Troy Hightower


Bar Nestor

Bar Nestor is a San Sebastián phenomenon. A tiny old space on Arrandegi Kalea in the heart of the parte vieja, it attracts locals and visitors from afar, not for pintxos, but for a super limited menu of jamon, chorizo, cheese, and the main event—huge chops of chuleton de vaca vieja. Thick, caveman-sized rib steaks cut from old cows, accompanied by chopped tomatoes in salt and olive oil, and fried pimientos de Guernica. In addition, they do two, only, tortilla Espanolas per day—one at 1 pm and one at 8 pm, each providing a couple dozen portions. Their card indicates the place is “simpatico and amabilidad”—a friendly, welcoming place—and it’s most accurate.

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San Sebastián Update

An hour from Bilbao airport, the taxi arrives in Sebastián  and drops us at Legazpi Doce Suites, a small suites  hotel just outside the old quarter. Legazpi offers a well located—and priced—option to call home during an update visit to Donostia, as  San Sebastián is called in the local Basque language. We have 402, a one-bedroom corner suite with two balconies, one opening onto Gipuzkoa park with a distant view of the bay. Well-furnished, great bathroom, tiny efficiency kitchen and food-themed photos covering the walls. We’re a block from the parte viejo, whose winding medieval streets house so many great restaurants and pintxos bars. And so we commence four days of relaxing, wandering and sampling the wares of one of the world’s food capitals. There are said to be more Michelin stars in this town than any other—18 in total—with famous names such as Arzak, Mugaritz, Akelarre, Berasatagui, Kokotxa and more. But this visit is not about fancy, expensive, three-hour molecular gastronomy. San Sebastián for us is pintxos bars and local food. We were last here five years ago, and it’s time for an update.

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The Great River Race

On a short unplanned stopover in London, we discover ourselvesA at the crest of the Chelsea Bridge squinting up the River Thames into the distance. While looking around Google maps, I had noticed a thick dotted blue line in the middle of the River, and discovered that this clear, sunny September Saturday was the date for the annual Great River Race.....a spectacular 21.6 mile rowing race sometimes billed as London’s other marathon.

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Pan Asian in Puerto Vallarta

I doubt that many tourists think in an Asian cuisine direction while beaching in the sun—but then again, there isn’t that much of it available in Puerto Vallarta.

When introducing herself to readers in early 2019, the new SF Chronicle restaurant critic, Soleil Ho tells of having recently opened, with her mother, a small eatery in the hills above PV centered on Vietnamese and other Asian small plates: Bonito Kitchen. The name was chosen, according to Ho, “because it both means  ‘beautiful’ in Spanish, and is the name of one of the most important fish in Japanese cuisine.”

When we find ourselves on a short break from NorCal rain and gloomy cloud—to Puerto Vallarta—that April, naturally we have to check it out. A 15-minute cab ride up and over the top, Bonito is situated in the outlying Jardines de las Gaviotas neighborhood above the center of town, in a low nondescript building. There is seating for maybe 18 diners inside, and another 16 or so on an adjacent terrace covered in bougainvillea and trumpet vine. A sort of free standing shack at the corner of the terrace houses the bar.

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North Sea Cuisine


New Nordic Cuisine was introduced as a concept several years ago by Rene Redzepi and Claus Meyer with the restaurant noma. Seasonal and locally foraged and sourced ingredients; traditional regional cooking methods (smoking, curing, open-wood fires) and innovative and creative combinations define the style. We’ve tried Baltic versions in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania; Scandinavian in Finland, and Norway; and on a recent trip, had some great dining experiences in Copenhagen, Denmark and Malmö, Sweden.


The restaurant in our hotel, 71Nyhavn in Copenhagen is called sea by Kiin Kiin—part of a restaurant group whose flagship Kiin Kiin has a Michelin star. It is Thaï influenced Nordic cuisine and very creative. The cocktail list features gin, and runs to 30 or so varieties. We try a Copenhagen London Dry gin and tonic, and a house Osaka martini with sake in lieu of vermouth, garnished with a bit of cured plum to kick off our visit.

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Empirical Spirits

On our first visit to Bastard Restaurant in Malmö, Sweden we had learned about some interesting distillates produced by a new company called Empirical Sprits. We returned to the restaurant the next evening, intent on a full tasting. We get lucky again with two walk-in bar seats, within a couple of minutes....the staff seems surprised—and happy—to see us again. We tell Sean the bartender that the reason is primarily to do the Empirical Spirits comparison—and as an aside to have some delicious food. So he lines up all four that are available, 2cl each in small chimney tasting glasses (these spirits are sold by the cl, in whatever amount you wish—they are not inexpensive)—he doesn’t deem there to be necessarily a proper order, and we proceed through a fascinating tasting.

Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen started the distillery in a former shipyard in Copenhagen. These are the guys who were in charge of fermentation and foraging at noma, and when the restaurant was temporarily shut down to relocate, they struck out on their own. They created a low-temperature, high-pressure vacuum still, which allows the alcohol to evaporate at cooler temperatures, enabling the retention of subtle flavors and aromas that would otherwise be heated away in a normal higher-heat distillation.

We elect to taste these "blind"— providing our own impressions before reading the lables. Left-most in the lineup is called Fallen Pony—completely clear...nose of...cherry, maybe?  A bit of spice? Cherry or some sort of fruit carries through into the taste, as well as a bit of something herbal. Incredibly smooth, round, no heat at all. Sure ‘an I’d buy this stuff! Apparently each new release sells out almost instantaneously. The official description is:

An aromatic double-fermented quince-tea spirit made from a base of quince, barley koji, Belgian Saison yeast, and pilsner malt wash. The spent fruit material is fermented into a quince tea kombucha, vacuum distilled and then used to rectify the final product to preserve the sweet botanical notes, highlight hints of marzipan, and provide balanced acidity.  

Next up is the one we sampled last night, which gave us such laughs. It’s their newest offering titled “Fuck Trump and his Stupid Fucking Wall.” It’s based on Habanero pepper, and you can smell it as soon as the bottle is uncorked. Not hot in the mouth at all, but a bit acid, which becomes clear from the distiller’s description:

Fuck Trump and His Stupid Fucking Wall is a refreshingly smooth, warm, vegetal tasting habanero spirit made from a base of naked and pearled barley, Belgian saison yeast, and koji. The clear product is modified with a habanero vinegar that gives it a low 27% alcohol that imparts an intensely fruity habanero profile without any of the heat, preserving the floral and fruity notes typically hidden in habaneros.

Third in line is Helena, again a crystal clear spirit. No fruit or botanicals in the nose, but just a warm, smooth, round, unctuous, long lasting sensation in the mouth. The closest thing I could compare it to is an ultra-premium grappa. The distillery says:

Helena is our most unadorned product: a double fermented clear spirit. Made from barley koji, pilsner malt, and Belgian Saison yeast, this product blends Eastern and Western fermentation methods to create a smooth base spirit with subtle nutty aromas and a delicate sweet barley character. Koji provides a signature flavor profile that yields a sweet, umami, and floral note.

The only colored spirit, a slight chestnut hue, is called Charlene McGee. Definitely a smoky nose, but not in the sense of peat-smoked’s an herbal smoke, with a bit of spice, and I know there’s juniper in it. It’s delightful, and would be enjoyed by anyone that likes a peaty scotch. The house line is:

Charlene McGee is a juniper spirit inspired by the Scandinavian culinary tradition of smoking. Juniper berries are smoked with their own wood, lightly crushed, macerated, and gently distilled at low temperatures to preserve the fruity, vibrant integrity of the botanical and the smoky flavor profile. The final blend is matured in Oloroso casks to impart a faintly sweet hint of woodiness. The spirit has base notes of fresh juniper, fruity blackberries, and resinous, fragrant juniper sap that leaves a smooth, smoky finish.

What an experience. Our dread-locked Jamaican waiter friend from the night before is off duty tonight but having a glass at the end of the bar, and gives us thumbs up when he sees what we are up to. When we’ve sipped each once, he announces his favorites—Fallen Pony and Helena, for sure!

The company website for more information is but unfortunately, they can not yet ship to the US. Domestique Wines carries some of their products—


Nikkei Cuisine

Kaiyo--Nikkei cuisine on Union Street

SF restaurateur John Park, with chef Michelle Mathews in the kitchen, has brought a wonderful addition the Union street eatery scene with Kaiyo, featuring Nikkei specialties of the freshest ingredients, and highly creative cocktails.

Nikkei cuisine in Peru developed as a result of a sizeable migration of Japanese to Peru in the late 1800’s. There was a vibrant fishing industry in Peru, and the Japanese immigrants certainly knew how to deal with great fresh fish. In recent times, notable chefs, including Nobu Matsuhisa and Ferran Adria have shone the light on Nikkei cuisine.

There is a small outdoor section, with the restaurant long and narrow, a marble bar with molded mid-century sort of stools to the right, and to the left a bright yellow banquette, with a verdant living moss wall covering the long wall above. We love bar dining, and there are seats, as the weekend seems to be winding down, so we tell the hostess to give our table reso away, and belly up.

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Oaxaca-born chef Luis Arellano worked under Enrique Olvera at Pujol in Mexico City, where, among other things, he was tasked with perfecting the tortillas. In a partnership with Olvera partnership and architect Javier Sanchez, he opened Criollo in 2017.

Set in an old colonial mansion, the entrance is through the kitchen and into a tranquil triangular courtyard dining room, at the point of which is a large clay comal where all the house tortillas are made, and adjacent, a mesh grill where some are toasted crisp for totopos.

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