Last day in San Sebastian

Okay, everyone, listen up! You all need to book a vacation to San Sebastian. Right now! Not only is it an amazing food town (both at the high-end Michelin starred level, but also at the pintxos level), it’s stunningly beautiful. Look at some of these shots.

The beaches are stunning…

And at least in the fall they are pretty empty!

The architecture is beautiful …

The views incredible …

This was taken up at the top of one of the peaks at the gate to the harbor…

And at night the sunsets, sky, and lights are beautiful …

I suspect the streets are more crowded at night in the summer!

Love this town!

But the visiting with Sara and Rafa wasn’t over! The day after Etxebarri we were scheduled on a late afternoon flight home to Barcelona, and Rafa said “Perfect! Lets go for lunch!”

First we took a walk on the beach. In France. Yup, San Sebastian is pretty much on the border. The girls were so shocked when I said “Welcome to France!”

There was a lovely boardwalk …

And the boys had a chance to jump onto the beach …

And then it was off to lunch at Patxikuenea Erretegia, a great country restaurant, simple and cozy and homey, serving top top notch food. As is expected of any place Sara and Rafa bring us to!

We had some killer grilled fish …

And some steaks. Ooh, some more delicious Galician steaks! We had a tour of the kitchen/asador …

And just by chance the ineffable effervescent Martine Saunier was close by – she joined us for lunch, with her two friends Marie and Jean-Jacques!

Then we had to race off to the airport to go home. Let me be clear with how close we cut this. We were eating dessert 45 minutes before the flight was due to take off! But Rafa kept reassuring us, “Don’t worry don’t worry, you’ll make it. And if you don’t, how bad would one more night in San Sebastian be!?

The airport only has 10-15 flights a day, really just to Madrid and Barcelona. When we got there the desk was closed and we didn’t have boarding passes. Somehow we conned our way through security without boarding passes! Then we got to the gate and were admonished that we were way way late and the doors were about to close. We were so late that these were our boarding passes!

We got on the plane, with our girls fully relieved! They were shooting us dagger-eyes when we had ordered espresso to go with our dessert 40 minutes before! Then the plane sat there for a few minutes, I guess as the crew was readying the plane. Noticing no activity, Melinda leaned over and said “See, we could have stayed at lunch a little longer.” Ha!!

What a trip to San Sebastian. A whirlwind of food and drinks and sightseeing and time with our new friends Sara and Rafa! Can’t wait to go back!

 

Asador Etxebarri!

The real excuse for us to come to San Sebastian with Sara and Jim and the clan was to go to one of the most famous restaurants in the world – Asador Etxebarri. Somehow Sara had managed to secure a reservation, which is seriously one of the most difficult ones to get anywhere. Seriously, anywhere. We jumped on the chance to go.

After our big day with Sara and Rafa the day before, I needed a bit more “exercise”, this time I called it Heine-walls …

And we needed a bit of a walk down the beautiful San Sebastian beach …

… on the way to, yup, even more glorious food! This time at Bodega Donostiarra, another recommendation from Rafa …

… where we snacked on great food like this pig snout dish. God, it was sooooo good.

But we didn’t want to stuff ourselves because we wanted to save ourselves for the main event – Etxebarri!!!

Arriving at Etxebarri was a bit of a surprise. We had heard it was a simple farmhouse but it was really really simple. But that was just the downstairs “bar” entryway. Once we got upstairs it was super elegant and beautiful, just like us!  😉

We had a lovely greeting and evening from the wine director, Agusti. He had real fun with us, knowing we were wine people, and brought out some killer rare Spanish wines.

We sipped some champagne while perusing the tasting menu …

Then the games began! I won’t post a picture of every single dish, but rather just the highlights.

Like the anchovy on toasted bread …

And the chlamys varia …

And an etheral squid. It was just a baby squid. We’ve all had squid in our life, often just chewy flavorless rings dipped in batter and deep fried. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some fried calamari (especially the baby ones at Cal Pep in Barcelona!), but this was say different. Super simply prepared, touched with heat over charcoal and served unadorned, except for some squid ink. The texture was perfect, the taste pure and powerful, unlike any other squid I’ve ever had.

And then gambas rojas from the Mediterranean!

There is a method to eating these. First you break off the head, gently and upside down so as to preserve the liquid inside. Then you tilt the head into your mouth and suck out all the goodness. It tastes like truffles! Then you attack the bodies. I have to include an “after” shot here. Down to bones! I’ll never be able to eat another crappy Thai/Vietnamese shrimp again, and may not even be able to eat another great South Carolina one again even! These were so damn good.


But the two highlights were the anguiles and the steak. Two ultra ultra simple preparations, that could only be made to that quality with the utmost of care and attention to, well, pretty much everything.

The anguiles are tiny little eels, a super rarity, especially fresh like these were, just touched with heat over charcoal. A super delicate flavor, fresh from the water but also with some earthy character. Oh god, I’ll never forget these.

And then there was the steak. Ooh, the steak! I’ve always thought the best beef came from the USA, but after this steak, I totally agree the best steak comes from Galicia!

But the level of detail chef put into this is crazy. First he determined the best beef comes from Galicia, then he had to find out which breed he wants. Then he had to find a farmer who raises that breed the way he wants it to be raised. Also to get it slaughtered and butchered to his desires. Then to age it just the right amount of time for that cow. And then to determine which of the multitude of choices of wood he wants to cook it over. Then to figure out what is the best temperature for cooking of that piece of beef, and for how long. The result is this glorious glorious piece of beef. Amazing.

The dessert courses weren’t the highlight unfortunately, except for this beautiful reduced ice cream with beet. Two unlikely flavors to go together, but it worked so so well.

So what did we think of the experience? Well, I’ve always thought that a good sign is if the diners talk about the meal on the way home afterwards, which we did. We also talked about it the next day. And later that week too. Part of it was we were trying to understand it. What did it all mean? What was this restaurant really about? Well, here’s my take.

Many restaurants try to source the best ingredients and cook them simply and try to get the most pure flavour out of each ingredient. Think Chez Panisse. You could also even think of the top molecular places in a similar way – while they might not be simply prepared, they are trying to coax out as much pure flavour as they can from each ingredient.

Etxebarri is different. The dishes are indeed very simple, often with a very small number of ingredients (i.e. the eels were made with just eels and smoke). But I think chef is doing something different. I think he’s trying to take away ingredients, rather than just use a small number. Think of it like the modern art of the 1950s, where artists reduced the canvas to simple colours, or just one colour, or a single straight line. They weren’t making that art that way because they didn’t want to put more on the canvas. Rather they removed everything else they thought that would interfere. I think Etxebarri is doing the same thing. They are taking the best, I mean absolute best, quality ingredients and then making sure they take away every possible option that would not emphasize that single quality ingredient. Sometimes that means taking away alot, and sometimes it means taking away only a little.

Anyway, that’s my take on the place. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Stunning food, great wines, beautiful company! Thanks for making the reservation, Sara!

 

 

 

San Sebastian!

The highlight of the visit from Sara and Jim and family was a trip to San Sebastian, which we planned not just because it’s an awesome city with a crazy food and booze culture, but also because Sara had secured an impossible beyond crazy reservation at Asador Etxebarri! Yes, more of that later.

But first we had to catch a flight to San Sebastian, just an hour away. Obligatory airport beer selfie …

We landed, dropped our stuff at our awesome apartment rental and jumped head first into pintxo land!

A quick bite (though not a small amount!) later we crashed into bed and woke to a fantastic view from the apartment we rented …

Always good to do a little exercise while enjoying the gastronomic riches of a place like San Sebastian, but we’re an efficient group so we multi-tasked and did some exploration of the local Txakolina wine. We call these “Wall Txakies” …

But enough of the hard exercise! It was time to go meet our friends Sara and Rafael for the fantastic day they had planned for us.

A brief aside, one of a couple in this post. One of the fantastic things we have experienced here in our adventure in Spain has been the lovely friendliness and hospitality of the Spanish people we have met. Sara and Rafa epitomize that experience we have had. We met them while they were on vacation in San Francisco and had rented the apartment above our garage. I saw the Spanish name on the reservation, did a little to confirm they were from Spain, and since we had just decided to move to Barcelona, invited them over for a glass of wine at our house while they were visiting SF. From that one brief time together (where I must say we just peppered them with a million questions about Spain!) they invited us to see them in San Sebastian once we had moved. Well, we didn’t just go out for a drink with them. They had a huge multi-day experience planned for us and hosted by them! Two of the most hospitable people we have ever met, two people we are so happy to now call friends!

So what did Rafa have planned for us that first day? Well, Rafa is a member of a Txoko, a Basque gastronomic society. I’ve never heard of clubs like this outside of Basque country, and have always wanted to experience one. Rafa is a member of one of most famous ones – Gaztelubide.

Another brief aside. Txokos are gastronomic societies. They’re places with professional kitchens where members prepare meals for a smallish (i.e. 2-20) group of invited guests, often just a crowd of other members. But they could also be cooking for friends and family. They don’t mess around – these are serious meals, multi-course, prepared by serious non-professional cooks, with the absolute best ingredients. Take a look at this plating, which was de rigeur for what we saw that day …

But it’s also important to note that Txokos are “mens clubs”, and in the past women weren’t even allowed in the door.

Now most clubs allow women to be guests, though women are still not allowed in the kitchens. At Gaztelubide, women were allowed as guests, though not Monday through Thursday at dinner time.  Rafa told us that he sees progress towards equality continuing and feels eventually all Txokos will have equal standing for both sexes, both as diners and as cooks. In time.

We’ve been fortunate to have two strong feminist teenagers in our house (in addition to us “grown-up” feminists!), and, um, they took some exception to this exclusion! Emma broke down and cried after not being allowed in the kitchen. Alexis was a bit more stoic in her disapproval. We didn’t have the heart to tell them that we are heading to parts of the Middle East at Christmas where they may be obligated to cover their hair!

But back to the experience of the day.

We met Rafa at a very cool locals pintxos place called Antonio Bar …

… had a beer and a quick bite from their beautiful selection of mouth-watering pintxos …

… then it was time to start shopping for food for lunch, starting with some local cheeses ….

… then onto the local fish monger …

… where amongst the treats was some barnacles! I’ve always wanted to try these. Turns out they are outrageously good!

Then after a quick stop at the market for some vegetables …

… it was on to the Txoko to start cooking! The kitchens are serious profession set-ups, filled with men passionate about cooking.

Rafa got me going on the technically difficult, and labor intensive, preparation of the pil-pil, this one made with the jowls from hake.

But it wasn’t “labor” really, as the first action was to open some Txakoli! We had a good time cooking, don’t you worry!

Here’s how lovely the hake pil pil turned out. Near perfect emulsion …

And here’s a shot of Rafa portioning up the heavenly monkfish (pun intended). I love how the picture has Sara pointing her instructions – women may not be allowed in the kitchen, but they can still make their opinion heard!

A truly fantastic meal, a unforgettable lifetime-dream experience to eat in a Txoko, and made especially great with two such great hosts.

But that wasn’t the end of the activities for the day they had planned for us!

After a quick visit to the merry-go-round so the kids could let loose a bit …

… we let the kids head home, and Rafa took for a pintxos-crawl!

After stopping by Antonio Bar again for a couple warm-ups…

… then we headed over to Bar La Espiga …

Where we kicked it up a notch with some GinTonics …

… before finishing the gastronomic day off well with some tripas …

… and some veal brains …

Melinda had a small bite of the brains, and I replied with “Viente años, vaca loco!” Might as well go down with mad-cow together!

An incredible day, one I’ll never forget! Thanks so much to the hospitality of Spanish, of the Basque, and in particular of Sara and Rafa!

(But their hospitality was not complete! More to come!)