foie gras in like half of the dishes!
We started with a local cidra (cider).
The first dish that came to us was something I am going to try my darndest to recreate at home: a pistachio croquette. Pistachios were pureed with potato and fresh cheese for the inside of the croquette and it was rolled in crushed pistachios before going into the fryer. Oh. My.
The rest of the dishes were… duck ravioli topped with a foie gras sauce, drizzled with balsamic and served with a cinnamon raison crispbread.
Revuelto de hongos (mushrooms cooked with eggs) topped with quail egg.
Txipiron a la plancha (grilled squid) with roasted Padron peppers, onion confit, parsley sauce and a spicy pepper sauce.
And solomillo a la plancha (grilled sirloin) with big salt flakes, currants, apples and kataifi (shredded phyllo).
And now… now you know why San Sebastian is my favorite place in the world.