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Oct 17, 2013 06:26 PM

San Sebastian Questions

I am going to San Sebastian for the first time in late March; I'll be there for three nights. I am planning on going to one or two of the well known two and three star restaurants, preferably for lunch (I am traveling alone, and usually prefer lunch over dinner at these types of restaurants).

Any recommendations if I go to only one "marquis" restaurant? Or if I go to two? If I go to two, I would like to experience two different types of places.

Also, regarding Pintxos, any specific recommendations, or general recommendations or strategies. As a solo diner, will this be a good thing or a bad thing? I am not a fan, in general, of very crowded standing-room-only places, particularly when I am alone.

Thank you.

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  1. "As a solo diner, will this be a good thing or a bad thing? I am not a fan, in general, of very crowded standing-room-only places, particularly when I am alone. "
    However late March is Easter time everywhere should be busy.

    1. Hi:) I just got back from San Sebastian. Here are my notes:)

      Mugaritz and Arzak are two Basque restaurants among the 10 best in the world.

      Pintxo Bars:

      Fuegro Negro: Michelin and NY times rec for pintxos. Order the makobe mini wagyu burger on ketchup infused bun w/ fried banana txips. Awesome! Also the 3 icy scoops of spider crab, avacado and licorice, pastel cherry meringue wafer with mackerel, sheeps cheese and mint. Also the arroz tomatoe, huevo. These last 2 items were out of season when Dave and I were there. This place has a really cool vibe but don’t spend a lot of time here. It was all downhill after the burger.

      Gambara: Asparagus Tempura- pretty awesome. The cold pinxtos didn’t look that impressive. See what other hot specialties they have.

      *Gandarias : The Sirloin is wonderful! The hot and cold pintxos are great here! Try lots!

      **La Cuchara de San Telmo: Foie with apple compote and the cheese laced risotto cremoso- ridiculously good. You’re going to want to spend some time here! No cold pintxos, only hot made to order phenomenal little plates! Do try the beef cheeks and whatever the friendly guy behind the counter recommends.

      *Bergara: In the Gross neighborhood and totally worth the beautiful walk across the bridge. This was a Jose Andres rec for Pintxos. This place was totally local and the pintxos were great!

      Haizea: Stuffed king prawn(hot) and the vegetable brochette (cold). This place was featured in No Reservations. The cold pitxos were not that impressive but the stuffed prawn was divine. Ask for other recs on their hot list.
      *Astelena: The hot pinxtos here are really great! Try the Beef Cheeks, the solomillo plancha, ravioli de foie, the crispy crepes (the “crepes” look like spring roll wrappers) with different fillings and the risotto. As a matter of fact try the ravioli and/or risotto at every bar. They’re all so yummy and filled or made with something different.

      **Zeruko: Difintely one of my faves and apparently everyone else’s. This place was packed! We went back 3 times until we could sit comfortably and enjoy the BEAUTIFUL pinxtos here. Spend some time here and try a lot.

      Nestor: Highly recommended for their perfectly cooked rare steak. It’s huge, on the bone and meant to be shared by 2 people. They only have 2 other things on the menu. Tomatoes and peppers. Both looked amazing! We did not eat here. This place is tiny and you have to reserve a table. You will most likely not be eating pinxtos after your meal but if you’re in the mood for a good steak then go for it!

      Borda Berri: The braised veal cheeks and the risotto were amazing! They were out of the fried sweetbreads and lemongrass ravioli☹

      **La Vina: You MUST go here and order the cheesecake. They’re famous for it and you’ll see why!!

      *Loved **Especially Loved

      When planning your itinerary keep in mind that some of these places are closed Sunday or Monday or both. However, I was surprised how many were open.


      Narru: The ravioli and the iberico steak here was wonderful. NY Times rec - tasting menu for 2 with wine under 60 Euro. Note: not available on Friday and Saturday night.
      Ni Neu: Same as above
      Bodega Alejandro: The 6 course tasting menu here is a steal! 16/39 Euro. Or order from the menu- lasagna of anchovies and ratatouille with gazpacho cream, rich risotto infused with cuttlefish oil and idiazabal cheese

      La Cueva: Supposed to have great local dishes in a casual neighborhood setting

      We ditched our reservations at the Nie Neu, Alejandro and Cueva to eat more pinxtos. It was just too much fun to pass up for a sit down dinner.

      1. We did not plan out any of our Pinxto crawls, but instead strolled through parte vieja, trying places as we went.
        Sure, specific bars are famous for specific plates, but we were never dissapointed no matter where we were.
        The only true strategy we had was trying to remember which streets we covered so we could hit new ground the next night.

        In general, you can sit earlier in the evening. Its more standing later on when things pick up. But this doesn't seem to matter as you have a drink one place, try a tapa or two and move on.
        Everyone is friendly and the bars are very laid back.

        6 Replies
        1. re: porker

          I agree with Porkers strategy, this last trip we followed a list and ate the specified dishes, but on our three previous visits we just chose what looked good and it was just as good.

          It is easy to get a little paranoid about visiting the best of the best but they are all good so little risk of a dud If you simply choose what matches your mood. The places also change in character as the evening wears on and the crowd ebbs and flows so some will be quiet, then heaving, then quiet again.

          SS has got horribly touristy with hordes of food tourists grazing one tapa in each bar, chasing the illusive best of the best. I was in one place and a group ordered no drinks, one tapa each and paid individually. I caught the bar and eye and his expression said it all. It also used to be a lot safer than Barcelona but now the Spanish economy has got worse, and with lots more tourists, I would say it'd now on a par - nothing to fear - but sensible to be cautious.

          1. re: PhilD

            This detail is really useful. I'm off to San Sebastien at the end of May and am trying to get some ideas for restaurants jotted down. I totally understand your sentiment Phil about food tourism. We want to go and feel settled into a bar for a bit and then move on when we feel appropriate!

            Couple of questions that I'm hoping someone can guide me on at the moment.

            I've tried finding opening times on websites and am really struggling. Due to flights and travel arrangements we arrive into San Seb on Sunday afternoon and leave Wednesday morning. I know that Sunday night and Monday are quite often closed days but what have other people's experiences been? We're staying in the old town so is the best option just to wander on the Sunday and Monday and see what'd open and then hope the food is decent?!

            What would people suggest regarding meals in San Seb? By that I mean, we have a table booked at Azurmendi on Wednesday lunch time (based on the feed back here) and I'm debating whether Pintxos on Sunday night, all meals on Monday and all meals on Tuesday is sensible/viable. Are there distinct lunch and evening hours and would you recommend taking a sit down meal at some point to not Pintxos oneself out!

            Finally, how is the language? I love to be involved with the locals and eat what they eat but my Spanish is very limited, French is passable but Basque is not existent!


            1. re: AWaiting

              Language is fine - we speak very little and get by fine. Some surprises when we select tapas but it's an adventure...! Last visit we pointed to others plates if we didn't know what it was - that worked.

              Opening times, generally they open at lunch say 11:30 and go to 2:3o or 3:00. They then kick off again in the early evening after 6:00 to 11:00ish (so not madly late like other parts of Spain). Some open for breakfast,some don't close during the day' so just walk around until you find them.

              Most close one day per week but they stagger closing days - last visit we arrived on a Monday and probably 20% of those we wanted to go to were closed, but plenty were open, and were great. I think the same is true on Sunday.

              I would add one more formal meal into the agenda. Maybe a lunch out of town, or maybe in one of the places near the port (no recommendations I am afraid). I love tapas but five meals in a row my stretch a good thing. Remember some of the bars do have dining sections so you can book to sit and eat - slightly bigger portions and table service - that could be enough to mix it up.

              The old town is good to stay in - a nightmare to get bags to your hotel if it's really is in the middle (ours was the oldest building in SS right in the main tapas street). But do get out and try the bars in the new town and up towards the main cathedral. They have a different vibe and hopefully less tourists - many of the best, and the award winners are out of the old town.

              1. re: PhilD

                Cheers Phil, appreciate the help.

                I knew in my own head that I'd need one sit down but if I'm honest I was hoping to be lazy and wing it on the Pintxos only side as work is manic at the moment and I've not got time to research Pintxos and casual sit down meal!

                From the sound of it, it's hard to eat too badly in San Seb so I may chance my arm and pick based on weather (ie whether we want to sit out) and feel for the place but I'll bear in mind your comment about Pintxos bars not been Pintxos only.

                I'd definitely got a few places on my hit list that were out of the old town. Just need to get my act together and update their location onto Google maps.

                1. re: AWaiting

                  I did quite a lot of research and thought that I'll share it with you:

                  1. Bar Nestor @ le Pescaderia, 11 for tortilla that comes out at 1pm and 8pm (go at 7pm to reserve)
                  Open from Tuesday to Sunday at 12pm and 7pm

                  2. Borda Berri @ Fermin Calbeton 12 for Risotto de “Puntaleto” Idiazabal (cheese risotto), Pulpo a la plantxa con membrillo (Octopus), Oreja de Cerdo con Romescu (pig’s ear), Kanelon Casero de Morcilla, Carrilleras de Ternera al (beef cheeks)
                  Open from 12.30-15.30/19.30-23.30

                  3. Ganbara @ Calle San Jeronimo 21 for mushroom plate , bright orange revellons, seared foie gras and crab pinxtos and Navarra Rose

                  4. Dakara @ Calle 31 de Agosto, 27 for solomillio a la foir (beef steak topped with a piece of foie), scallops served in the half shell, keep an eye out for the scallop gratin.

                  5. Le Cuchara De San Telmo @ Calle 31 de Agosto 28 for beef cheeks + foie gras + vieira "toro" envuelta con tocineta bellota (grilled scallop)+ the Pulpo "roca" a la plancha hojas de berzas (grilled rock octopus with sautéed cabbage leaves) + Cochinilho de Segovia asado lentamente (slow-roasted suckling pig from Segovia) + mushroom risotto

                  6. La Vina @ Calle de Agosto 3 for jamon, tortilla and octopus salad and baked cheesecake (can sit down)
                  Open from 12.30-11pm

                  1. re: misochi

                    Thank you misochi. I've added that to the details that I'm pulling together.

        2. Thanks for the replies. And thank you Rinathoma for the amazing detailed info.

          I am definitely going to book Akelare; I still haven't figured out my second place yet.

          9 Replies
          1. re: fishskis

            If you can make it to Bilbao I highly recommend Azurmendi - it's less than an hours drive from SS on the outskirts of Bilbao (actually near the airport).

            It's Spain's newest 3 star with the chef going from one to two the three stars in about three years which is remarkable. It's the best meal of the year (closely followed by Hedone)

            1. re: PhilD

              We dined at Azurmendi yesterday and just wanted to echo Phil's comments. It was a great meal, artistic and creative and tasty. Will post a longer report when we return home next week.

              1. re: PhilD

                Thank you for this. I will try to make it there.

                1. re: fishskis

                  Phil has a review of Azurmendi dated Sept 21, 2013 here on CH, and if you do a search on 'Andy Hayler Azurmendi' you will see his review from last May, though just skimming again now I see the menu was very different then.

                  Hayler is supposedly the only food writer who has dined at every Michelin 3 star and he rated Azurmendi tops in Spain. As Phil says in his report, go now before it gets too famous and you have difficulty getting a reservation.

                  1. re: willyum

                    Just a caution with Hayler.
                    Check his reviews of other places you like and see what he thought. His tastes may NOT be the same as yours.

                    1. re: estufarian

                      Isn't that the same with any critic/reviewer?

                      1. re: PhilD

                        Of course it is.
                        But I find Hayler, in particular, to have a 'traditional French' palate which is not necessarily compatible with Spanish cuisine - especially 'modern' which he dislikes.
                        Example - he ranks Cal Pep above Mugaritz (absolute numbers, not value).
                        I totally respect his palate and independence, but his tastes (in particular) are vastly different than mine (as I know from having dined at the same restaurant as him on the same night, with entirely different impressions).

                        1. re: estufarian

                          I suspect we may have similar tastes as that is my view of him as well. I also find his take on Chinese food a bit off - particularly his visits to HK where I think he misses a lot.

                          But that is the weird thing with Azurmendi, it's not really the sort of place he usually goes for - I generally trust him more for classic food. I happened to be in the area and have tried most of the usual suspects so thought why not. I am really glad I did as it's anything but classic.

                          I ate at Alinea earlier in the year and we didn't feel it was that great, some influences from the new wave like El Bulli but in our experience nothing that really wowed. Azurmendi was wonderfully different, certainly some new wave influences, but bought together in a really fresh way. Every dish was treat and it really impressed - I was getting fatigued by new wave food that didn't deliver and this restored my faith.

                          Haylers other fave at the moment is Hedone, again I booked with a little trepidation as it had received mixed reviews after it's first flush of publicity, and I though he may have some bias - as an ex Chiswick boy myself I know we jealously guard the reputation of the hood. But again was stunned by the food.....maybe as I age my taste is aligning with Andy's......!

                          1. re: PhilD

                            Although we're veering off-topic, I have every intention of visiting Azurmendi next time I get to Bilbao - based on the Chowhound reviews (especially yours). Andy can't be wrong EVERY time!
                            My last visit to Alinea was a disaster (as I mentioned on Chicago Board) - this is not the place to review that.

                            But - is it possible that it is Andy's taste that's changing? To my knowledge I only dined simultaneously with him on one occasion - he hated it, I loved it.
                            But he's since revisited that place (in 2012) and now raves about it (it now has 3 stars, but didn't when we originally visited). But his previous review has disappeared and isn't referenced (although readers' comments pre-date the existing review).

                            And back to the original request - be aware that in Spain, the lunch menu at top restaurants is usually identical to the evening menu (and the same price). Akelarre is my favourite - but what tipped the scales was that two separate tasting menus were offered so, by sharing, I got to try twice as many dishes. As a solo diner, that option won't be possible.

                            My other choice would be Azurmendi (as I haven't tried it) but of those I've tried, I'd return to Mugaritz (Hayler hated it) or Etxebarri.
                            Mugaritz is not just a restaurant - it's a 'philosophy' - you'll love it or hate it.
                            Etxebarri is almost the antithesis of fine dining, as everything is grilled - exceptionally. But that means the variety of styles is missing. My tip there is to go as soon as they open for lunch - occasionally they have items in very limited supply, so you may get something trapped overnight (as we did - only 2 turtledoves were available).