||KRISTEN MARANO, Contributor
I had a stunning realization the day I came home from a two-week vacation in Spain — I didn’t eat enough.
If you’re a foodie like me, I advise you to add San Sebastian to your travel destination list. Bordering the south of France, San Sebastian is a small Basque-speaking town known globally for its cuisine and Michelin-star restaurants.
A taste of San Sebastian at Nagusia Lau including shrimp wrapped in bacon, a mussel tart and crab-filled pastry. Photo by Kristen Marano
The food is fresh, interesting and exquisite. While traveling throughout this slice of paradise, you will often find yourself saying: “I’ve never tasted anything this amazing.”
Pintxos, the Basque word for tapas, attracts people from all over the world. From pintxos bars in the old town lined with cobblestone streets to pintxos bars in the new town lined by untouched beaches, you will become a foodie whether you are one or not. We spent four nights in the old town, and were quick to fall in love with the food.
The dining experience in San Sebastian is refreshingly different than in North America. While we’re used to sitting down for a full-plated meal, locals here enjoy small portions of food, and instead of dining at only one restaurant, they often move on to two or three other spots. While traveling, this makes for an exceptionally fun and social eating experience.
So what can you expect of pintxos, you ask? My first taste of San Sebastian: shrimp wrapped in bacon, tarts filled with mussels and crab-filled pastry.
After a walk alongside the turquoise-blue ocean, wafting sweet and salty scents, my travel friend Genevive and I stepped into Nagusia Lau, a rustic restaurant designed in beach-like accents with a mix of white and wood. It’s here where Genevive and I learned how to order pintxos and discovered San Sebastian wine — we likened the taste to a fruity and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc.
We walked up to the bar lined with pintxos, were given a plate, selected our pintxos, paid and sat down. At Nagusia Lau, much like the rest of San Sebastian, hot dishes can be ordered, but most people favour ordering prepared pintxos from the bar. After this first divine meal in Nagusia Lau, we couldn’t resist going back before we left.
San Sebastian in Basque Country, Spain. Photo Credit: iStock
Learn to appreciate food:
Dining on pintxos teaches you the importance of eating slowly and appreciating different flavours. In fact, pintxos came about when people needed a way to kill time while waiting for dinner.
The tradition and importance of pintxos is evident in the skill and time chefs take to prepare a work of art, often presented on a thin slice of baguette.
Hot dishes are also popular, everything from croquettes and fried cheese balls (which are often mixed with other ingredients, such as ham, sausage and spinach) to potatas bravas, a must-try dish that can be found at almost all restaurants in San Sebastian. We enjoyed this dish of fried potatoes and spicy sauce at Casa Senra, located in the new town’s Gros neighbourhood.
While we spent most of our time dining in the old town, tempting gastronomic-fare is abundant in the new town and also well worth exploration.
Tips for pintxos hopping in the old town of San Sebastian
El Fuego Negro:
At 31 Agosto St. in the old town, El Fuego Negro (Black Fire) is a trendy bar with buzz, where locals and tourists pour in from 8 p.m. onwards.
Pull up a stool in the front or sit down in the back for a longer meal. Decorated with black, red and white accents, a hint of these colours is evident in each dish (think red-ketchup buns of the Kobe beef burgers). We spent three of our four nights here meeting people from Toronto and New York, as well as locals including San Sebastian’s world-champion kayaker.
The cobblestone streets of San Sebastian lined with pintxos bars. Many restaurants are only steps from the water. Photo by Kristen Marano
Top picks: Here you’ll find simple food with a twist — garlic risotto and “dirty” salad, featuring a mix of arugula, roasted red peppers and eggplant with a black olive paste.
Tip: Start with a glass of wine or beer and order two tapas. Have one to yourself or share with a friend.
The main square, Plaza de la Constitución, hosts many of the city’s festivals, and people congregate daily to sit, watch, eat, chat and play. Astelente, tucked away in a corner of the square, is known as one of the best pintxos places in the old town.
Top picks: Steak (don’t expect a heaping portion) topped with sea salt and served with mini roasted veggies, such as corn and carrots. Also try the jamon and queso (ham and cheese) or chorizo (sausage) croquettes.
Tip: Eat at the bar and take in the bustling vibe of the restaurant. If you want to meet other travelers, be sure to stop in, and if you’re looking to enjoy a nice glass of wine in the afternoon, Astelente is the place to be.
For those who have more to spend on a culinary experience, San Sebastian hosts up to 16 stars in Michelin-rated restaurants. Visit traveleatcook.com, a blog started by a traveler now living in San Sebastian, to get an idea of what you’re in for.
Prices: While San Sebastian’s currency is the Euro, we found lunch, dinner or glass of wine was relative to what you’d pay in Canada. For example, a glass of wine was on average three Euros, less than six Canadian dollars.
When to eat: Restaurants open between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. for lunch. Unlike the rest of Spain, dinner starts a bit earlier, from about 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., and most restaurant kitchens close at 11 p.m.
Kristen’s curiosity about people, things and places makes her a born traveler. With food and fashion always on her mind, Kristen’s take on a good trip often involves doing as the locals do, from wandering side streets to checking out the local markets and discovering a city’s up-and-coming designers. Kristen is a Toronto-based writer who also contributes to TorontoStandard.com.
Date Added: July 6, 2012 | Comments (2)
Comment by Kristen — November 21, 2012 @ 10:16 pm