This week saw the first annual institute of Pintxos awards at Palacio de Miramar. As can be imagined there was some controversy but the most important thing was seeing all of the small neighborhood bars finally recognized. San Sebastian is full of wonderful family run places where people put their souls into cooking and serving food that they are proud of. Sometimes they fall under the radar and this was a chance to recognize tiny neighborhood places like Bar Alai in Amara as well as beacons like Bar Ganbara and Casa Urola who keep the Old Part going strong. Bars that strive for the best ingredients and have respect for their suppliers, present a beautifully arranged bar of fresh pintxos made to be eaten in one or two bites or cook to order and that don’t rely on people filling up the proffered plate (WE DON’T USE A BIG PLATE FOR PINTXOS PEOPLE!) …Oh sorry, getting a little worked up. Please don’t take a big plate and fill up with a selection of pintxos from the bar. The whole idea is to try one or two pintxos and something to drink at each bar and then move on to the next place.
Ok back to the Pintxos Institute …Of course there were some big absences and one or two things made everyone shake their heads but all in all its a great list. Hopefully each year will be better and any wrongs will be righted.
Inside the palace high wooden bars were set up with classic pintxos from the oldest and most historic bars some of which haven’t been served in years. Conchita from Alona Berri served her fried sweetbreads. And Jesus and Mikel Santamaria of Bokado made milhojas de cordero y patatas panadera and huevos de cordoniz from their long shuttered Aloña Mendi and Oñatz. They also helped put on the show - handling the infrastructure for the entire event. Ander Gonzalez prepared his father Alfonso’s pastel de pescado from the original Bar Astelena. There was a lot of food!
The best part was seeing all of the hard working cooks who hardly get out of their tiny kitchens celebrating together with a glass of Txakoli on the sunny steps of the Palacio Miramar. In February!
There were lots of new places on the list and a few that couldn’t make it because they have been open less then the requisite year or don’t fulfill other requirements.
So what are my favorite bars and pintxos? They change and I do become obsessed with one or two places but here's a start.
Menestra or Artichoke with Praline and papada at Casa Urola
Casa Urola does everything well, but the chef has a particular genius for
vegetables. The menestra is a restaurant dish, but it can be served at the bar as pintxo versions of whatever vegetable is in season. If I have to pick one seasonal pintxo it would be the artichoke with praline.
Kebab at Borda Berri
Do I really have to choose? Just go eat whatever’s on the blackboard that day. Crisp, salty and lashed with a garlic and parsley sauce, the pork rib kebab at Borda Berri is immensely satisfying. The chefs here cook the way your grandmother would have if she had been Basque.
Pimiento Relleno at Martinez
Many bars have stuffed peppers, but Martinez has the best -- hands down. A wood-fired piquillo pepper is filled with albacore tuna (bonito del norte) mixed with homemade mayonnaise and a hint of tarragon. Ask for a fresh one instead of those on the bar and owner Mikel will make a quick vinaigrette to pour on top and soak up with the delicious bread once you’ve finished your pepper.
Anchovies at Bar Antonio
Bar Antonio is all about product. The best anchovies in town are folded around a spicy house-charred Riojan pepper on freshly toasted bread. The perfect accompaniment to a glass of Txakoli.
Revuelto de Anchoas at Bar Bergara
Bergara is a classic spot in the Gros district, and the soft scrambled eggs filled with sweet peppers and savory fresh anchovies is a winner.
Antxoas a la Jardinera at Txepetxa
For the best anchovies in town, try the “antxoas a la jardinera,” white anchovies covered with a fresh onion, tomato and green pepper salsa; or the “antxoas con crema de centollo,” anchovies with spider crab.
Wild mushrooms at Ganbara
The grilled wild mushrooms with a one-step-from-raw egg yolk have deep rich flavors. Some are just slightly crisp on the edges and soft in the center with a judicious sprinkling of salt. There is almost nothing better, but you might want one of the mini croissants filled with ham while you wait.
Secreto ibérico con puré de patata y manzana del país at Narru
Melt in your mouth marbled Iberian pork with a bit off a sear. This could be your lunch. A must.
Smoked Tuna at Altuna Boutique Bar
Everything they do with cured fish is amazing at Altuna Boutique bar. The dried tuna (mojama) with ajoblanco is also delicious … and the tongue and pickle salad … Is it time for vermouth yet?
Croqueta de Jamon at Gatxupa
Who doesn’t like a perfect croquette?
Papada Crujiente y Limon at Gatxupa
Just the right amount of salty Iberian pork goodness with avocado.
Mini francesa con jamón at Bar Gorriti
My favorite breakfast in town. A light fluffy omelette with a layer of ham which melts into the warm eggs. Make sure you get one as soon as a fresh plate is put on the bar.
Habitas Tiernas con presa iberico y vinagreta de yema at Matalauva
It’s amazing what Borja García Argüelles who has worked in R+D at Restaurant Akelarre for years can do with a salamander, a microwave and a sous vide machine.
Ravioli cremoso de rabo or the green rice at Zazpi
The creamy oxtail ravioli is delicious but the menu changes so it’s always a good idea to try the seasonal pintxo whether it’s truffles in winter or tuna in summer.
Casi bravas at Bokado san Telmo
Crispy potatoes filled with a slightly spicy tomato sauce and aioli.