Margaret and Dick   


July 2013: Foodie fiesta

We were digesting lunch on the beach in San Sebastián when Margaret announced, "This is my Napa Valley replacement. It's closer, it’s cheaper, and the food is better.  The beach is a ten-minute walk from the hotel, and the water's warm.  The wines may be better in Napa, but they’re two to three times the price.  And they don't have the running of the bulls."  Perhaps it is a good thing we don't speak Spanish very well, or we'd be looking at real estate in San Sebastián.

We were pretty sure we would like San Sebastián, but we really weren’t prepared for this particular brand of fabulous.  We were hooked from the first night when the receptionist at our friendly hotel (Arrizul Gros) marked up the map of San Sebastián’s old town showing his favorite pintxos (“pinchos”, Basque tapas) bars.  A serous foodie himself, he recognized like-minded spirits.  This is the same guy who had given us tips for seeing the running of the bulls in Pamplona.  He was like a personal restaurant guide.

In four days / five nights we enjoyed a three-star destination restaurant (Martin Berasategui), grazed through innumerable pintxos bars, and discovered a superb family restaurant (La Muralla).  We visited the marvelous Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and the fine little San Telmo museum of Basque history in San Sebastián.  We treated ourselves twice to the beach that was so near our hotel.  And, of course, there was that side trip to see the running of the bulls.


The biggest attractions in the old town and in our neighborhood were the little pintxos bars.  The idea is to stroll from bar to bar, choosing one or two of the two-bite tapas at each bar, often washing them down with the local txokoli white wine.  At three to five euros apiece, this is not a dinner that will break the bank, as evidenced by the masses of locals.  It might be as simple as smoked salmon or ham on a little croissant, or it might be an elegant foie gras.  You might tuck into a portion of tender octopus on tomato salad.  Competition is fierce:  the locals all know which bar won which award for which pintxo last year, and the tourists are up to speed on the TripAdvisor ratings.  Innovation and quality ingredients were to be found everywhere.

Fine dining

A trip to the culinary capital of the universe isn't complete without a gastronomic blowout, but our San Sebastián getaway was planned at the last moment.  Alas! how can we get one of the best tables with one week's notice?  In a flash of inspiration, we asked sommelier Thomas at our favorite Carcassonne two-star restaurant Le Parc Franck Putelat if he had any inside track.  “Please let me speak with the chef.”  Et bien voilá – suddenly we had a reservation at three-star Martín Berasatagui.  Unlike some restaurants of this calibre, Martín B is a relaxed and friendly place.  The food was the best of modern Basque cuisine, with molecular-cuisine tricks applied unobtrusively to enhance the taste experience.  The waitrons showed easy grace in their white gloves.  The sommelier was ever-present to talk about the pairing of the next local wine to the next course.  And the chef stops to visit at every table, posing for photos if requested.  The maître d’ had tipped us off that Chef Martín speaks no English but very good French.  All staff are required to speak English, French, and Spanish; at least one waiter spoke Basque; the maître d’ speaks Japanese and Italian as well.  His communication skill was, for one course, quite critical.  When presenting a near-spherical ravioli stuffed with liquid squid ink, he warned, "Be very sure to eat this ravioli in a single bite – otherwise the results can be quite spectacular." Once safely in the mouth, the ravioli sphere exploded into a delicious squid broth.  This young maître d’ has come a long way from his Dominican Republic birthplace, and we’re sure he has a bright future in the Berasatagui empire.  

The twelve-course tasting menu was a religious experience that spanned three and a half hours.  Because writing about food tastes is about as futile as writing about love of music or art, we’ll let a few photos of the dishes speak for themselves.

After lunch we played a round of “Which three-star restaurant (now seven and counting) is your favorite?” We agreed that the best is always the most recently visited, and the runner-up is the next one in our future.

Our San Sebastián visit was not entirely about food.  At least twice a day, we would walk from our hotel to charming little places in the old town.  We made two trips to the “surfing” beach, where the water was surprisingly warm for the Atlantic, the waves were tame enough for body-surfing, and the people-watching was terrific.  There was culture to be had at the Guggenheim and San Telmo museums.

And then there was our side-trip very early one morning to watch the encierro in nearby Pamplona.  As a spectator sport, the running of the bulls is ever so much more efficient than the Tour de France.  In France you blow three weeks of July in front of the TV.  In Spain, for nine days in July, you turn on your TV at 7:45 a.m. to watch the countdown, at 8:00 they release the bulls, and by 8:05 you are already watching gory reruns.  If you’re tempted to go watch, see my pointers on TripAdvisor.  If you’re tempted to go run, don’t.

So much better to leave the Pamplona hordes and return to the bliss of San Sebastián.  As we napped in the car after our blowout lunch, I heard Margaret murmur, “Must stop … cannot tolerate more bliss … will never need to eat again.”

What would we be without our illusions?  Thinner, I think.



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