Monday, 21 March 2011
Skipped the Michelin-star tables - Although Spain is at the forefront of world gastronomy, only two michelin-starred spanish restaurants do catch my attention at this moment: El Celler de Can Roca (Girona) and Quique Da Costa (Denia). I regrettably missed both due to a lack of time. As to San Sebastian's multiple Michelin Star tables (3* Martin Berasategui, 3* Arzak, 3* Akelarre, 2* Mugaritz), I gathered enough intelligence on them to decide on choosing none. Michelin star tables in Spain are affordable, especially compared to those of France. And I heard that the service is not stiff, star Chefs are more accessible, the overall dining experience more pleasant at most of the best tables of Spain. I was seduced by reports about the amazing service at Mugaritz, the charming and friendly Chef Berasategui, the mesmerizing view from the large glass windows of Akelare. But when it comes to 2* and 3* Michelin star restaurants, I have my own personal preferences. At the highest Michelin star level I am more oriented toward France's haute cuisine: my style is more Roellinger, Michel Bras, Briffard, Piège when he cooks haute cuisine, Christophe Moret, Guerard. This comes at a price, I know...but I'd rather save enough $$$ for what I really want rather than sitting at a Michelin star table just for the sake of it!
One last notice about Spanish Michelin-starred dinings: the price you pay at those 3* restaurants is a fraction of what one would pay in Paris or New York at most 2* or 3* ventures. Spain is definitely where you should go if you want to experience Michelin star meals whilst not emptying your pocket.
***A lot from Paris, a bit from Bruxelles and Rome - There's no secret that some parts of SSB could remind you of Paris (they were clearly inspired by France's architectures), but did you know that the small streets of Parte Vieija could remind of Rome? And look at this:
It's their plaza de la constitucion. Once a bullring. Nowadays, just a plaza with terraces. At night, a remote feel of Bruxelles in the air ;p And last but not the least, I do not see many complaining about a piece of Nice's '''La promenade des Anglais''' in SB: the long walk along Playa La Concha
...A romantic feel - If I can say of a city that it has sensuality and a distinctive romance feel, then SSB would qualify to the designation. Here are three elements that do not fail as a romantic call:
-The gardens in front of city hall late at night:
The charm of the small streets of Parte Vieija, at night (like a little version of Rome):
Their long walk by the seaside:
Or take the long walk by the sea, along Paseo Nuevo, right behind Monte Urgull:
(This is one of the scenic seaside views you will get from the back of Monte Urgull, along Paseo Nuevo, in the direction of Paseo de Muelle). I did personally did not enjoy going up on Monte Urgull, but this is a question of personal taste. I'd still suggest you try Mount Urgull since the views from up there could appeal to some, I'm sure.
...A fuego Negro - Indeed, one hot pintxo bar which cult I am embracing. I usually I tend to stay away from the big advertised places, but I have to give it to AFN:
the bar, the pintxo, the staff and the spot are super cool, modern, well thought. They have the sense of pleasing and you just feel good there. There was my introduction to txakoli, the iconic white wine of the Spanish Basques. This wine surprised me: really pleasant, light, enjoyable in mouth (could pass as a remote version of a champagne. It is NOT a Champagne, but gets somehow close to it). 1-0 for AFN (I am seduced!)
Update on March 24th 2011: Just learned that the fact that they had to close was due to an urgent last minute event. I am therefore removing my words of unsatisfaction and do offer my apologies for the misunderstanding.
...Bar Martinez, 31 de Agosto, 13. Tel 943 424 965 (closed on Thurs, Fridays):
the surprising spanish omelette - With Bar Zeruko closed, we decided to hit two of their current most popular pintxo (tapas) spots. First Bar Martinez on Calle de Agosto 31. The thing here is to come around 8:00-8:30 if you want to avoid the crowd. Mission accomplished: barely no one in a bar that was going to get full later around 9:00. Here, I picked some 'croquettes' of cheese: tasty. Croquettes of ham and asparagus: tasty. I am writing 'tasty' because they were, but I am quickly getting the 'buzz' about those spanish pintxo spots: they do indeed make those ''croquettes'' way better than most of the best restaurants around the world. Yep, that's what surprised me the most. But wait till you read about what I've experienced at La Cucachara de San Telmo (next paragraph). In the meantime, I had to try their Spanish omelette. I love those simple things that barely attract attention to the most. This is exactly where I do play attention at your creation...
this is where I do tag you as a hero or a zero! This Spanish omelette is basically made of potato, tomato, chives, eggs. Its deliciousness was unexpected: omelette redefined! And I am not talking about redefinition of texture or whatsoever un-natural aspect of it (which I usually call ''pure BS" btw)...nah, I am talking about the main purpose of an omelette: its TASTYNESS! We could argue forever with possibilities like 'it is just a different omelette that I have never tasted before'. Regardless, it is superior to whatever omelette I have yet sampled all around Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia and it stands as as my new reference as far as omelettes go! Bar Martinez: 9/10! Pratical note: Bar Martinez has tables where you can sit down.
La Cuchara de San Telmo, Calle 31 de Agosto 28 Bajos, Tel: 647 787 444 - Our second stop after Bar Martinez. Largely the most advertised pintxo place along with A Fuego Negro. In other corners of the world, the buzz is pure BS in the hands of those who can capt the attention of the media or of the Public relationship fake drama. You surely know what I mean. Here in SSB, they obviously apply themselves to back buzz by real genius. Both la Cuchara de San Telmo and A Fuego Negro proved, on my visits at their establishments, that they are simply the best at what they do...perhaps even more than that! Anyways, let's get to the fact:
(1) A risotto, in its "pintxo version. I do not know how to write this, but I am bold, and there's no way I'll try to find words or BS descriptions to come to the point: this risotto they served to me was simply a new reference, a creation that was way superior in both taste, appreciation, and cooking mastery than any of the best risotto I ever sampled at 3*, 2*, 1* Michelin starred tables. Let alone at the rest.
Again, forget about the fact that I've never been to SSB before and that this may have been the effect of novelty. Thinking that way would be simply naive. The fact is that their risotto is stunning, way superior than most of the best risottos on offer out there, and we need to face it. Basta!
A 10 over 10
(2) The pan seared foie gras - Those folks do a superior pan seared foie than even my world's favourite ones (sorry Eau a la Bouche, Sorry Bistro Cocagne,
I love your pan seared foie...but la Cucachara makes it twice better). The depth of taste of their foie, the mastery of its cooking is way beyond expectation, and then you have the sour/sweet puree accompaniments that were simply un-matched. In two bites, La Cucachara did way better than the best 3* I could think about (without the decorum perhaps, but all I care about is the superiority of the food!). Simply the best of the pintxo places I have tried in SSB (just remember that there are no tables there. It's a tiny place.
Once you enter the place, just head to the bar on your right, stand up there and just order your pintxos off the small board that's on the bar's wall. Just 6 to 8 items, written in spanish and easy to read. Stand up and eat. Not that big of a drama since this is not a big meal, remember...but just samplings of food --aka tapas / pintxos).
Before I forget: I read here and there that this place is hard to fine. I agree: you can miss it easily...because it is not really on 31 de Agosto.. or it it? Lol..once you get there, you will better understand what I mean. For now, keep this in mind: once you are on calle 31 de Agosto, it is at the corner of Valle Lersundi Plaza. Carefully look afar and you will see a yellow sign "Keler". It's right there (looks like a street that goes nowhere --in between Bar Martinez and La Cepa on 31 de Agosto--, but stick to that path).
...Come here in summer - It's a small seaside city
with perhaps more interests than just the sea and the food (pintxos of course, plenty of seafood), but visit San Sebastian in summer if that's a place you're planning to visit. I came here this time in March for personal reasons, but summer would have surely been better. I was afraid that San Sebastian would be just another of those oversold touristic places. SB is touristic, there is no doubt about this. But at least, I find, it has some interesting things to bring: the city itself is charming (the seaside part worths a visit on its own. Perhaps not the perfect caribbean type of beach, but scenic enough and the beach is in good condition (where I'll rate the best beaches of the Caribbean with a 9 to 9.5 over 10, those of the Atlantic side of Mediterranea with a 6 over 10, I've got to rate SB's beaches with a 7 over 10 - The water is relatively clear and the sand, although not white but light brown --- think of the desert -- is soft and nice). The city is romantic (taking a walk at the back of Monte Urgull, on Pasealeku berria / walk at night by La Concha beach, etc), with plenty of fun bars and eateries on top of being a city-beach resort. Can't fail to seduce as far as I am concerned.
Fish from trouble waters ... tend to generally taste better. That is why their fish is quite tastier (please do not go there with un-realistic expectations towards their fish. It is among the tastiest ones, point blank). Ironically, my palate has a softer spot for their tropical cousins: the fishes of warm and quiet tropical seas (sometimes packed with less upfront depth of taste --- compared to those I've sampled in SSB --- but I find their taste more enticing, almost 'nutty-er' especially in my preferred way of cooking fish: grilling).
...For shopping: look around carefully. There are bargains amidst expensive stores. And they are everywhere to be found: Alameda del boulevard, Calle Urbieta, in the small streets of Parte Vieja, etc. My "coup de coeur" went for a small boutique for women accessories and shoes / clothes called "Koima" on Idiakez Kalea, corner of gipuzkoa plaza. This was first discovered by my mum, the only person I trust for opinions on best value buyings. She told me that I should go there to find interesting women accessories and shoes for my wife. She was right: The price there are ridiculously low and the items varied, creatively assembled. A true small little gem found out of nowhere and a great way to boot your shopping spree in a city of great shopping opportunities (If you look around carefully, jewelries, women accessories, shoes and men suits are insanely cheap compared to the rest of the world).
...Affordable eats: Since all infos on the web have covered virtually all eateries of SSB, I will cover those that were left behind but worth a detour if you want to save money in food spendings. You can do better than the average eur 20 "menus del dia" that most restaurants do offer. My best locations for cheap but good food are:
(1) Ricky Pollo in la Bretxea cinema/commercial centre - Rotisserie, pastas. Great cheap food with better service than at a bunch of top restaurants!
(2) La Cueva del Pollo -- a cheap but great rotisserie. Both are close to each other.
Their ham worths indeed the detour. I regret of not having spent more times discovering them as much as I would have liked, but the care, the aging, the taste of their ham is memorable. You might be shocked at times by the price of some of their superior hams, but if like me you are passionate about this, I'd recommend to give them a try.
Pension Bellas Artes. An excellent pension (absolutely no complain) with excellent hosts who work hard and work well. It is a small pension, with a very personalized service, so do not draw comparisons to a standard hotel. Leire, the owner, did everything to make our stay enjoyable and what a honest person. From her pension, you walk straight on Calle Urbieta and within 10 mins, you are already at the jonction of Playa La Concha's seaside walk and the town hall/Parte Vieja.
Bottom line: San Sebastian is my type of place -> varied architectures and sceneries. Lots of fun little eateries and bars. A seaside that entices, and somehow a multi-cultural city opened to the outside (people were mostly really welcoming to me, and that is right there a remarquable proof of open-mindness / tolerance, believe me, Rfaol! Please do not abuse of their kindness). For the food, stick to their seafood. They are great at it. For their pintxos, start with the current leading spots: La cucachara de San Telmo, A fuegro Negro and from there try the rest: la Cepa, bar Martinez, etc. They are all very close to each other, and since the ritual is to sample 1 or 2 bites here and there, just go from one place to another. It is cheap (2-3 euros for 1 pintxo).
If you want to discover SSB through a romantic angle, I will recommend you do this:
(1)Book a table at restaurant La Perla, Playa la Concha for when the sun goes down. You will thank me ;p
(2)Take your sweet half to a night / or late afternoon walk along Playa la Concha or at the back of Monte Urgull (on Pasealeku Berria)
It is perhaps no Tuscany, Rfaol...but it can trade couple of punches with the earlier Italian star when it comes to romantic opportunities. Personally, it brings me even more enjoyment than Tuscany to many respects (they are different, of course. Just try them both to make up your own opinion).
Off to the next adventure. Miss you Montreal!
Thanks for reading.