19 March 2007

Dinner Club in San Sebastian, March 2007

Firstly, I would really like to thank Sylvia, Veronica, Yulia, Andrea, Ruth, Patti and Peter for joining me in San Sebastian. I truly hope everyone had a good time and enjoyed some culinary experiences that they will never forget. Right now, I am writing this in my apartment in San Sebastian mulling over what to do for dinner. Shall it be a jamon iberico pintxo or two at the new Bideluze at 24 Garibal Kalea or the stuffed baby courgette pinxto in Martinez in the Parte Vieja? Or perhaps the signature dish at Iombi (if they bother to open tonight)? It's a tough decision, and I have to make more hard decisions for lunch tomorrow before I leave. Oh well...

Anyway, here's the story so far. We met up on Thursday with Veronica at Stansted on the way to Biarritz via Ryanair. Trust me, if there is any other airline you can use rather than Ryanair, then use them instead. From Biarritz we hopped on a couple of trains and were in San Sebastian within an hour or so, mainly due to some lucky train connections. Yulia came in via Bilbao and together we all set off for an impromptu pinxto crawl around 21:00. First stop was Rojo y Negro around the corner from the seafront. Some magret and foie pinxtos washed down by a glass of red wine hit the spot before we strolled over to Antonio, where we had some jamon iberico floating on top of hand-made potato crisps and a plate of chopitos (baby deep-fried squid). Feeling less anxious about dinner now, we made the effort to stroll over to Alona Berri in Gros, where we had countless numbers of their sublime pinxto creations. This is the bar which tends to win the annual pinxto competition. Sated, contented, chilled out, we moseyed back via a jazz bar and then to sleep.

Next day, we met up at noon, and first stop was Iombi in the Plaza de Gipuzkoa. This place opens and closes when it feels like and it was a rare privilege to catch them not only open for business but in top form as well. Their signature dish is also called Iombi, and is a porcelain spoonful of foie gras on top of an olive oil and port sauce, topped with a raw pigeon egg. The trick to eating this is to pop the whole spoonful into your mouth, munch once or two, and then press your tongue up against the roof of your mouth. The experience is spiritual - no other word comes close to describing it. Next stop around the corner was Meson Martin, which does fantastic tortillas and grilled black puddings, and when we were finally stuffed (again), we sort of wandered over to visit Mont Igeldo via the funicular train. Then after some pictures, we came back down and hiked around the corner to the Chillida Leku sculptures and the hissing sea holes which blow air and water up your trousers if you are not careful! Really. San Sebastian is that sort of place.

For Friday evening, we had a local friend, Manuel, very kindly come round to show us the Parte Vieja properly. (We do things properly in this little club.) Andrea and Ruth had made it by then and they happily joined us as we sojourned through the lovely old town with Manuel explaining the history and architecture of the town. Apparently, San Sebastian did really well when they backed Queen Isabel against some rough-smelling Spanish lords and when she finally won, she bequeathed a lot of favours to the town, which started its eminence in Northern Spain. Manuel also forced us to sample several of his favourite (and fantastic) pinxto restaurants (where the rule was to have only 1 or 2 pinxtos before the next bar) and the ones I can remember out of the 6-7 places are Txepetxa, Muntos, La Cuchara de San Telmo, Martinez and Goiz-Bargi where we had to very understandably prise Veronica away from the corner of the gambas grill bar. I say understandably as I was there in the same position before and I wouldn't have moved even if they had a Scud missile warning. There was also one that specialises in grilled fresh anchovies (I can recognise the place but not remember the name) and I never thought anchovies can taste so good! Fortunately, Patti and Peter had also made it into town just after the start of the tour and they met us up at Martinez, where Peter did his valiant best to make up for lost time. At the end, I somehow found my way home (we had a glass or two of wine at every pinxto bar, remember) and I vaguely recall that a few people then headed off for a disco that evening.

Saturday lunch was a, er, well, rather haphazard Spanish event, and somehow we had managed to upset the waitress in the restaurant which some Spanish friends, Augustina and Pepe, took us to. It was precariously poised for a moment or two whether we will all get to have lunch, but in the end all was well. Food was not that great, to be honest, but it was a very typical Spanish meal, just for a contrast. In the afternoon, everyone did their own thing and we only gathered again around 20:00 to take the bus to Lasarte and Martin Berasategui.

Regarding Saturday's dinner at Martin Berasategui, all I can say is that it was, for me at least, an almost transcedental night. Where can I start? It was just 10 courses of genius cooking. At the end, people were trying to figure their favourites out of the courses, but to me, they were all simply divine. I think that I will just let the pictures do the talking for this dinner as I hate to sound gushy. Oh, and we were very fortunate to find a lovely Rioja to match the dinner, a Marques de Risqual 2002. It was a superb wine, which matched the dinner well and was not too expensive (unlike the dinner)! It was definitely a night which one will remember for a very long time.

Sunday lunch at the sidaria was completely the opposite end of the culinary spectrum. Whereas we had designer plates and servile waiting staff the night before, at the sidaria, we had to fetch our own drinks and the food was more or less eaten with our hands! But it was about as much fun as one can have with clothes on. We started with a lengthy bus trip from San Sebastian to some village called Astigarraga and and the dining hall is the canteen used by the sidaria's workers in summer. This particular sidaria is actually a working apple farm and they do these special meals only outside of the apple growing/cider making season. The first course was a simple salted cod omelette, followed by baked cod and then followed by slabs of the most delicious grilled beef in Spain. We even ordered an extra slab of beef, as it was just soooo good! Dessert was Spanish cheese with sticks of apricot jelly and walnuts which you crack open yourself. Most fun was catching the cider as we squirted streams of dry cider straight from the barrels onto the floor. The trick is to get as much air as possible into the cider before knocking it back as quickly as possible. And the trick is definitely not getting cider all over your clothes and shoes, like Yulia.

After such a lunch, the evening was understandably muted, and some of us met up in a bar and then just moseyed over to Gandarias for a few glasses of Belondrade y Lurton, arguably the best white wine in Spain. This was followed by a red Marques de Vitoria 1998 which was unfortunately served straight out of the bottle but nobody spat it out, even though it was not decanted. We wandered back via the Dickens Bar where someone had a very serious gin & tonic.

Monday is when everyone deserted San Sebastian for various reasons, mostly to do with work, apart from me. As I said before, I do things properly. So here I sit, writing this little diary and amusing myself with what I shall have for dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow. Perhaps after reading this, you can now understand what a dilemma I have on my hands here.

Monday night notes: Well, eventually hunger overcame me and I was forced to set out to find some food. To be honest, Monday night is not the best night for culinary hunting in San Sebastian as many restaurants are closed this night. However, I managed to struggle through and here is a simple guide to how to survive a Monday night in San Sebastian. First, you need to quench your thirst and the best place to do this is the Taberna Gandarias where I sloshed out a glass of Senorio Andion. Listen - if someone pointed a gun at your forehead and forced you to drink a glass of Senorio Andion, well, all I can say is that things could have been a lot worse. I had an insipid dish or two here as well, nothing to write home about, although the consomme was light and refreshing. But next stop was Martinez, where they had delectable "souffles" of wrapped baby courgettes with seafood stuffing. They also had other very good pinxtos as well, including seafood layered raw scallops and thin bread sticks with lines of iberico ham and I can remember vouching for those as well. That was almost enough but unfortunately I passed by Egosari, who do the most delicious moist grilled spiesses (or kebabs). So I had a couple, as I was not a rude person. They even had lovely-looking iberico ham pinxtos topped with lightly-fried pigeon eggs but I refused them, such was my will. So, I was now heading back home, minding my own business, when the barman at Meson Martin winked me into his bar. I'm usually a fussy person, but when he pours a well-aerated bottle of Marques de Vitoria and serves me fried aubergines with tomato, ham and cheese filling, then even I may get persuaded. Also, believe or not, a hailstorm hit the town just as I was walking by and if it was not destiny, I don't know what it was that forced me into this bar. Now thoroughly stuffed to the gills, I stumbled out and was saying the Lord's prayers when I saw that the idiosyncratic Iombi was also open! Again, I stress that I am not a good contestant against destiny so I was compelled to crawl in and take a picture of an Iombi (something which I had forgotten to do before). But this meant ordering one and a degustif, so I did both. The only good news after this was that I did not have to pass Bideluze on the way back to the apartment!

Tuesday lunch notes: I just thought that I would scribble these thoughts down just before I leave. Someone had (cruelly) suggested that I might have added on a few ounces during the last few days and suggested a walk to Gros for lunch. Well, I am game for this, despite the fact that it has been hailing and raining all day. All I forbade myself was another visit to Alona Berri as that would just mean that I would be there all afternoon. So the first port of call was Bergara, the place where Juan Mari Arzak started his cooking career. It was not the worst decision of my life to come here and they really do things a little more elegantly and tastefully than the bars in the Parte Vieja. Also, one would have few arguments if one considered Bergara to be one of the very best pinxto bars in town. A couple of Marques and few pinxtos later, I made the mistake of dropping into Casa Duran, where, although the fried stuffed aubergine was passable, it just did not compare to Meson Martin last night. The red wine was also pretty awful, so I really would not recommend this place. However, I easily made up for this mistake by sampling the numerous foie gras pinxtos at Bar Iraeta, just down the road and opposite the front of the main church in Gros. This place specialises in foie gras and with that much foie experience under the belt, well, let us just say that it was a fitting end to my stay in San Sebastian, especially as the 4 pinxtos and a lovely red crianza I had there costed less than 12 Euro in total!

All the rather haphazard pictures I took in San Sebastian can be seen here, if you wish.