I was pleasantly caught off guard by the beach in San Sebastián. The nearby surf culture added a fun twist to the scene. With the combination of Euro-city life and gastronomic magic, the beach-vibes were just icing on the cake. Four and a half days in Basque Country meant Robin and I were adventurers by day and lushy-foodies by night. Soon enough, we familiarized ourselves with the coast line and Café de la Concha made the “must do list”. They stole our hearts with their white façade and blindingly red flower boxes. Plus who doesn’t love eating in a café with a view?
Much like every other bar in San Sebastián , you walk in and you’re tempted by all of the delicious pintxos sitting on the counter. As an American it’s a hard to wrap your mind around the concept of pintxos. The fact that there’s food sitting on a counter for undetermined periods of time can raise some eyebrows. It’s natural to be curious about health and safety and whether or not they can actually stay fresh. The science behind the demand and supply must be genius as they seem to move pretty fast. Café de la Concha is a pristine little eating venue with pintxos to match. They were visually uncomplicated and cheerful just like the restaurant.
It was early in the morning and egg based pintxos made it feel like we were actually having a proper brunch. We sat outside on the terrace (of course). I couldn’t get over the amazing view! There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and I was really enjoying this until the worst thing happened. Sunscreen began to leave my face and started to seep right into my eyes. They were burning for a good forty five minutes and I couldn’t see a thing. I ventured to the bathroom twice in attempt to flush them out. #byebyemakeup #saddestpintxoeaterever
Nonetheless, I powered through my pain. I’m still convinced the two of us would have gone home morbidly obese if we hadn’t shared all of that “pintx-ing”. After the burning stopped, we ordered a couple of O.J.’s and dug in.
The pintxo on the left had a crab salad on baguette topped with a very fresh shrimp. The pintxo to the right had layered anchovy topped with a deviled egg (yolk whipped with mayonnaise) and last skewered with another shrimp and olive. Of course the O.J. was freshly squeezed… Would you expect any less?
Fresh O.J. + Pintxos + Sunny times on the beach would make anyone jump for joy.
Did I mention how great the view was?
The rest of the afternoon would entail a lot of this.
San Sebastián is no stranger to Michelin stars and fine dining. It’s home to some of the top restaurants in the world. One might find it easier to pace themselves financially by living off pintxos for the majority of their travels in order to save their wallet for the big ticket items. It’s so important to experience these sought after restaurants as the highlight of a well rounded trip to San Sebastián. Unless of course you are a baller, than ball away! One could have Michelin dining for breakfast lunch and dinner! (Sadly, their insides may begin to hurt.)
Akelare (which I’ve seen spelled two ways) was awarded three stars for a reason. The minimalist and drab interior décor is clearly not one of them. The sign might have been the best thing about the branding, yet such bold font would have warranted a bolder interior (I’d think). In its defense, I only experienced the restaurant after sundown. I imagine the bay would have a huge affect on the interior with a glorious panoramic view. Drab décor may have its own purpose anyhow…It could help one really concentrate on the task at hand (EATING).
What happens at Akelare?
As it turned out, this would be one of the many times that my friend Robin would be celebrating the 9th anniversary of her 21st year. I was happy to celebrate her as many times as it would take, if it meant consuming free alcohol and food. This particular observation of her birth would be preceded by a trifold menu offering three different combinations of set menus to choose from. It was a challenge because much like anything else in life, going with one meant having dish-envy for giving up the other. I decided on the “Bekarki”.
Granted, this adventure is coming up on its one year anniversary now, I am going to tell you about my stories anyway. It all started out with amazing bread.
Then truffle-like savory bits arrived on creatively shaped plates. One of the amuse bouche “experiences” was a bite that closely resembled an olive. It was actually a savory anchovy cream encased in olive jelly. This was the second “olive” I’d been duped by in Spain. The first time was in Barcelona Albert Adria’s restaurant Bodega 1900.
Let’s Get Down To Business:
It was nearly impossible to capture every single wine we had properly. I felt a bit shy taking a lot of photos in this serious environment. Soverribas was one of the first wines paired by our sommelier. This white wine from Galicia, is one of seven low production Albariños. They are produced with grapes from 35 year old vines which are fermented with their own yeast in French Oak vats. The wine has been described as “Atlantic sea influenced” which is way too fancy for me. I will get on board with the aniseed notes and salty finish. I felt pretty special to be enjoying one of the 1,294 bottles produced.
(Pictured Above: Prawns and Green Beans cooked in “Orujo” Flame)
Akelare did a really nice job at incorporating loads of Spanish ingredients that made this meal delicious and educational. This course was prepared using a local pomace brandy made from the distillation of grape residue left after the initial press. While it was incredibly exotic to me, it did not travel very far to make it on to our plate that evening. These shrimps were lit on fire in the middle of the dining room. A little bit of hibachi action added to the atmosphere and produced translucent prawns that were succulent with hints of smokiness from the flame.
(Pictured Above: White Beans and Roasted Pipparas, not Conventional at all)
I love that the menu mentions this plate is “not conventional at all”. The piparras are traditional peppers of the Basque region that tend to be a yellowish-green color with an elongated shape. The flavor is on the mildly-spicy side with a hint of sweetness and is often found on the famous “Gilda” pintxo. Here it was, in all its glory, roasted and served with white beans to add to the loooooooooooooong-list of vegetation consumed in San Sebastián. (sarcasm)
(Pictured Above: Soufleed Kokotxa, White Garlic Pil-Pil)
Holy rice crackers! Finally a little more excitement made its way to the table. Stacked and piled high, was a plate full of souffléed kokotxa and white garlic Pil-Pil. I could barely see Robin! After the flattened pepper it was nice to see a plate with dimension across the board!
(Pictured Above: Hake in seaweed steam. Plancton and oyster leaf)
I could tell before I took a bite of this hake that it was special. The flesh had a dewy glow and the seaweed steam only enhanced the flavor. The plankton pearls brought me right back to the fourth grade when I’d buy Dippin’ Dots at Great Adventure theme park. On a serious note, our wine was thoughtfully paired with this course in particular. Sometimes there is an appropriate collision on the tongue and it’s true magic.
In the midst of all this culinary-bliss, I couldn’t help but glance out the window. I was caught off guard by two itty-bitty flickering lights reflecting off the water’s surface. It turned out, that the very fish on my plate had been caught on that boat. Talk about “sea to table” cuisine!
(Pictured Above: Squid as a Risotto)
Naturally one would assume this was actually risotto. It takes some serious skills to take squid and cut it down to the exact shape of a grain with the same exact consistency. The fact that it was black probably made it more believable, as if it had absorbed the color of the sauce. It possessed a slight chewiness and got stuck in your molars the same way rice would. I was thoroughly impressed by the texture!
(Pictured Above: Butter Flower to accompany the Squid Risotto)
The rose-shaped butter was presented as an accompaniment to our “risotto”. It arrived on a side plate and we were instructed to mix it into the squid. I found the detailing of this butter-flower most intriguing because it looked like it was hand painted up close. The petals were very dainty and the flower made for a presentation that was playful and twee!
(Pictured Above: Schiste)
For this next course, our wine brought us to France from the Domaine des Ardoisieres on the Swiss border. The Schiste 2014 is an organic white wine with delicate fruity and floral notes with a subtle minerality to the finish. I always find that organic white wines seem to have a slight effervescence to them.
(Pictured Above: Grilled Iberic “Presa” with pepper seeds and garlic in three different versions)
The plate was dressed with red pepper juice and roasted pork slices were elegantly fanned over a leaf. This would be another meal lacking in any vegetation but packed full of intense flavors. Soon we’d be calling for a toothbrush with neighboring garlic bits prepared different ways. The most unique piece was coated with charcoal dust and had the concentrated flavor of an entire clove in one bite. (I tried to get a little taste of everything in each forkful and washed it down with the perfect sip of wine in efforts to savor this very special moment.)
Finally it was time for our dessert wine! It was nice to see a red wine arrive with a hypnotizing cherry color. For saying it is not aged in any wooden barrels, it possessed a lot of body with hints of figs and ripe fruits.
(Pictured Above: The Melting Cupcake)
The cake was made with yogurt foam, filled with coffee and chestnut as well as some grapefruit. I was underwhelmed. I think I hoped it would resemble an actual cupcake.
Last but not least, the dessert you will see all over the interwebs…The Akelare-branded wrapper over the Napoleon-like mass. It was all edible (of course) and in spite of it looking like plastic it tasted very much like apple! The pastry was tucked away underneath this shiny blanket and filled with an apple flavored custard. Do do do do do…
(Pictured Above: We got to serenade Robin at Akelare too.) This wasn’t about to get old. All of San Sebastian was going to know that Robin was now 30 years old if we could help it.
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It was a gorgeous afternoon in San Sebastián spent shopping and meandering bars while plucking pintxos off counters and sipping delightful Txakoli. The sky couldn’t have been clearer so we took loads of great photos throughout the day. Eventually we had “shopped until we dropped” and decided it was time for another refreshment pit-stop. Casa Vallés was next on the map since it was super close and a whole two hours since we last ate. We decided to poke our heads in for a gander.
Bar Vallés opened in 1942. It gives off that impression with history exuding from the wood paneled walls and ham hocks hung dripping from the rustic iron rails. It was the exact opposite experience of where we had our first pintxos earlier that day. Here we had a very traditional menu and much less-modern décor.
I appreciated the step back into “old-school Basque-vibes”. We arrived at an odd time of day which allowed for quicker “pint-xing” since the dining area was completely empty. With all of the sunshine there was no way we could sit inside an empty restaurant. Sidewalk seating it was! There was a bit of scaffolding around us, but otherwise we had a great view of the square from their café section.
Menus were already provided at the table (pictured below). Pintxos are great for sharing (or not) and with friendly price points of 2-5 euros each, one could easily go crazy. You’d explode and maybe rupture something before that, but grazing around town is a very reasonably-priced activity for all.
It was nice to have a pintxo where the bread wasn’t part of the composition but rather an “optional” accompaniment. Tortilla de bacalao (pictured on top) was a tortilla made of salted cod, eggs, onions, green peppers, garlic and parsley. It was nice and moist. Merluza Romana (pictured below) is made up of hake (not cod). A lemon is provided to squeeze on top for a citrusy “zing” that cuts the grease nicely. I liked the denseness and consistency of the skin that formed on the outside. Both of these tortillas screamed BRUNCH to my NYC foodie-mind.
On the way back to our hostel we stumbled into another bar that was part of Robin’s hit-list called “Bar Izaraitz”. We looked at eachother and figured one more pintxo couldn’t possibly hurt before dinner.
What do you think happened? We went ahead and ordered a “Gilda’ (pictured below). It was part of our “SS -homework” and helped us feel like we were getting vegetables into our diet…You know vegetables like pickled peppers, salt cured anchovies and green olives on a tooth pick. If I could have it my way, I’d get all of my vegetables into my system like this. I have such a savory palette that I’m basically a walking ball of sodium.
Evidently this pintxo is a big deal around these parts. It’s named after the actress Rita Hayworth who played Gilda in the film produced in 1946. Like much of the other interesting pronunciation in the Basque region, the “Gilda” is pronounced “Hilda” locally. (Txa-txa-txa!)
Day one in “SS” already had us acquainted with the city and our map reminded us that we would have to spread out our pin-txing in order to avoid a trip to the vomitorium. With some fancy foodies ahead, we would have to curb ourselves until well after sundown…What to do? Where would Robin and Jenzie “pinch” next? Or who would they “pintx” next? Stay tuned to find out in the next post of Jenzie In The City!
I landed in San Sebastián early in the morning. I was so excited to see a new city in Spain and optimistic I’d have better fun-luck there. The sight was unforgettable as I looked out the window of my plane. I was entering a romantic painting of moody overcast skies, loads of lush greenery surrounding a body of water with a small boat docked and waiting for its owner. Donostia-airport was quaint, clean and civilized much like the entire city of “SS”. Finally, the moment where I’d find out what all that “Donosti-buzz” was about. Welcome to Basque Country!
I retrieved my bag and waited curiously for another airport bus to take me to center city. There were limited taxis and the majority of people were bus-bound which was reassuring. After about an hour of highway driving, we seemed to approach a bustling area. The architecture appeared to be French-Influenced and the vibe was Monaco meets Barcelona (if I had to describe it). When I passed the Hotel Maria Christina I got a little excited inside. I had been scoping out pictures of this hotel for weeks. Sadly, I wouldn’t be sleeping there this time around.
My phone died just in the nick of time. Luckily I had a Spanish SIM when I got off the bus and GPS came in handy to find my new home for the week. My room wasn’t ready yet which left me with some time-to-kill. I decided to explore the vicinity and soon located a lovely café in the middle of a sunny square. I sat for some tortilla and coffee while I charged (my mind and my phone) in a convenient outdoor-socket. The view was blocked by trucks stocking all of the surrounding cafés with their precious pintxos ingredients.
I made sure to keep an eye on the time since my friend Robin was driving into town shortly. I was silently praying that she might be at least an hour late so I could snooze. Thankfully my wish was granted!
I returned to Pension Edorta which is located on Puerto street in the “Old Town” and very close to the shoreline. It was nice to be right in the center of anything that mattered for the week.
The close beach proximity allowed us to incorporate some evening jogging and a hike in the park to see Jesus at Monte Urgull for some pintxos burning “sports”…
There was also some yoga.
Our Inn-keeper was the sweetest most helpful man ever! Our rooms were super clean and totally decent for the wopping 50 euros per night. It was going to be intimate sleeping quarters for the next 4.5 days, but who was counting?
We were conveniently located right next to Iglesia de Santa Maria and what would soon become our most favorite “pintxos-eria”…
The name is Atari Gastroteka!
After all the pintxos I took down in San Sebastián, these were the MOST memorable. Besides delicious food, there was something really special about the ambiance in this restaurant. The way the light came through the windows and the close proximity to the cathedral was magical. It was high energy and the pintxos that sat lining the bar looked so fresh and decadent they could make your mouth drool upon first glance. No pintxos were left un-pinched at Atari. The plates kept coming and coming with new and interesting treats to admire. (Note: Some pintxos at other bars could get a little stale!)
For an early afternoon visit, the place was already slammed. They have outdoor seating and indoor tables, but we struggled to find standing room at the bar. We were greeted and offered menus, but who could bother reading with trays of enticing pintxos staring them in the face? It seemed like Atari operated on a pintxos-honor system…Take what you want and fess up to it later.
Anyone that actually follows my blog might remember Robin from my trip to Charleston in 2014. Both Robin and I can talk a lot. While we were at Atari we were very quiet. There was way too much chewing going on. (There was also pointing, some non-descriptive grunting language, more chewing and pointing and grabbing of pintxos (repeat).
Pintxos Photos at Atari (So you get the idea):
1- This was a trio shared plate.
2- Pintxos of jamon with chutney and feta on a whole grain croissant.
3- Brie with chutney and jamon.
To think that this was just a warm up. There were so many pintxos ahead of us and we were already full! It was time to set out and discover San Sebastián with distended bellies and our map in hand.