Sunday 17 July 2016

Ibai, San Sebastián

When, at the start of the year, I read that Forbes had listed Ibai as one of ‘The 16 Coolest Places to Eat in 2016’ (here), I knew I had to try once more to get a table.

If you need further confirmation as to its merits, Andy Hayler (the only man to have eaten in all the world’s 3 Michelin starred restaurants) lists Ibai amongst his ‘7 most underrated restaurants in Europe’ (here) and the celebrated Luxeat also offers a glowing review.

Located in the basement of a small pintxos bar bearing the same name, reservations can only be made in person for weekday lunchtimes (it is not open for dinner or weekends). Nor do they do not accept credit/debit cards.

Continuing with the ‘practicalities’, I’ve read a few things about the difficulty of getting a reservation at Ibai. On both our recent visits (November and May) I have not encountered problems. Each time, I called into the bar at the beginning of the week to ask for availability. The first time, I was offered a table but it clashed with our travel plans so I had to decline. Most recently, they had availability Monday through Friday (we opted for the Tuesday).

When you do call in to book, stay for a few pintxos. When fresh out of the pan, their tortilla is one of the best in San Sebastian.

Behind the the stoves of the place Andy Hayler proclaims “one of the best-kept culinary secrets of the world” is Chef Alicio Garro. A small, mustachioed, charmingly humble man with a warm smile and calm air. I’ve read that it’s his wife and brother who assist with front of house duties.

Continuing with the same principles since he opened in 1983, Garro’s genius is on a different trajectory to some of the more well known and celebrated chefs in the area. His brilliance comes from his virtuoso understanding of the cooking techniques required to get the best natural flavours from the finest ingredients that the region and seasons have to offer.

There is no menu as such at Ibai but they do have a printed list of ingredients that are available that day – availability obviously changes with seasonality and if the chef has been able to source produce from the markets which meets his exacting standards. Diners select what they like and the chef then creates a ‘personalised tasting menu’.

From what I experienced and have read, meals at Ibai generally start with a course of ‘Chorizo’. Cooked at low temperature, most diners seem to agree that this is the best textured and flavoured chorizo they have ever tasted – I am no different.

Our first course was a bowl of ‘Forest Fungi’ (Hongos y Setas del Bosque) – Found abundantly in the damp verdant mountainsides of ‘El País Vasco’, various places in and around San Sebastián serve high quality girolles, ceps and zizas (St George’s mushrooms), but it’s Chef Garro’s intense mushroomy stock which make this exceptional.

Masterfully cooked, up next, came ‘Squids’ (Chipirónes de anzuelo del día) – Freshly caught that day, simply cooked and drizzled with a little olive oil and finely chopped parsley.

Kokotxas’ (Hake jowls) are a speciality of the region and a particular speciality of Ibai. Here they serve kokotxas “en tres maneras” (three ways) – the classic pil-pil, breaded or ‘confitada’. We opted for the gloopy, emulsified garlic and parsley tinged pil-pil sauce which I think most compliments the distinctive gelatinous texture of the fish.

Beef chop’ (Chuleta de vaca de caserío) – having had the Galician chuleta (txuleta) the night before at the famed Bar Nestor in the Old Town (here) and on a previous trip at Martín Berasategui’s “Eme Be” (here)


'Sorbete y Cava

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