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Restaurants & Bars

San Sebastián and Bilbao trip report (Aug, Oct 2018)

synecdochehk | Nov 3, 201807:02 AM     11

Hi all, first time poster here, yet I have drawn many restaurant ideas from lurking in this forum in the past, and would love to start contributing some. Given my limited exposure to food, I would refrain from calling my posts "food critiques". Take them as "travelling tips/restaurant reviews", if you may.

I had the pleasure of visiting San Sebastian and Bilbao last couple months, after reading many glowing reviews of the region (in particular, Vedat Milor of Gastromondiale). Below are my thoughts:

San Sebastian (29 August - 1 Sep)

Restaurant Martin Berasategui (29 August dinner):
I arrived very late at the restaurant (after 2200), partly due to a flight delay. That makes the whole experience more rushed than I hoped. Overall, the meal was two-star level to me, with a few original and technically brilliant dishes (langoustine over a seabed with crab consommé, seafood and seaweed tremble, basil and coral gazpacho). I found these aqueous, "half solid half liquid" creations most satisfying, for how it accentuates the flavours of seafood, and I suspect the chef drew inspiration from Japanese dashi. The other dishes are solid (I liked the classic foie gras millefeuille and monkfish), but while technically accomplished, the restaurant does not consistently reach the highest level for me. It somewhat feels like a French restaurant cooking Spanish food (if that makes sense). I also found the tasting menu too long, so I would strongly recommend having a light lunch/breakfast before going. For the record, chef Martin Berasategui was not in the kitchen that evening.

Wine markup levels are quite high for Basque region standards. For reference, I had the Pazo de Senorans Seleccion de Anada 2009 at 65€ (which was lovely and easily the best Albarino I have tried). Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas 2016 and Emilio Rojo 2016 cost 99€ and 110€ respectively. There are likely better places in this region to splurge on wine.

Hondarribia (30 August):
I had some pintxos for lunch at Danontzat and Gran Sol (both at bar areas). I slightly prefer the food at Gran Sol, but Danontzat provided a more interesting theatrical experience. Star dishes for me are anchovies in vinegar (Danontzat), Mika and Hondarribia (Gran Sol).

After walking around the beautiful old city of Hondarribia, I took the boat to Hendaye and the train to Saint Jean de Luz, and hiked along the Sentier de Littoral back to Hendaye. While scenic, there was a mildly off-putting scent of salinity/seaweed along the way. I preferred the northern Spain seashore scenery more (see below). Hiking shoes are recommended.

Alameda (dinner): I thought it was decent but there should be better options if you only have limited time in San Sebastian. The odour of oil was too strong for me in a couple dishes, though the seafood was of good quality (squid, hake). I ordered the Emilio Rojo 2015 at around 60€, which had a remarkably sharp acidity to it, and might not be a wine for everyone.

Pintxos + Getaria (31 August):
Did a walking tour in SS in the morning, which I found slightly boring, but then I guess art and history is not the forte of SS. Pintxos crawl was amazing though - I started off at Txepetxa with wonderful crab cream anchovies pintxo, then moved on to Borda Berri for sumptuous bacalao throats and puntalette risotto. Finished off with torrija at Atari and cheesecake at la vina, which I both recommend.

I didn't manage to catch the bus to Zarautz, and had to take the train instead. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as there were some postcard-worthy views on the 30-minute train trip. Given Basque Country's proximity to the sea, it was easy to forget that the cities have a mountainous landscape nearby. Getting off at the Zarautz station, I walked along the amazing coastal path to Getaria (it could be part of the Camino de Santiago). I suspect the water quality here is better than that in the French-Spanish border, as I could not detect the annoying saline scent, and more people seemed to be fishing here.

Elkano (dinner):
The legendary seafood temple. Unfortunately I did not take detailed notes, and it was a shame that I travelled alone, hence unable to order a larger/better turbot. Nonetheless, the seafood here were top-notch, dazzled with freshness and intense flavour. The tuna amuse bouche and fish soup “shot” were exceptional, and the turbot was perfectly grilled with impeccable meatiness. I find desserts a weak spot in many Spanish restaurants, which is either cloyingly sugary or too salty/savoury, but Elkano's cheese ice cream with berries reduction again delivered with sweetness and lightness. My only criticism is that over-saltiness was noticeable in the kokotxas pil pil (I preferred the one in Sacha, Madrid) and some parts of the turbot, but that is likely due to the strong seasoning Spanish cuisine is accustomed to. One star is obviously too mean of a rating.

I had a bottle of Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas (2016?) for 35€, which despite its minerality - making it a great pairing with the tuna amuse-bouche and goose barnacles - was remarkably more elegant than other similar wines. The prices here are fair, a bottle of Sorte o Soro (can't remember the vintage) would set you back for 135€.

A nice American couple (who also immensely enjoyed Elkano), kindly offered me a free taxi ride back to SS (thanks!). I headed to La Gintoneria Donostiarra (meh) and then Pokhara. Shout out to the bartender in Pokhara who turned on the coffee machine again just to make me the last glass of carajillo of the night at 2am. I could not judge as I had never had a carajillo beforehand, but it was a wildly delicious end to the night.

Last pintxo hurrah (1 Sep):
Failing to mark my name on the list the previous day, I showed up at Bar Nestor at 1140 to make sure I get to enjoy a slice of tortilla for lunch. After marking my name, I went to Txepetxa again, this time also trying the anchovies with "caviar" on top, which was magnificent. I then headed to Sirimiri, which was okay but nothing special, before going back to Bar Nestor for the famed tortilla. I have not had too many tortillas before, nor do I know what makes an authentic tortilla, but this version sure is delicious, eggs and potatoes rightfully taking prominent position. I also liked the tomatoes with olive oil. Notably, the bartender charged me less as I could not finish the tomatoes, which was a very kind gesture. And this wraps up my trip to SS!

Review of Bilbao trip to follow. Welcome for any comments!

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