San Sebastian, Spain

Ahhhhh. San Sebastian. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways… in pintxos!

This long weekend trip to Basque country was all about food, so it is only fitting for the top ten be about food and food alone. San Sebastian or Donostia in Basque, is foodie central in Spain. I’ve been trying to recall how this city made it to my list of places to go. Perhaps I was inspired by this article which says it “holds the highest number of Michelin stars per square meter” Or an old Anthony Bourdain episode about San Sebastian where it looked like he genuinely enjoyed it.

Oh Basque cuisine. I heart you. What is it known for?  This Northern part of Spain is neighbours with France, and perhaps its food is influenced by some of the French techniques? Basque cuisine is known for grilled meats, stews, cod, peppers, and smoky sheep’s cheese. Being coastal  also means there’s the abundance of fresh local seafood.  Not too far away is Spain’s Tuscany, the renowned Rioja wine region . Spanish food. Seafood. Wine. Check, check, check.

Pintxos (small snacks) is king in San Sebastian, and it all began here. The pintxos bar hopping experience simply makes sense in the grid-like layout of the Old Town. As a perennial snacker, San Sebastian seems like home to me.  Here are my fave eats!

(10)  Pimientos de Gernika from Bar Sport (Fermin Calbetón street)  – Simple and satisfying. Gernika green peppers  cooked well,  with a generous sprinkling of sea salt. We popped a few of these babies and happily washed them down with the Txakoli from Getaria (local sparkling white wine).

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(9)  Hoguera from Bar Zeruko (Pescadería Street)  – A modern pintxo with a bit of theatre. Hoguera is bonfire in Spanish.  In Bar Zeruko, a lovely piece of cod is served on a mini grill, and the we’re instructed to smoke the cod for 30 seconds on each side, and then lay it on top or the bread with herby mayo. Eat in one go, and then have a lettuce shot (also mini in size) to cleanse the palate. Nom.

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(8) Jamon Iberico de Bellota from Gandarias (31 de Agosto street) – Bellota. The tastiest pig in all of Spain. The ultimtate ham. Black, beautiful, and delicious. Free range and acorn fed. This jamon melts in your mouth. Salty. Fatty. Meaty. Heaven.

(7)  Anchoas con centollo (with crab),anchoas con mermelada de arándanos (with blueberry jam) from Bar Txepetxa. Anchovies yummm. This is fish lovers heaven. Bar Txepetxa specialises is anchovies. We tried two varieties – one with crab salad on top and my personal favourite with blueberry sauce. The combination of salty and sweet is heavenly. The bread it sits on had just the right texture (crunchy and chewy), complementing the fish and the toppings. Equally amusing about  this always-packed pintxo bar favourite… the celebrity photos ‘casually’ hanging on the walls which seem to be saying, “Hey Ian Mckellen and Ethan Hawke love us too.”

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(6) Carrilleras con salsa de hummus from La Cuchara de San Telmo (off 31 de Agosto street) Perfect for wintery weather, this super tender veal cheek sat on a creamy base of hummus. Slow cooked for hours, this piece of joyous meat doesn’t need a knife. A fork cuts through it effortlessly.

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(5) Pulpo from Bar Borda Berri (Fermín Calbetón street)- Pulpo or octapus so tender. Grilled to perfection and Paired perfectly with a glass of Verdejo (Sauvignon blanc) from the Rueda region.

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(4)  Rissoni de queso Idiazabal rom Bar Borda Berri (Fermín Calbetón street)- Rich, creamy (pasta) risotto, made with smoky local sheep cheese. A plate of this nutty and buttery goodness is quite  indulgent, so sharing one plate with another foodie makes sense if you have an evening of pintxo bar hopping before you.

(3) Tarta de queso from La Vina (31 de Agosto street) – Fluffy, creamy, and toasty. With just the right balance of cheesiness, a hint of tartness, and sweetness. We loved this baked cheesecake so much that we practically had one slice everyday.  I think this is the best cheesecake I’ve ever had. A slice is perfect with a cup of tea or a splash of Pedro Ximenez.

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(2) Txuleta from Bar Nestor (Pescadería street) –  Paired with the best tomato salad you’ll ever have, this aged beef rivals the best steaks of the world . What else can I say about this glorious piece of meat? It arrives with drama, singing on a sizzling plate, on the bone and nearly raw. You can cook it to you liking, thanks to the .  No fancy sauces here. Just sea salt. And man o man. It sings.

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(1) Arzak Degustation tasting menu – So Arzak is not technically a pintxos entry. But it is probably the best meal I’ve ever had.  It is difficult to pick a favourite from the creative dishes we were presented. The 3-hour, 9 course dining experience is a revelation: A revelation that three Michelin stars do stand for something, with Elena Arzak, known to be best female chef in the world, creating a nearly transcendental dining experience. The atmosphere is not at all pretentious. Attentive, but not overbearing. The price? Steep.  But worth very penny.  Best duck I’ve ever had. Best scarlet prawns I’ve ever had (buttery and soft) Best chocolate dessert surprise. Best palate cleanser (chestnut ice cream and basil granita).

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