Saturday 21 November 2015

A Beginner’s Guide To... Best Pintxos in San Sebastian / Donostia

It seems obligatory to start blog posts about “pintxos” in San Sebastián (or Donostia to give the town’s Basque name) with a definition, so I’ll do just that. If you already know this, I suggest you skip the opening ramble and jump to the best bit… the pictures of the food!  

Named after the wooden stick on which ingredients are traditionally skewered, in Basque parlance, “pintxo” now refers to any small bar snack.

Those with a little familiarity with the Spanish language may initially get thrown by some of the Basque spellings but you can use the knowledge that “pintxo” is pronounced “pincho” as a cipher to crack many Basque words… a simple, helpful rule being that the ‘tx’ replaces ‘ch’ so anchovies often appear on menu as ‘antxoa’ as opposed to the Spanish ‘anchoa’, ‘chuleta’ steaks are regularly called ‘txuleta’ & ‘chimichurri’ is ‘tximitxurri’.

Armed with this information & the list of places below, you are now ready to head out on your first “txikiteo” – a food fuelled “pub crawl” involving gamboling from bar to bar, eating pintxos & drinking the local txakoli wine.

Based mainly on food quality & but with service & atmosphere also influencing my rankings, I’ve compiled this list in my order of preference with my favourites coming first. Many of the best places can be found in the Parte Vieja (Old Quarter) but there are some worth checking out in the Gros neighbourhood and south of Boulevard Zumardia.

It was a hard call deciding whether to give my “Number 1” spot to Borda Berri or La Cuchara de San Telmo - Borda Berri’s Chef / proprietor Iñaki Gulín formerly worked at La Cuchara & the similarities remain apparent – both places serve a small selection of around a dozen hot dishes chalked daily on a blackboard. Serving the likes of veal cheeks, pig’s ears, trotters & foie gras, many ingredients & dishes are similar.

Borda Berri (Calle Fermin Calbeton, 12) – for me, Borda Berri had the edge for one simple reason… the ‘tximitxurri’ that dressed the pig’s ear. This was one of the finest things I’ve ever eaten. I went back & had it on three occasions; one time eating two on the trot!  

Terrina de foie con ciruela (Foie terrine with plums)

Risotto de puntalette con Idiazábel
(Risotto of puntalette pasta with Idiazábel cheese)

Oreja de cerdo con tximitxurri (Pig’s ear with chimichurri)

Canelon cremoso de morcilla (Black pudding cannelloni)

Ravioli de txangurro a la Donostiarra (Raviolo of spider crab)

Pulpo a la plantxa con membrillo (Grilled octopus with quince jelly)

Kallos de bakalao al pil-pil (Codfish swim bladders)

La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28) – unlike most places in San Sebastián, neither Borda Berri or La Cuchara display pre prepared pintxos – I prefer this as I like to eat at the bar. With smoky paprika, garlic, parsley and peanuts, their pig’s ear was another fabulous dish – the perfect combination of mint and apple and zing of lime taking it to another level!

Carrillera de ternera al vino con hummus garbanzo
(Braised veal cheeks with chickpea puree)

Manita de Urdangarín asada con romesco
(Pig’s trotters with romesco sauce)

Cochinillo de Segovia asado compota de manzana
(Roasted Segovia suckling pig with apple sauce)

Vieira “toro” envuelta con tocino de bellota
(Scallops wrapped in acorn fed belotta ham)

Risotto de sepia del Mediterraneo (Risotto with squid ink)

Oreja de cerdo iberico cachuetes (Pig’s ear with peanuts)

Foie de Montfort salteado con mostaza y miel de naranjo
(Foie gras sautéed with honey, mustard & orange peel)

Pulpo “roca” plancha con hojas de berzas asadas
(Octopus with roasted cabbage leaves)

Bacalao de Islas Faroe confit asado con tzatziki
(Roasted Faroe Island salt cod with tzatziki)

A Fuego Negro (Calle 31 de Agosto 31) – oozing cool, A Fuego Negro is the pintxos bar I’d want to open if I were to open a pintxos bar. Whilst Borda Berri or La Cuchara are great places to eat and move on, “the black fire” is the kind of place I could spend an evening. Listed in the Michelin guide, they offer a couple of tasting menus & many dishes showcase molecular gastronomy. I’d order everything again but if I had to pick a star dish, it’d be the ‘Helado de Txangurro Donostiarra’ (local spider crab ice cream) for its uniqueness. 

Platiko de encurtidos de kasa (Home made pickles)

Helado de Txangurro Donostiarra (Local spider crab ice cream)

Tartar de bonito & sandía con yema rallada
(Tartar of tuna & watermelon with grated yolk)

Pajarito frito, cebolla & zanahoria (“Little bird”, onion & carrot)

Mollejas de merluza salteadas (Sautéed hake sweetbreads)

Ortiguillas Donostiarras con letxe de tigre
(Local sea anemones with tiger’s milk)

Makcobe with txips (Kobe burger with chips)

Brandada bakailu, gel de naranja, cebolla roja & azeituna beltza
(Cod brandade, gel of orange, red onion, black olive)

Bar Sport (Fermin Calbeton, 10) – in general, the food at Bar Sport may not be quite as good as some of the other places on this list but there are other qualities in its favour. As well as showing sport on their TVs, one big bonus is that they seemingly never close – they are amongst the first to open in the morning &, unlike many others, stay open during “siesta” time. They serve a wide range of pintxos - both set out on the counter & a chalk board of hot specials. Their ‘Foie a la plancha’ takes some beating.

Foie a la plancha (Grilled foie)

Manitas de cerdo con hongos (Pig’s feet with mushrooms)

Lecheritas de cordero (Lamb sweetbreads)

Carrilleras (Beef cheeks)

Txangurro al horno (Baked crab)

Ganbarra (San Jeronimo Kalea, 19) – listed in the Michelin guide, with a ‘proper restaurant’ as well as the bar area, Ganbarra do not serve a huge range of pintxos but the ‘quality not quantity’ selection make visiting a must. Although much pricier than the typical pintxo, their mushroom dishes are worth stretching your budget. From the pintxos menu, the Basque sausage rolls seemed to be everyone’s must have dish.

Ostras (Oysters)

Huevas de merluza (Hake roe)

Espárrago rebozado (Battered white asparagus)

Tartaleta de txangurro (Spider crab tartlet)

Hojaldre con txistorra (Basque sausage roll)

Alcachhofas con foie gras (Artichokes with foie gras)

Surtido de setas con yema (Assorted mushrooms with egg yolk)

Bar Antonio (Bergara Kalea, 3) – this place came recommended by Gabriella Ranelli (who runs @tenedor tours) after I took to Twitter to get suggestions for places open on Sunday evenings & Mondays. We liked Antonio’s so much that we went back again twice during the week; although not in the Old Town, it would make a worthwhile inclusion on any txikiteo itinerary. The crispy oxtail ravioli & the foie with crisp coated black pudding were my faves.

Foie a la Plancha con puré de manzana (Grilled foie gras with apple purée)

Morcilla rebozada con foie (Black pudding with foie)

Ravioli crujiente con rabo de buey (Crispy oxtail ravioli)

Mini hamburguesa de mejillón (Mini mussel burger)

Txangurro con guidilla, antxoa y yema rallada
(Crab with pickled pepper, anchovy & grated egg yolk)

Gilda (Guindilla peppers, olives & salted Cantabrian anchovies)

Hidalgo 56 (Paseo Colón 15) – a short walk over the river in the Gros, Hidalgo 56 is owned an operated by a chef who once held a Michelin star. This quality was evident in the oxtail & foie gras dishes. With a little theatre, my favourite dish was the ‘Kokotxas de merluza a la llama’. As instructed, I left the hake cheeks to take on the smoke for a couple of minutes before lifting the cloche.

Meta de rabo (“Goal of oxtail”)

Rebozuelos con yema (Chanterelles with egg yolk)

Escalope de foie gras con torrija de melon (Foie gras with toasted melon)

Kokotxas de merluza a la llama (Flamed hake cheeks)

Trufa de queso azul y sésamo tostado
(Blue cheese truffle with sesame seeds)

Bergara Bar (Calle del General Artetxe, 8) – listed in the Michelin guide, Bergara Bar is another highly rated place in the Gros neighbourhood that has won several awards for their pintxos. Presentations are imaginative but not all the food hit the spot with me. The ‘Falsa lasaña’, which consisted of a square toast topped with ‘pisto’ (the Spanish version of ratatouille), anchovies & balsamic vinegar suffered from a soggy bottom; this is one of the reasons I preferred to order from chalk boards as opposed to the pintxos on the enticing looking displays. 

Fudeuá con ali-oli (Noodles with garlic mayonnaise)

Txapeldun (Seafood cocktail)

Falsa lasaña con anchoas (False lasagne - anchovy)

Foie Gras con uvas al Oporto (Foie gras with port braised grapes)

Hamburguesa de tomate (Tomato hamburger)

Ibai (Calle de Getaria, 15) – according to many trusted sources, Ibai is not only one of the best & most underrated restaurants in San Sebastian but also the world. The hottest ticket in town, the small dining room located in the basement of the equi-small bar is only open for weekday lunches. After popping in on Monday for a few pintxos I was offered a table for the Friday, which sadly I could not accept due to our flights; so it remains at the the top of our list for next time. A friendly bar with a small quality selection of pintxos set out on the counter, it’s a good place to start your txikiteo whilst en route to the Old Town. 

Bocadito de antxoas con huevo cocido y queso
(Anchovy with boiled egg & cheese)

Gamba con mayonesa, yema rallada y aceituna
(Prawn, mayonnaise, grated egg olk & olive)

Tortilla de hongos (Mushroom omelette)

Atari Gastroteka (Calle Mayor, 18) – listed in the Michelin guide, Atari Gastroteka is a more vibey & swanky space than many of the pintxos bars in the Old Quarter. Their version of the Gilda showcased some of the region’s finest produce with guindillas from Ibarra and anchovies from Geteria –  they came served with the stunning white tuna known as Bonito del Norte (aka White Beauty) from the port of Bermeo.

Huevo a baja temperatura (Slow cooked egg)

Platillo de bonito, guidilla, antxoas y acientunas
(White tuna, green peppers, anchovies & olives)

Queso cabra, tomate deshidratado y jamón
(Goats cheese, sundried tomato & jamón)

La Txuleta (Plaza de la Trinidad, 2) – in the more formal restaurant that adjoins the bar the specialties of the house include the Basque Txuleta steaks that give the restaurant its name. at just €3 the Txuleta Pintxos was great value but the local chorizo like Txistorra sausages at €1.90 were the biggest delight.

Pintxos Txuleta (Skewered ‘chuleta’ steak)

Txistorra (Chistorra – Basque sausage)

Foie a la plancha (Grilled foie)

Brotxeta de pulpo y langostino (Skewered prawn & octopus)

La Viña (Calle 31 de Agosto 3) – not having much of a sweet tooth, eating plate after plate or stick after stick of pintxos is perfect for me but for the ‘goloso’ (sweet toothed), La Viña is the place to go for the perfect Basque cheesecake, Torta de queso. The cheesecake is great with a Pedro Ximénez sherry but do order the txakoli, as they pour it with particular flair.

Pulpo vinagreta (Octopus in vinaigrette)

Canutillo de queso y anchoa (‘Little pipe’ of cheese & anchovy)

Torta de queso (Cheesecake)

Zeruko (Calle Pescaderia, 10) – you’ll find Zeruko at the top of many people’s lists but it was just too busy for me to fully enjoy (& we visited out of peak season!) I’d go back again to try more of the dishes as the ones I selected did not impress enough to warrant the bustle.

Kallos a la Donostiarra (Codfish swim bladders)

Alcachofas dorada con vieira (Globe artichoke with scallop)

Rollito de primavera con cebolleta y jamón  
(Spring roll with spring onion & jamón)

Boquerones en vinagre y aceituna (Anchovies in vinegar with an olive)

Bar Txepetxa (Calle Pescaderia, 5) – the chilly waters around San Sebastián produce some of the best anchovies the world has to offer. Bar Txepetxa specialises in these Cantabrian beauties where generations of the same family have been serving them for over 100 years. The pick of the bunch for me was the anchovy topped with sea urchin roe. (Let’s just pretend the blueberry one never happened, eh?)

Antxoa con foie y compota de manzana (Anchovy with foie & apple)

Antxoa con erizos de mar (Anchovy with sea urchin roe)

Antxoa con mermelada de arándanos (Anchovy with blueberries jam)

Paco Bueno (Mayor Kalea, 6)still run by his family, the bar is decorated with boxing memorabilia belonging to its founder, Paco Bueno. A little research tells me, the Spanish champion’s career highlights include unsuccessfully challenging “Fearless Freddie” Mills for the European Light Middleweight Title & beating Richard Grupe in the first International bout staged in Germany after the war (3rd July 1949). We went at the tail end of a txikiteo & only had room for their famous for its ‘Gamba gabardina’.  Translating as as ‘prawns in a raincoat’ these battered beauties where indeed a knockout! (see what I did there?)

Gamba gabardina (Battered prawns)

Gandarias (31 de Agosto Kalea, 23) – although for some reason (perhaps their indifferent attitude) I didn’t warm to Gandarias as a place and did not return. Service aside, I found the scallop with honey to be cooked beautifully and the honey vinaigrette to be judged perfectly.

Brocheta de chipirón (Skewered squid with its ink)

Brocheta vieira con vinagreta miel (Scallop with a honey vinaigrette)

Foie a la plancha (Grilled foie)


La Cepa (31 de Agosto Kalea, 7) – one of the fist to open, I visited La Cepa before they had completed their impressive array of pintxos. As such, I ordered a couple of hot pintxos from the printed menu. Classic dishes served with a smile.  

Morcilla de arroz con pimientos del piquillo
(Black pudding made with rice & red peppers)

Bocadito de chorizo cocido (Boiled chorizo sandwich)

The places and dishes mentioned and photographed by me are just the tip of the iceberg of the gastronomic delights that San Sebastián / Donostia has to offer. We’ve booked to return in May.

1 comment:

  1. OMG....Just how much Foie gras can a man plough through ? Looks absolutely mouth watering.
    As for the rest of the food....Jeez man , you are one hell of an eating machine. Superb cuisine....All of it.


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