Troy Hightower

San Sebastian Txikiteo

We love three things about San Sebastian—the small, atmospheric old quarter, the broad tree-lined grid of the Belle Epoque shopping district, and the food—notably the Pintxos. So with a return only two years from our last visit, our intention is of course to spend time with the first two, but concentrate really, on the third in a series of pintxos crawls, known in the local dialect as  txikiteo.

Friday evening we head for Borda Berri - opened several years ago in the heart of the historic district by Iñaki Gulín and his chef partner Marc Clua, who started and then left La Cuchara de San Telmo. The pintxos at Borda Berri  continue their innovative, nueva cocina style with smashing food. A crowded, homey bar, its yellow walls hung with old photos, the scene is controlled chaos that works.  There's a chalk menu of a dozen or so things daily. The place is packed, always - we elbowed our way to one seat and one stand-space at the bar where we had to almost shout our order, which was then monosyllabically yelled back to the miniscule kitchen: UNA FOIE!!  UNO PULPO!! And as the individual tiny plate emerged, the four waiters behind the bar seemed to know how to get them to the right people - lined 3 deep behind the bar.

Killer things we tried:

"Kebabs" de costillas Iberico - a meaty, falling-off-the-bone Iberico pork rib with crunchy caramelized top--incredibly flavorful acorn-fed meat, on a sauce of emulsified herbs.

Queso de Kabra tostado con Ciruela-two crispy discs enrobing a warm goat cheese round served on a compote of reduce local plums.

Ravioli de Mollejas, puerros y lemongras--a sheet of al dente pasta wrapped around a filling of chopped sweetbreads and leeks cooked with lemongrass, perched on a  reduction sauce.

Carrilerra de Ternera al Vino Tinto--an almost black, slow cooked in wine fork-tender veal cheek nestled in pan juice reduction - simply sumptuous.

Those substantial tapas, two glasses of wine, one cider, one cana - $16.90

•    Borda Berri    Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12    +34 943 43 03 42

In Calle 31 de Agosto at the base of Monte Urgull sits Gandarias - and old-line Pintxos bar/restaurant--packed with Spaniards and some few tourists.  We squeeze to a space at the bar and order a rioja crianza and bone-dry manzanilla sherry. The bar is crowded with plates of pintxos – mostly montadas—things piled on a bread crouton: white anchovies; mayonnaise, shrimp and a half egg; iberico ham; shrimps in pil-pil; tuna salad with anchovy. From the kitchen we call for piping hot croquetas de hongos--jamon and queso croquetas are also available. Whisked also from the back is a small cazuela of hot salty pimientos del pardon. Delicious, these traditional style pintxos present a different sort of experience than the tiny composed plates of cuisine en miniature such as La Cuchara and Borda Berri.  

Ganbara is another old-style pintxos bar, famous for mushrooms. One end of the bar is covered with enormous mound of several types: cepes, black trumpets, chanterelle, cinnamon cap and what look like hedgehogs. They are served individually, mixed, grilled, sautéed, in large and small orders, with or without Iberico ham or a warm egg yolk. Plate after plate of gorgeous hongos surtidos with an orange egg yolk in the middle cross the bar past us, and are too enticing to pass up. To accompany the rich dish, we also take a couple of mini croissants filled with Iberico ham, and jamon cocido and queso, and more manzanilla and red wine.

•    Ganbara    San Jeronimo Kalea, 19  +34 943 42 25 75

After a relaxing morning, midday Saturday we are ready to crawl forth for more pintxos. Several tree-lined blocks off the Catedral del Buen Pastor are pedestrian shopping streets, filled with international and local brands. Unlike the old quarter several blocks away, pintxos bars are few and far between in the shopping zone. At Elkano 7 is Meson Martin, a venerable, locals-filled bar with a good array of pintxos, from which we select a bollilo filled with tuna & mayonaise, anchovies and pickled pepper, and a roll containing morcilla sausage wrapped in ham and cheese, lightly breaded and fried. A Manzanilla La Gitana and Vermut start our lunch pintxo crawl.

A couple of blocks away, and just around the corner from our hotel Maria Cristina on Calle Camino is a truly neighborhood place called Bar Legarda. We manage to find two stools at the counter, and watch as locals pop in for a pintxo and a quick glass of something, banter with the barmen and other customers, and head out - everyone knows everyone, and we are the only travelers in the place - truly the Cheers of San Sebastian. One pintxo of grilled green pepper, anchovies, slice of hard cooked egg and a garnish of chopped peppers and olives makes a good start. A daily special is chalked as "bolla de carne picante" - some sort of spicy meat mixture, filled into a pastry ball, and deep fried, and very tasty. A media racion of sweet, salty jamon and a glass of wine and a zurito--tiny beer--finish our two-stop lunchtime pintxo crawl.

Sunday crawl

After a visit to the Iglesia San Vicente and the Museo San Telmo, which chronicles the history of the region, belltowers all around sang 12:30 and it was time to think pintxos.  First up, the top place for cocina nueva, recommended by our concierge, Anna, was Bar Zeruko in Calle Pescaderia.

Award-winning Zeruko is one of the old town's most inventive pintxo joints. Bright lights and mint-green walls set off a bar, unsullied as yet at opening, laden with incredibly colorful and complicated temptations. Meticulously arrayed, fish to meat to vegetable tower to aspic creation-- and many with tiny fried eggs atop. Some are eaten cold out of hand, some go back to the kitchen for a bit of prep. like the sea urchin and mayonnaise in an urchin shell that was just warmed, and drizzled with an herb infused oil....or the sheep's cheese wrapped in gossamer web of brik dough that got flash fried and served with a pepper compote. Direct to plate was a piquillo pepper stuffed with tuna atop some chopped onion, pepper and celery vinaigrette. As with many of the newer style pintxos places, what's on the chalkboard may trump what's on the counter. As was true with one perfect tempura langoustine, and especially the kokotzas de bacalou.  Kokotxa is a tiny piece of chin of fish--merluza, hake is popular, and in this case, per fish...very dense and meaty. Sautéed in oil, and served covered in a sheet of gelled rich sherry aspic, the flavors and textures are magic. An unexpected garnish is a coin sized piece of foie, placed atop a tangle of caramelized onions....spectacular.

•    Bar Zeruko       Calle Pescaderia 10, + 34 943 423451,

A stroll out of the Parte Vieja and down toward the sea front leads us to the Ship's Bar of the Hotel Londres, with an incredible view of the curve of Playa Concha, the sweep of the city's arms encircling the bay, and the vivid blue of the ocean in the post-rain sunshine. Ten minutes further along the esplanade brings us to Bar Narru, another highly recommended pintxos bar. Set in a sort of esplanade-side annex of the Hotel Nizza, Narru has a clean, vaguely Scandanavian vibe. A curved concrete bar seat about 8, and two levels of small tables overlook the sea.

As with many of the practioners of the new cocina in miniatura, Chef Iñigo Peña did his time at the Basque stars Mugaritz, Arzak and Arbelaitz before going his own way to put cocina de producto into practice. We start with a cava and manzanilla, and, from the pintxos on the counter, a thin, crusty whole grain bollilo about the size of a short Cuban cigar stuffed with jamon Iberico bellota and nutty sheep cheese. Most pintxos and raciones are "to order" from the wall chalkboard of changing dishes. Possibilities include a tangle of hongos with an egg yolk, fresh bacalao "confitado" with pipperada, or risotto of mixed musrooms with foie. Not being familiar with the dish, we ask for "secreto Iberico" in its jus, with local apples. A newly fashionable thing, secreto is a small, marbled triangular cut from between the shoulder blade and loin of the prized Iberico pork - the meat is crusty caramelized outside, meltingly tender and succulent, and, perfectly set off by tiny cubes of apple. This is a young chef whose commitment to quality and showing off the freshest ingredients delivers a whallop to the palate.

•    Bar Narru      Zubieta Kalea, 56  +34 943 42 33 49

Sunday evening we head out to our last concierge-recommended temple of incredible pintxos, A Fuego Negro.

Dark walls, low light and classic rock tunes give Fuego Negro a sort of hip, cave-like atmosphere. The chalkboard menu is all in Basque, not even Spanish, so interpretations are dicey - there is a small printed English translation. Pintxos are referred to as pikoteos--there are "kits" of several, as well as raciones. Two glasses of a white wine from Navarra start us down the path to:

Pajarito frito....a tiny half quail, marinated in vermouth and maybe a touch of soy, is crispy and juicy-tender served with a dollop of carrot purée and scattering of scallions - very tasty.

Arroz idiazabal is their risotto of the famous Spanish blue cheese - rich in and of itself, it's then topped with scoop of black squid ink helado that melts into the cheesy rice creating a really amazing contrast.

Under a section called "revival" is revista de gamba, huevo y mayonnesa--a tiny raw shrimp coated in paprika, a cold poached quail egg and miniscule cubes of fried potatoe nestled into a tiny bowl of homemade mayonnaise. A spectacular combination.

A great play on words is Makcobe con txipx. A tiny rare burger of Kobe beef on a tomato bun, with lettuce and a house-made secret sauce.....get it Big Mac...Kobe?  

A ‘punny’ way to end three special days strolling through a beautiful and intimate seaside city, with sensational eating on every corner.               

•    A Fuego Negro   Calle 31 de Agosto, 31 +34 650 13 53 73