Food—the cultivation of it, the cooking of it and the eating of it—is a year-round preoccupation in San Sebastián, a small coastal city in northern Spain’s Basque country that boasts more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in Europe. In late November, the town swells with international toques who gather for San Sebastián Gastronomika (November 20–23; sansebastiangastronomika.com), an annual congress hosted for chefs by chefs in the Kursaal, a glowing concert hall on the water’s edge.
Foodies, fellow chefs, journalists and locals hang on every word of the impressive roster of international chefs—this year, the group includes Heston Blumenthal of Dinner and Grant Achatz of Next and Alinea—but the real draws are San Sebastián’s own sons, like Martin Berasategui, Luis Andoni Aduriz and Juan Mari Arzak, who have eight Michelin stars among them.
“It’s a conference with the most important chefs in the world,” says Aduriz, whose restaurant Mugaritz was voted third best in the world by S. Pellegrino, “but it’s primarily a chance to exchange ideas.” Presentations usually involve a philosophical discourse and a demonstration of technique accompanied by high-quality video and samples. Aduriz’s address last year was about failure; the year before that, sadness. The video accompanying Italian chef Massimo Battura’s presentation, “All the Tongues of the World,” included the line “Beef tongue is a meteorite; it’s a planet in itself.” Though some ideas are indeed exchanged during the day, many more (in addition to insults, epithets and recipes) are exchanged on the off-hours over countless glasses of txocali, a local dry white wine, and ever-replenished plates of pintxos at out-of-the-way hidden gems known mostly to—and guarded jealously by—locals. But with this guide, you’ll fit right in.
New Basque Dinner Served Three Ways
The Popular: Cider and Hake
A Short Drive from the city will bring you to Elkano (Herrerieta 2; 34-943/140-024; restauranteelkano.com), a seafood restaurant in the small town of Guetaria that holds mythical cachet among foodies. Father-son team Pedro and Aitor Arregui wait waterside for the freshest catch from the local fishermen, like rodaballo (turbot), which is then served simply grilled. Hake jowls, an area speciality, comes grilled, fried or in pil pil sauce. On Sunday and Monday nights, when most of the city is closed, locals crowd into Aldanondo Jatetxea (Euskal Herria 6; 34-943/422-852) for fried anchovies (off the menu), blistered Guernikan peppers and monkfish with vinegar and garlic. For the cider-house experience, visit Roxario Jatetxea (Errekalde Baserria-Mayor 96; 34-943/551-138), in Astigarraga, whose tortilla de bacalao (cod tortilla) is a favorite among local chefs. The owner, Roxario, is a sort of den mother for the culinary scene.
The Cultural: Pintxos
Tiny and informal, pintxos bars are part concession stands, part cafés and part neighborhood watercooler. Locals know each bar has its signature pintxos—tiny snacks usually speared by toothpicks—and will travel far for them. At the closet-sized Bar Goiz Argi ($ Fermín Calbetón 4; 34-943/425-204), the dishes to get are the garlicky fresh brotxetas de gambas (shrimp skewers) and the deeply satisfying bola de carne (fried ball of chopped beef, pimiento and béchamel). A few doors down is Borda Berri (Fermin Calbetón 12; 34-943/430-342), with its succulent, slowly braised carrillera (veal cheek). Deeper into the Old Town, La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle de 31 de Agosto 28; 34-943/420-840), a sliver-sized spot, specializes in crispy oreja (ear) and seared foie gras. A ten-minute walk to Maruxa (Paseo de Bizkaia 14; 34-943/461-062) is well worth it for the city’s best pulpo de gallega, tender octopus with sea salt and pimiento.
The Cerebral: Edible Stones
New Basque cuisine began in the same year (1976) as Nouvelle Cuisine, but it has taken a brainier edge of late. Though Restaurant Arzak (Avda. Alcalde Jose Elosegui 273; 34-943/278-465; arzak.info), run by the godfather of Basque cuisine, Juan Mari Arzak, is closed until December 1, Mugaritz (Frantzia Pasealekua 2; 34-943/275-771; mugaritz.com), led by chef Andoni Aduriz, is making up for lost time. Set in an old farmhouse, the restaurant burned down in 2010, but Aduriz was undaunted and quickly rebuilt. Today he offers wild tasting menus that challenge our conception of what food is, including clay-coated “edible stones” (made of potato), cloud-like Idiazabal gnocchi and a carpaccio with watermelon (frozen-roasted-rehydrated). But the pleasures aren’t only gustatory. Mugaritz recently collaborated with composer Felipe Ugarte on a concept album inspired by the menu.
And How to…
…Pour Your Sidra or Txakoli
Both sidra (cider) and txakoli (light sparkling white wine) are lightly effervescent. As opposed to Champagne, they won’t fizz over. In fact, aerating the liquid is important, hence the long-distance pour seen at any bar. A beginner should start with the bottle and glass close, gradually lifting the bottle to eye level. Professionals—or those with good aim—start high (about two feet). Either way, pour only small amounts at a time, no more than two ounces. Repeat as necessary.
…Not Sound Like a Tourist
Euskara, the Basque language, is as strange looking as it is strange sounding. But this will help: “Tx,” seen in countless words, makes the sound “ch,” as in “change.” This is important to know when ordering kokotxas (hake) or txakoli.
…Make the Perfect Gin & Tonic
G&T’s are this city’s unofficial cocktail, and Museo del Whisky (Alameda del Blvd. 5; 34-943/424-678; museodelwhisky.com) is its unofficial capital, where chefs and movie stars are often found late into the night. There, bartenders use topflight gin (like Martin Miller gin), Fever-Tree tonic, clear, large ice cubes and an athletic twist of lemon.
...Grill Turbot a la Elkano
Salt the fish generously with sea salt. Forego oil (it will cause flare-ups). Place the fish in a wire fish basket over hot coals, about four to six minutes per side. The skin should blister, and the edges should become crispy, like potato chips. Grill until cooked through. Dress with a sauce of apple cider, vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil scented with garlic and lemon skin.
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