Donostia-San Sebastian - Is Pintxos Spain's best food? Did we find Spain's best coffee?
4 Deciembre 2016
There are two major attractions in San Sebastian. Lunch and dinner. Of course in between you could go to the beach or see the sites but they're mainly to keep you busy between meals.
San Sebastian is the culinary heart of the Basque country. Heck it is probably the culinary heart of Spain. Every single bar has great spreads of pintxos over the bar from basically mid-morning till midnight. Every single bar. Each tosta, or pintxos, or tapas, only costs a couple of euro. Wash it down with a copa de vino or a cañas of cerveza or the local specialty txakoli, you can eat and drink very very well for not much at all. So lunch and dinner is essentially bar hopping. Stroll eat stroll eat, repeat.
Pintxos is the Basque word for the Spanish Pincho. It is very similar to tapas except pintxos is usually skewered with a toothpick. Pincho means something like "spike" so pintxos is literally something skewered with a spike - or toothpick. Whoever came up with pintxos, or pinchos, first is debatable, probably the Spanish, but the Basque have made it their own. I don't think there is a more perfect snack food in existence anywhere in the world. Who would have thought a few choice ingredients on bread skewered with toothpick could be this perfect? Almost anything can be put on the bread but seafood is very common in Basque pintxos. For the Basque eating and drinking is a social thing. They meet friends and stroll between bars sampling vino and cañas and pintxos. Is the food an excuse for socialising or is the socialising an excuse for the food?
We got back into San Sebastian late after our meal at Mugaritz the previous evening so after a bit of a paseo it was bed time. Our first pintxos would have to wait till the next day but we did do a brief recce to see what bars were near to our AirBnb apartment. Briefly, all of them.
Our first impressions of San Sebastian after a morning stroll... so many bars serving pintxos and tapas that look sensational. We stepped out from our apartment building to a street full of pintxos bars. Our plan for the day was pretty basic. Eat. Stroll. Eat. Hang up washing. Eat. Stroll. Eat. Then probably eat some more.
Sakona Coffee Roasters - Spain’s best coffee
But before hitting the bars, and some were already laying out great big platters of pintxos, we thought we'd start the day with San Sebastian's best coffee at Sakona Coffee Roasters. Sakona is just off the bridge on the other side of the river. By other side I mean the east side. We’re were staying in the old town to the west of the river. We knew that Sakona would be the best even before we'd even tried the coffee not just because it was the highest rated coffee on the Beanhunter app but I think you get some indication of how good the coffee will be by the care taken pouring the milk. Our barista poured it like he was putting the finishing touches on a work of art. And it was a piece of tasty art. We've had a couple of great coffees already on this trip, Fondation in Paris, Coffee & Kicks in Madrid, and now here in Donostia-San Sebastian at Sakona. You could make a case for it being the best so far it was that good. Strong, rich and silky smooth. I knew it was good because I was compelled to have another immediately after finishing my first. Apparently one of owners, Javier, is a multiple Spanish barista champion. I think he may have even won a world barista championship a few years ago too. Yes, with one of the world's best baristas serving your coffee you know you are in good hands. By European third wave coffee standards it was also reasonably priced - only two to three euros for an espresso con leche.
But coffee, while being a major part of breakfast, is not a complete breakfast. For that you need toast and eggs. Here the house specialty is a little bit of Japan meets Australia. 65 degree egg on smashed avocado on toast. And the 65 degree egg on avo was perfect. Another customer ordered 65 degree egg and sent it back because "it wasn't cooked". I wonder what part of 65 degree egg they don't get? The staff were as flummoxed as we were but they sent it back to the kitchen for more cooking. That is one way to ruin a perfect breakfast I suppose. They probably ordered decaf coffee too. Heathens.
After breakfast of course is lunch. We were hoping the 10 minute stroll back to the old town would build up our appetites enough to tackle lunch. I’m not sure why we settled on Senra Zaharrean? It isn’t one of the highly recommended places. Possibly we were overwhelmed with choice of pintxos on the bar? It was only a couple of doors down from our apartment so possibly proximity had something to do with it. I’m not sure if I’m talking it up or down. Essentially it wasn’t bad. If this was the worst place we’d eat in San Sebastian we were off to a good start. The range of cheap pintxos was huge and they also had small plates of delicious pan fried fois gras covered in a sweet sticky sauce. Friendly helpful staff were helpful and friendly. Senra Zaharrean is quite possibly, by San Sebastian standards, a tourist trap, but the pintxos was cheap and very good. They don’t have a website but their address is 31 de Agosto Kalea. Or in Spanish, Calle 31 de Agosto in the Casco Vieja (old town).
La Viña - Spain’s best cheesecake
Continuing our theme of not walking very far the next thing we had to have was very close and did come highly recommended. Cheesecake. Across the way, alley, street, kalea, calle from Senra is La Viña. It is also a pintxos bar but their specialty is cheesecake. It is a tiny busy bar. It was already crowded when I went in. It was too crowded for the pram. San Sebastian was having a mild day or two. I don’t know if it is always this mild in San Sebastian but it was warm enough to eat outside. We ate a couple of big cheesecake slices outside. It was a little like a New York cheesecake, a little like a Hokkaido cheesecake and 100 percent San Sebastian delicious. Very light and creamy. And delicious. We were coming to the realisation that it wasn’t only the savoury dishes in San Sebastian that were outstanding. I may have to expand my vocabulary. How many ways can you say delicious? A slice of Tarta de Queso will set you back about 5 euros. For cheesecake this good, not outrageously expensive.
We were making a pretty good attempt at having pintxos for every meal of the day but sometimes the usual staples are necessary for growing kids. Like gelato. But before the gelato we’d been shopping for breakfast pintxos to take home so we could put something in the kid’s bellies the before going out in the morning. Sadly breakfast pintxos doesn’t appear to be a thing so we went to the supermarket for milk, cereal, yogurt, cheeses and hams. The Lidl supermarket is in the basement of Mercado de la Brexta in an arcade with lots of other food shops. Cheese shops, bread shops, jamon shops. It was a veritable treasure trove of cheap good Basque produce. Maybe pintxos isn’t a breakfast thing but jamon and cheese would do in a pintxos. Upstairs and around the corner is Gelataria Boulevard. I wonder how they came up with the name Gelateria Boulevard? Anyway Gelateria Boulevard is just around the corner from La Brexta on the main Boulevard Zumardia and wasn’t bad for a sweet creamy gelato fix to get us through to the the next pintxos.
Bergara Bar was the first pintxos bar we went to in San Sebastian where you could exclaim loudly “THIS!” and “OH MY GOD, IT’S FULL OF PINTXOS!”. Internally of course. You don’t want to scare them into kicking you out. You wouldn’t want to be kicked out of heaven would you? Bergara is in the Gros neighbourhood of San Seb on the other side of the river from where old town where we were staying and well worth the trek. There were so many wonderfully varied pintxos sitting on trays on the bar. All for the taking. We were like kids in a candy store. The Huevo, egg and prawn and anchovy, on a tosta was a stand out. Literally. They stood on the bar with the tail of the prawn up beckoning to us provocatively. But all the tostas were sexy morsels of jamon or peppers or anchovy or crab. Then there were the hot pintxos which included a couple with foie gras. It was pintxos heaven. Throw in a couple of wines and txakoli it was perfect. We didn’t stumble on to Bergara by accident though. This was down to Michelle’s in depth research and our worn copy of the Michelin Guide. Bergara has been awarded with a Michelin Plate - good cooking - so if this was your only opportunity for pintxos in San Seb you’d leave making plans to visit again. But we couldn’t pig out here. There were hundreds of bars and we only had a few meals over a few days to squeeze in as many as possible. There was no way that we were going to stop at one on this fine mild evening.
After a stroll back across the river and down some of San Sebastian’s wide boulevards we went to a bar near where we were staying.
Atari Gastroteka was a busy little bar. It was chock full inside with people standing hundreds deep at the bar (may be a slight exaggeration) but we managed to snag a table near the entrance with, most importantly, a view of the chalk board menu. The board listed Clasicos, typical tapas style dishes, Pintxos, and Raciones, sharing plates of typical tapas raciones. I found a gap in the bar and shouted my order at the serious faced young man behind the bar. I wondered how he’d get our dishes to me. Or, even if he’d be able to remember which dish went to which person. But I needn’t have worried. As soon as what we ordered came out of the kitchen he nodded to me and handed them over. It is a neat trick being able to remember who ordered what. He may have been serious faced but he did look after us. I’d get the slightest of nods to acknowledge when I returned back to the bar to order more. And order more we did. Soft boiled eggs in liquid that reminded me of Japanese style 65 degree eggs, anchovies, olives and the piece de resistance, torrija con helado de vainilla. I haven't mentioned yet but some of the desserts are to die for too. Torrija con helado de vainilla is similar to French toast with a crusty sugar coating and so deeelicious. We planned to come back to Atari Gastroteka even if it was only for dessert.
After this final bar for the evening it was literally across the alley to our apartment building. Imagine having to live with a few metres of these tapas and pintxos bars?
Gawd only about 30 days left in Spain and Portugal. Already missing this...