San Sebastian by Bruce Palling

When one of San Sebastian’s leading bankers regularly leaves his office for a late morning call, his staff assumes it is to a key local contact in the world of business. Well, they are half right. He is ringing Bar Nestor in the back streets of the old town to try and reserve a slice of their renowned tortilla for lunch. The reason for his anxiety is that Pilar resolutely refuses to make more than one per day even though it sells out in seconds. “If I make more than one, people might get tired of them – this way they always come back for more”.

Understand the passion the local residents have for food and you comprehend the mad obsession for a piece of Pilar’s tortilla. It also goes without saying that the San Sebastian vegetable, meat and fish markets are amongst the greatest in the world for exquisite fresh produce at acceptable prices. What also sets San Sebastian apart from other culinary ground zeros is that it excels not just in authentic regional dishes but also in the outer reaches of culinary experimentation and fantasy. Pintxos Bars, as these idiosyncratic holes in the wall are known, should be at the bottom of the San Sebastian food chain as their basic fare is the local equivalent of Tapas, but they are as highly regarded as the top trio of world famous restaurants.  While Bar Nestor is renowned for the best tortilla in town, just around the corner there is a stylish new bar on the block called A Fuego Negro just opposite the church of Santa Maria.

Step inside the all black décor and your first sight is of a row of small eats with crowded wooden skewers that looks all the world like a Yacht Marina in Monaco. The most popular offering here is a pickled pepper with an anchovy and local olive. Here it is commonly referred to as a “Hilda”. This is a sentimental reference to Rita Hayworth’s classic film Gilda – “A little bit green, a little bit spicy and a little bit salty” which in Post-war Spain added up to the sexiest thing imaginable. Behind this modest display there are a series of blackboards offering the most extraordinary culinary juxtapositions, like foam made with bitters over mussels and shrimps with lemon on the bottom. There was also a particularly delicious snack of rare roast beef with a smear of strawberry and chocolate and a touch of chilli. No wonder the entire population of San Sebastian can be seen wandering from bar to bar to see what novelties they can offer.

This contrast between the traditional and Nueva Cocina Vasca (Modern Basque Cuisine) has earnt San Sebastian the reputation of being the secret foodie Mecca of Europe. San Sebastian and its surroundings currently have 16 Michelin stars – a record for a population of less than 200,000. The trinity of Three Star Michelins are world famous –Arzak, run by father and daughter Juan Maria and Elena Arzak; Pedro Subijana’s Akelare and Martin Berasategui. My personal favourite is Arzak, with its whimsical take on traditional ingredients and its evolution through constant experimentation in its own food laboratory above the restaurant. But which are the next restaurants – and bars - likely to extend their reputations in the years to come? Well, Daniel Lopez of Kokotxa (meaning cheek of Cod), which is the currently the best restaurant in the Old Town, gained his first star in 2007 and will certainly not stop there. Lopez studied at the local cookery school, spent three years in Andalusia and had close connections with Akalare before starting on his own six years ago.

His take on the tortilla could not be more different than Bar Nestor. Lopez serves it in a glass with codfish on the bottom, potato on the top and a superbly cooked egg in the middle with parsley and breadcrumbs sprinkled on the surface.

“Why are people from San Sebastian so obsessed with food? Because every major event in our lives happens around the table – it is like our television. Also, we have sea, mountains and France is only half an hour away”.

He is happy to admit that he takes creative risks with his style – his exquisitely rare roast Venison with chestnut cream comes with a dried fruit syrup to evoke wintry flavours while he is on more conventional ground with an aromatic squid ravioli with chicken stock and truffles.

“There is a lot of technique in my cooking but we are always tying to make food that people can get their head around but not lose any flavour in the process.” With that he leaves for the night to prepare for a trip to Japan.  One of the most attractive aspects of the food world in San Sebastian is the genuine co-operation between all the major chefs, and that includes even Ferran Adria of El Bulli. Lopez is spending a day with Pedro Subijana to brush up on some dishes and to video them for his Asian trip while it is not uncommon for other chefs to spend a week at El Bulli to work out any techniques they wish to improve.

On the other side of the scallop-shaped bay of San Sebastian, another young couple has made an impressive start with Xarma, a character-free dining room located in a non descript building near the Basque University. Aizpec Oihanedes and Xabier Diez began their culinary training in Catalonia eight years ago and only opened here in August 2008. Their amuse-bouche of an artichoke slice with a puddle of tapenade certainly excited the taste buds – it was exceptionally intense for such simple ingredients. After that came roasted hake with green sauce foam, fried garlic and parsley oil –the best cooked fish we ate for our entire stay. The main course of whole roasted pigeon with chestnut cream again amazed with its strong flavours. It was a staggering display of Miro-like beauty on the plate, culinary invention and simplicity with an intensity of flavours that really makes this a contender for stardom.

There is however, one establishment that is already knocking on the Three Star Michelin door - Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz.

Located off a spaghetti junction motorway en route to France, this large farmhouse creates some of the most exciting and bizarre cuisine not just in San Sebastian but in Europe. The main dining room takes your breath away – it is like a sophisticated barn with everything done to keep the customers happily tethered to their plates. For a start, there are two little envelopes laid out in front of you which simply state, “150 min…rebel!”  And “150 min…submit!” Inside a little card declares, “150 minutes to feel embarrassed, flustered, fed up. 150 minutes of suffering” and for the submit card, “150 minutes to feel, imagine, reminisce, discover. 150 minutes of contemplation.”  In my case it was more like a 200 minute roller coaster ride veering between submission and rebellion. I consumed two of the most revolting things I have ever tasted offset with some sublime dishes that approach culinary heaven. To deal with the horrors first – a fresh goat curd dish plumbed my culinary nadir, closely followed by the sweet sea urchin in roasted onion nectar which (to me) had a nauseating cloying quality slightly offset by the marine aftertaste. However, Aduriz, who spent years as sous chef to Ferran Adria at El Bulli, can produce extraordinary dishes to make up for this, like his Carpaccio with sweet and sour dressing with cheese chippings and vegetable splinters. Only after you have finished this intriguing blood red carpaccio are you told that it is in fact carefully crafted out of watermelon. His version of surf and turf can also be sublime – Iberian pork tails and pan fried langoustines with reduced braising juices infused from the very best Iberian cured ham. He employs two full time cheese foragers and presents them as tiny slivers on a plate in the order of consumption. Linda Milagros Violago, the Mugaritz sommelier formerly at Charlie trotters in Chicago, is also exceptional in juxtaposing dishes with rare Spanish bottlings.

With this kaleidoscope of flavours, dishes, treatments it would be easy to think that eating in San Sebastian would only appeal to molecular biologists or food faddists. Not true. What makes San Sebastian such a brilliant foodie destination is that underlying every single dish is the notion that eating should be pleasurable – and fun – and it succeeds in spades in both these objectives.