Wednesday, 9 October 2013

5 Best Pinxtos in San Sebastian

Chris and I recently got hitched - whoop! We had our wedding in South West France, at my mum's house, and having driven down with our car, decided to take a mini-moon a bit further along the coast in San Sebastian.

Famed for it's food, San Sebastian promised big things to foodies like Chris and myself and boy did it deliver. Michelin star restaurants aside (more on this in another post), it was the variety and novelty of the many pinxtos bars that we really enjoyed and we like to think that our multiple tasting evenings gave us good authority to choose our five all time faves.

Pinxtos are the Basque Country's version of tapas - little plates of deliciousness. The only real difference between the two is that, rather than ordering from a menu, a lot of the pinxtos are readily laid out on the bar counter for you to help yourself to. You get a giant plate from the barman and load it up with a little bit of what you fancy. Also, rather than being bigger plates deisgned with sharing in mind, most of them are mini dishes for one. The most typical offerings are combinations of hams, cheeses, sundried tomatoes, crab, prawns, fish, all laid atop a slice of toasted French baguette. You can also order hot options from the blackboards behind the bar - these are usually the hidden gems - if in doubt point at other people's food to indicate what you want to try!

Here are our favourite pinxtos of the trip:

1. Crispy Prawn Skewer at Astelena -  This unassuming, characterful bar with a laid back, local atmosphere had oodles of character and lots of yummy things to try. Unlike a lot of the other bars on this list, it was not a famous 'must-visit' destination and was totally un-fancy. As you walk in, the right hand side of the bar showcased the traditional cold, sandwich style pinxtos found throughout the city. However on the left, in addition to the blackboard of hot options, were a novel selection of ready to cook pinxtos covered in cellophane wrappers. This was great for us, as rather than having to guess the contents of the menu, we could actually see it! We tried a variety of these but the best by far were the prawn skewers, wrapped in crispy thin noodles, deep fried and served with an asian soy sauce style dip.The prawns were fresh and cooked to perfection, their soft sweet flesh contrasting nicely with the light, crispy flakiness of the noodles. The pan asian flavours were a refreshing change for our over-worked taste buds, and the portions were generous with at least 5 big prawns per skewer.

2. Solomillo a la plancha at Astelena. Yep, this place again! This time, this little gem of a dish was ordered from the blackboard and was a more traditional plate. Solomillo is on a lot of pinxtos menus. Here, a small piece of melt in the mouth fillet steak, cooked medium rare, is served with a special sauce alongside some pan fried vegetables.  Simple but seriously yummy and the best we tried of this classic dish in the city.

3. Sardines on toast at Atari Gastroteka. This joint is modern, chic and always busy with beautiful young things either sitting down to a full on dinner, or sampling some of the extensive drinks list (try the epic Brockmans G&T). Overall we were a bit disappointed with the level of food here. We felt you were paying more for the surroundings than the quality of the grub. However, it did serve up one of my all time favourite pinxtos of the week. The food in San Sebastian is amazing but can be very rich. After a full tasting menu for lunch at Arzak I couldn't face much for dinner and was after a couple of small, fresh tasting pinxtos to clear my palette. The fresh sardine on toast topped with tomato onion and lemon salsa at Atari did just the trick. Delicious, fresh and a total taste of summer. Simple, fresh, seafood pinxtos like this are surprisingly hard to find - a lot of them tend to either be richly cooked in butter and sauces or are smothered in mayonnaise. This was a refreshing change.

4. Braised Ox Cheek at La Cuchara de San Telmo. This is perhaps the most famous pinxtos bar in San Sebastian, and we couldn't leave without sampling a few dishes at this jam packed bar just off Calle 31 de Agosto. After fighting our way to the bar we ordered a few of their hot dishes (everything is made fresh from the kitchen here, no counter top offerings in sight) and waited expectantly. The braised ox cheek, served on a soft pillow of mash, is their signature dish and it is absolutely amazing. Tender, salty, warming, is one of the best things I've ever eaten. We were not as impressed with the other dishes we ordered although their solomillo and scallops looked out of this world (we were too full by then to order more).

5. Makobe at Fuego Negro. With it's sleek, chic decor and moody lighting, Fuego Negro is edgier than most of the more traditional pinxtos bars in the old town, with contemporary dishes to match. Think cool classics with a twist. The stand out favourite here had to be the mini kobe beef burger served in a sweet potato bun, with a side of banana chips; quirky, fun and delicious. The entire menu here is in Basque so don't be afraid to ask for help with translations. Alternatively, if you like a bit of a surprise, you can try out their pinxtos tasting menu and let them dazzle you with their modern creations.

Bar hopping  in San Sebastian is one of life's true delights. Take an empty stomach, an open mind, an elasticated waist band and let this capital of gastronomy take you on a journey of discovery, all washed down with local wines, ciders and cocktails the size of your head!

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