Archives for posts with tag: San Sebastian
The old town

The old town

San Sebastian has been on my list of food places to visit for some time. I wanted to go with a few of us so that we could really do justice to the pintxos and last week that came to fruition.

The first thing that struck me was just how beautiful the city is, with impressive architecture, a river running through it and two magnificent beaches embracing the northern parts of the city. There is a vibrant energy and happiness about the place which I put down to the great food, drink and lifestyle. People openly embrace, hold hands when walking together and at times burst into spontaneous song. It is easy to get swept up in the optimism and enjoyment of life here.

Saturday lunchtime in the old town - spot the youth orchestra singing and dancing in the street!

Saturday lunchtime in the old town – spot the youth orchestra singing and dancing in the street!

I am told that the Basque people are an honest straight forward food loving lot and I guess that’s why I feel at home almost immediately. Don’t get me wrong, it is rowdy and rambunctious at times and there is the Mediterranean spirit flowing through that can intimidate a reserved Brit like me, but there is a central heart of happiness here that I love.

A typical bar of pintxos

A typical bar of pintxos

The pintxos experience is one that everyone must try and at first it is a little strange. You go into a bar that is resplendent with plates of food. There are no health and safety legalities here – everything is out there for as long as it is out there, uncovered and ready to be eaten. You ask for a plate, take what you want and there you have it. When it needs heating up it will be taken from you and returned microwaved and ready.  When you order specials from the menu they are speedily returned from what seems to be the teeniest of kitchens piping hot and glistening. Everything has to be washed down with a drink.

Pouring the perfect txakoli

Pouring the perfect txakoli

The local speciality is txakoli which is a very young white wine, poured from a heady height to encourage the sparkling character to fizz in the glass.

What amazes us is just how adept the bar staff are of keeping track of what you order. There is no need to pay at the time. You just add on more and more things and somehow they know what your bill is at the end. There is an air of trust because the Basque people would not dream of taking advantage or lying about what they owe. They are such straight up people. So it leaves you feeling free and trusted to embrace the food & drink and just take in the experience. It is loud, it is bustling and it is most definitely infectious.

Mushrooms at Ganbara (order the hongos con yema: mushrooms with egg yolk

Mushrooms at Ganbara (order the hongos con yema: mushrooms with egg yolk)

Another busy night at Bar Zeruko

Another busy night at Bar Zeruko

Knowing which bars to go to is an art in itself. Some places specialise in mushrooms (Ganbara) and others in steak (Gandarias) and of course prawns or gambas are widely featured whilst the modern molecular gastronomy is showcased at its best in Bar Zeruko. Then again the very traditional dishes served only to order from a blackboard at Bar Borda Berri were some of the best we had.

La Vina cheesecake

La Vina cheesecake

And you really do have to try the cheesecake at La Vina. I don’t think it is as delicious as my Mum’s but that’s not the point. They are generous in their portion, so sharing is most definitely recommended and that caramelised crust is yum.

If in doubt, the guys at San Sebastian Food in the impressive Hotel Maria Cristina are well versed in the right place for the right thing and their interest and passion shows through as they genuinely want you to enjoy their city and the food as much as they do. There is also an impressive shop full of locally sourced treats to take home.

Prawn & Egg the Bergara way

Prawn & Egg the Bergara way

A little off the beaten track over in the Gros area is Bergara which is not particularly well publicised in any of the articles that you see but is most definitely a choice for the locals (maybe they want it as their secret). This side is less well explored but everywhere we tried we enjoyed and this is where the Gintoneria lives, so what’s not to like?

You most definitely won’t starve in this city and I will forever marvel at the fact that food which stands on a bar and is then microwaved for your delectation can be such a fabulous food experience. But it just goes to show that simplicity and atmosphere can account for so much when you are enjoying a meal out. Get on a plane and fly here for a long weekend. It is so ideal and I will most definitely be coming back.

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We are definitely spoilt for choice in London for new restaurants. A new opening is a weekly occurrence. Sadly there are many more failures than successes and my list of potential places to visit gets edited down somewhat frequently. It used to be that I would bound along with fresh enthusiasm but years of disappointment makes me far more cynical these days.

Last year it was Dabbous that caught my eye but I got bored trying to get a table so it is still on the list, but could be there for some time. The reviews can’t all be wrong, so I will get there at some point. Mind you, I also fancied Dach & Sons – a hotdog and cocktails place that opened less than a year ago near me. When I finally found a suitably young & hip companion to take there, it had shut! They put it down to failure to generate the right volume of trade…a sad reality of starting up in this highly competitive city.

This year, I had two front runners on my ever expanding list: Ametsa and Restaurant Story.

Ametsa restaurant

Ametsa appealed because I also have San Sebastian, and of course Arzak, well up on my travel list (I know – all these lists!). So when the mountain and chef mohammed were coming to London it seemed too good to be true. I researched and chased and hung on in the phone queue as is normally required in these circumstances, and secured a table soon after opening. Experience tells me never to go week one as it is generally being bedded in and you can also catch up on the restaurant critics and reviewers before you go. In Ametsa’s case, it kind of dived: pretentious name (Ametsa with Arzak Instruction); the room was over designed with no sense of warmth or reality and the set menu at £105 or £145 with wine just seemed extortionate when you consider what wonderfulness you can get in these frugal days for a quarter of that. My friends and I declined. So it’s on the list, but I would, as Marina O’Loughlin says, rather spend the money on going to San Sebastian.

Restaurant Story

Restaurant Story is at the other Dabbous-end of the new restaurant scale. Tom Sellers is one of those new chefs, like Ollie Dabbous, who has risen through the teachings of great chefs and restaurants. In Tom’s case, he worked with Tom Aikens and Adam Byatt here in the UK as well as at Noma and Per Se abroad. Not a bad resume for a boy from Nottingham who started out aged 16 as a pot wash in a pub. Now aged 26 he has opened his first stand alone restaurant in an old Bermondsey toilet block, near Tower Bridge. I followed chef Tom on Twitter and subscribed to his website to try and get in on the table bookings, knowing how these things go. Even though subscribers were allowed to ring a day in advance of the official opening for bookings, it still took me 4 hours to get through. Still, a table was booked and this weekend we embarked on the tale.

restaurant story

I fear that when a place has the kind of hype that this one does, it can only fail to deliver and the concept was already feeling a little over-worked culminating in their request for you to bring a book to the place. Thankfully all remnants of the toilet block are well and truly gone and the designers have taken the whole Story idea into all elements with leather bound banisters, a bespoke bookcase for said books and an old copy of a Dickens classic centre table when you arrive.  My fear of pretension was only accentuated when our rather over-keen waiter announced as we sat down: “welcome …I hope you are ready to have the best meal of your life”. Hmm. These guys needed a chill pill.

Thankfully the skill of a good chef can’t be put down and the meal was interesting and enjoyable. There have been reviews on a poor and overpriced wine list, but my Spanish friend Pilar found a lovely Galician white which was reasonable and the perfect accompaniment to the first six of our ten course taster. And the food was really well made. There were ingredients and flavours which I have never had which seemed to nod to the Noma influence and there were dishes that I really loved.

The signature beef dripping candle

The signature beef dripping candle

Right up there was the rye bread served with the now well documented beef dripping candle but more importantly with a beautiful sharp/sweet side of perfectly cut veal tongue chunks, with celery, spring onion and jellied cubes of chicken consomme which we demolished. We also loved the pre dinner snack of polenta coated rabbit croquettes with the most wonderful depth of tarragon.

crispy cod skin appetiser

crispy cod skin pre dinner amuse bouche

More pre dinner tasters: radish with seaweed butter and stuffed nasturtium flower

more pre dinner tasters: radish with seaweed butter and stuffed nasturtium flower

the lovely rabbit croquettes

the lovely rabbit croquettes

Burnt onions in gin, apple and thyme jus

burnt onions in gin, apple and thyme jus

Scallop ceviche with cucumber balls, some covered in dill ash

scallop ‘ceviche’ with cucumber balls, some covered in dill ash, horseradish cream and nasturtium leaves

Mackerel with mermaid's hair (seaweed) and slices of almost raw strawberry

mackerel with mermaid’s hair (seaweed) and slices of almost raw strawberry

Buttery buttery mash with asparagus, grass and coal emulsion

buttery buttery mash with asparagus, grass and coal emulsion

sweet rich beetroot and raspberry with a subtle horseradish snow

sweet rich beetroot and raspberry with a subtle horseradish snow

My least favourite lamb with wild garlic, salad leaves and sheep yogurt

my least favourite lamb with wild garlic, salad leaves and sheep yogurt

Finally the desserts. ‘Lemon’ really was a celebration of this wonderful citrus and an overwhelming favourite of the table. Tea infused prunes with lovage ice cream was interesting and the signature three bear’s porridge … well we loved the serving dishes, got confused because the too salty, too sweet and just right on the card didn’t match the order served but generally would have preferred something more classically desserty. I always feel cheated if there isn’t something with chocolate or caramel in my desserts.

our favourite 'lemon'

our favourite ‘lemon’

Earl Grey infused prunes with lovage ice cream and milk skin

Earl Grey infused prunes with lovage ice cream and milk skin

three bear's porridge: too salty, too sweet and just right (actually I preferred the too sweet, but hey ho)

three bear’s porridge: too salty, too sweet and just right (actually I preferred the too sweet, but hey ho)

Overall we enjoyed, savoured and at times kind of wondered about some things but we were all glad we went. There is no doubt that each plate, carefully chosen in its own right, was truly beautiful and really well made.

Was it memorable? It wasn’t in the league of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Koffmann’s, Pot Luck Club or Bazaar at the SLS, but it was a lovely evening and a restaurant that I am sure will grow and grow as it matures.