When planning my trip to San Sebastián / Donostia I was advised by Guardian writer Tony Naylor to leave my trusty Michelin guide at home and instead eat my way around the pintxos bars (see here) – for the most part I took his advice, which proved to be sound.
That said, I couldn’t resit the lure of some if the region’s many multi Michelin starred establishments and booked meals at Azurmendi and Mugaritz – budget would not allow meals at Arzak, Akelare, Etxebarri or Martín Berasategui, which also featured highly on my shortlist.
Then I came across Eme Be – the “new” (its been open over a year) restaurant from Martín Berasategui, on the outskirts of San Sebastián / Donostia. I liked the fact that it’s housed in a former sidrería (cider factory) and that the menu, promising refined versions of some of the region’s traditional dishes, seemed affordable. On our visit, Mr. Berasategui was himself dining in the restaurant.
In the large dining room, huge cider barrels hinting at the buildings previous use were the most striking feature. Upturned apple baskets had been made into stools in the reception area and used as lampshades. Light fittings also made use of giant barrel hoops. Overall, the refined rusticity gave the place an essence of a good “gastropub” in the UK.
One of the main reasons I was there was to sample the Basque country’s famous “txuleta” steaks. My understanding is that there are two types of steak commonly referred to as “txuleta”.
The first, the Rolls Royce, comes from the Rubia Gallega (Galician Blonde) breed of cattle, which is native to Galicia. These cows are bred purely for their beef and often live well into their teens. As always with premium beef, such as Wagyu, grading is based on the type of fat, colour and marbling.
The second, originating in the Basque country, comes from retired dairy cows, such as Holstein Friesians. This is also known as “Basque Cider House Steak” as dairy framers and cider producers would commonly offer their respective produce in exchange.
Eme Be serve a ‘tasting menu’ but we opted to create our own by mostly selecting ‘media ración’ sized portions (half servings), with a full sized (ración, 500g) of the txuleta.
Following some chilli infused olives, croquetas de Jamón and crusty bread, an amuse bouche consisting of mini pickled vegetables set into an anchovy cream came served in anchovy tins. A great idea that I’m nicking for my next dinner party.
Ensalada Txangurro (1/2 ración) – a light flavourful herby salad of shredded spider crab meat, served in a hollowed tomato, topped with a “mollusks air”.
Ostra (1/2 ración) – oysters lightly pickled with cucumber crushed ice and “sea pearls”.
Kokotxas al pil pil (1/2 ración) – bacalao (salt cod) is a popular dish all over Spain but this is especially so in San Sebastián / Donostia. Making use of the gelatinous ‘chin’ from the codfish, kokotxas pil pil is one of the area’s most iconic dishes. Flavoured with garlic and a hint of chilli, the emulsified sauce is made with olive oil and the natural gelatine of the kokotxas.
Arroz Meloso (1/2 ración) – this dish of honeyed rice with spider crab was not entirely unpleasant but neither was it really to my taste. I found the honey a little overpowering.
Txuleta – cooked over flames “a la brasa” and served with a silky smooth chuleta chop with potato purée. Whereas my wife likes the texture of a fillet, I don’t mind having to chew a little or wrestle with some gristle as long as the beef has flavour and boy, did this old girl have some flavour!
Callos (1/2 ración) – I’m a huge fan of callos and tripe dishes in general but I’ve only ever had it in typical local restaurants. This refined version had real depth of flavour; I wish I’d ordered the full ración.
Soufflé de Chocolate – my choice for dessert was a chocolate soufflé, served with vanilla ice cream and cocoa pearls. It had a good chocolaty flavour but, in a picky mood, I’d grumble that I wanted more rise.
Tarta Mascarpone tembloroso – my wife’s choice of dessert was what translated as “trembling cheesecake”, I’m not too sure why but she seemed to enjoy it.
To drink we naturally ordered some of the local Sidra.