SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain - Juan Mari Arzak peered out from behind his red-framed glasses as if trying to solve a puzzle. “Food has always been very important here,’’ said the chef, “and nobody knows why.’’
His own culinary genius, of course, is part of the reason. Restaurante Arzak, where he now shares the kitchen with his daughter Elena, is one of three Michelin three-star restaurants in town and one of only five in Spain, as of 2012. Juan Mari pioneered the contemporary Basque cooking that put this Belle Epoque resort town - indeed all of Spain - on the international culinary map in the 1970s.
The chefs had taken a break from the kitchen to talk to us about baby eels, a seasonal and expensive dish worth the splurge for many Basques. In fact, Elena explained, even people of modest means save up to eat in their restaurant at least once a year. “They need it,’’ she said, “and they are very knowledgeable about food.’’
Between such fine dining extravagances, San Sebastianos haunt the bars that specialize in pintxos (pronounced PEENT-choze), the Basque term for tapas. Kitchen creativity has trickled down to even the most casual taverns, making San Sebastian - long the go-to destination for culinary high rollers - equally welcoming for travelers with champagne tastes on a beer budget.
The Arzaks are big fans of the pintxos scene, but diplomatically declined to name their favorite spots for fear that they would hurt someone’s feelings by omission. So when we joined the locals for a Sunday afternoon of pintxos-hopping, we chose to start on Calle 31 de Agosto, a bar-lined major thoroughfare of the old city. Even on a cold winter day, the crowds in the streets and in every establishment convinced us that we had chosen well.
With confidence running high, we popped into La Cuchara de San Telmo, a traditional-looking tavern with an open kitchen in the back and a long wooden bar where we squeezed into a smidgen of free space. Unlike many spots, La Cuchara had not piled the bar high with small plates for diners to pick and choose. Instead we studied a chalkboard and chose the house signature dish, a small lobe of foie gras with an apple compote. The beautifully composed miniature of a fine-dining appetizer - a far cry from simpler conventional tapas like pickled anchovies or a slice of omelet - was the perfect exemplar of the trend toward “pintxos creativos.’’
There is no mistaking the avant-garde aspirations of A Fuego Negro with its sleek black and red decor, witty menu, and hipster vibe. Although the joint was packed, waitstaff still managed to perform a bit of theater while serving. When the diner next to us at the bar ordered cold tomato soup, the waitress produced a little pitcher and with a flourish poured the sanguine liquid into a bowl of Iberian ham, fried bread crumbs, mushrooms, and fried eggs. We were most charmed, though, by the simple genius of a miniature Kobe beef burger on a ketchup-flavored bun, accompanied by banana chips.
Last January, Spain outlawed smoking in bars, and the food does taste better without a side of secondhand smoke. The spurned smokers often take their drinks and plates of food out onto the sidewalk, where they can eat, drink, and smoke, and grumble about the injustice of it all. It certainly perks up the street scene, even in the winter.
Much as Basques embrace the new, they also love their culinary traditions, and we were glad to see that less cutting-edge bars still have their followers. Chefs at Bar-Restaurante La Viña had their hands full preparing ham or mushroom croquettes and little casserole dishes of chorizo sausage braised in apple cider. Hard cider, in fact, is a popular drink all over northern Spain. Proper service calls for aerating the cider by pouring it from a bottle held high above the glass.
At one of our stops, we got to talking with Ana Intxausti, a local who has worked in the wholesale fish industry and also shepherded celebrities around the San Sebastian Film Festival. While tapas-hopping in other cities is usually a fairly casual, even random, activity, she told us that things are more purposeful in San Sebastian. “When we go out,’’ she said, “we don’t choose a bar, we choose a food specialty.’’
When we remarked on the crowds in the bars, Intxausti just shrugged. “We are a very social city,’’ she said. “Our businesses don’t need team-building programs. Just give everyone 20 euros and send them to a bar for a caña [small glass of beer].’’
With leads from Intxausti, we set off in search of specialties, including beef at Restaurante Gandarias, where we had grilled sirloin and green peppers on rounds of French bread. We were still cruising Calle 31 de Agosto and could have eaten ourselves into oblivion on this one street alone. But we detoured down side streets to eat crab salad and grilled squid dusted with smoky paprika at Restaurante Bernardo Etxea and a gorgeous plate of sauteed mixed wild mushrooms at Ganbara Bar-Asador.
By the end of the afternoon, we had tried more than a few things that we couldn’t quite identify. So on Monday morning we headed to Mercado de la Bretxa, the city’s fresh food market, to peruse the fresh fish on ice and piles of fruits and vegetables to see whether we could figure out some of the ingredients.
The market, as it turned out, is also the site of San Sebastian’s only downtown McDonald’s - home of the pintxos McNuggets!
If you go...
Hours of pintxos bars may change with the seasons, but most are open from noon to mid-afternoon and then again from early evening until after midnight. Most tapas mentioned run $2.60-$6.50. Wine or beer is typically another $2 per serving.
La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 de Agosto 28
A Fuego Negro
Calle 31 de Agosto 31
Bar-Restaurante La Viña
Calle 31 de Agosto 3
Calle 31 de Agosto 23
Restaurante Bernardo Etxea
Calle Puerto 7
Closed Wednesday evening, Thursday.
Calle San Jerónimo 21
Closed Sunday evening, Monday.
Mercado de la Bretxa
Plaza Bretxa 1
Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-9 p.m.