That San Sebastián does stellar food is hardly news. On a recent visit, though we stuck pretty much to pintxos, we did manage to squeeze in a couple of proper restaurant meals. I could tell you that like most foodies visiting SS, we were tempted to have a blowout in one of the world-famous, high-end, San Pellegrino World’s Best restaurants; or I could claim that in late November, our favoured ones were shut. Both would be a lie. The fact is that much as we love food and eating out, we’re not that crazy about three-star dining. It’s not just the expense, it’s the formality, the terrifyingly high expectations, the length of the meals and the absurd cost of the wines (whose ex-cellar price we probably know because we’ve got some squirrelled away, and which we’d do better drinking at home). No, what we really love are young, fun, buzzy places, the kind that are still on the up, with one star max or – better still – working towards one. These are the places we headed for.
First up was Kokotxa in the Parte Vieja of the city. They just celebrated their ninth year in the Michelin 1-star firmament, and last week had their 2 suns (out of the maximum 3 awarded) confirmed in the excellent Repsol guide, so are now firmly into their stride. Though it’s in the heart of pintxo-land (Gandarias is quite close by), it’s a proper restaurant with white tablecloths, dark wood (not too much) and appealing black and white photographs on the white walls. Be warned: the address is given as Campanario 11, but the name on the street sign is in Basque so we had to ask around before falling upon it (it’s just up the steps from Santa Maria church).
We went for the menu del mercado (€62 + VAT) which opened with a dramatic veg combo involving newly-in-season, quartered artichokes, twizzly Chinese artichokes (crosnes in French), neo-natal carrots, sweet onion sections, mangetout and plump mussels poised on a generous smudge of Hokkaido squash. (Smudgey purées are definitely in, see further on.) Beautiful, clever, full of flavour with all the veg. cooked to just the right degree, poised on that fine line between just-right-crunchy and too raw.
The mushroom (hongos) dish was startlingly good, both to look at and to eat: ceps, chanterelles, a low temp/slow-cooked egg yolk rolled in something yummy, crisp-fried crumbs of ibérico pork and another smudge, this time of chestnut purée, the whole served on a knotty slice of polished wood. Beneath the mushrooms and on top of the smudge were some black crumbly bits (see them at the LH edge) – wickedly good but hard to identify. The waitress explained the chef calls them tierra comestible, edible earth, and they’re made from a mixture of foie gras, squid ink and dark chocolate. Wow.
The fishy main course was hake with slippery-crunchy algae and a shellfish foam, and the meat a fork-tender chunk of ibérico pork with a shiny, winy sauce, crunchy Macadamia nuts and another smudge (parsnip?), framed by two slender red, spicy (Piment d’Espelette?) syrupy threads, which provided a piquant burst of heat and spice.
Pudding was a kind of mousse-y roll on top of a slice of nut cake with fresh curd cheese ice cream and apple puree and more crumbs (gotta have crumbs, as well as smudges…).
Our other sit-down, white-tablecloth choice was Xarma, right out in the boonies of SS but, as it turned out, worth crossing town for. It has no stars but gets a good rap, including from Gabriella Ranelli of Tenedor Tours who murmured approval when I told her we’d booked. Weekdays at lunchtime and Wednesday and Thursday evenings there’s a Menu Mercado (€25.50 with wine, coffee and VAT included) but this being a Friday night, it was either a la carte or the Xarma menu (7 courses @ €65 + IVA). We took a deep breath – it was 9.30 p.m. by the time we found it – and launched into the latter.
Here the opening teaser was a single poached scallop with a slender slice of beetroot and (more) crumbs. Between the brace of starters, first a ‘carpaccio’ of tomato and apple, with a tumble of tiny leeks, carrots, radishes and peas and a splodge of hammy cream cheese, and then baby artichokes and seared foie gras with diced purple potatoes interspersed with creamed corn, the latter ran away with the prize spoon.
Next came a pair of fish courses: a little warm castle of salt cod with a glittering bonbon of spring onions infused in Txakoli (the region’s crisp white wine) perched on top, followed by turbot roasted on its skin with alternating blobs of fermented soya and something spicy, an emulsion of baby squid and (another) smudge. Of the two, the turbot stole the show, beautifully done with perfect seasoning with good soft/crunchy/smooth/sharp contrasts, while the salt cod castle, while undoubtedly a picture on the plate, was a bit bland.
I just about recall – it was a busy week of cheese judging and eating pintxos, remember – a tender piece of ibérico pork in sauce with a crunchy tuile and a smudge (encore), but by now I was heading for dessert (and bed): again, of the two offered, the first (mandarin ice cream on an almond and cherry jelly) played second fiddle to a full-on chocolate extravaganza involving white, milk and deep dark chocolate in various guises with a welcome crunch of popping candy on top.
Wines: at both places we drank by the glass, generally our preferred option as you can taste several different wines and not get stuck with a single bottle. In Spain they make this easy, even offering to open something that’s not actually listed as an open wine (unless it’s Pingus or Vega Sicilia) and charging you for whatever you drink. Kokotxa produced a fine cava for an apero, followed by a citrussy Penedés (pure Xarel-lo), a mouth-filling white Rioja and a decent Verdejo. At Xarma they offered a Godello (fast becoming my fave Spanish white) and a Confesionario Garnacha-Tempranillo blend from Rioja.
In short: two lovely little restaurants that hit the spot and didn’t break the bank, with creative food, original wines and friendly service. I’d go back to either, given the chance.
Footnote: on return from SS I fished out my crumbling Rough Guide to Spain (ed. 2000, with prices still listed in pesetas and euros) and out of curiosity looked up their recommended restaurants in San Sebastián. Akelarre (a 2-star today) was listed as offering a menu at €54; Arzak (with 3 stars) had one costing €48 back then. Today Akelarre, according to their site, has 3 different menus, all at €185. On Arzak’s [truly awful, totally un-navigable] site I couldn’t find any mention of menus or their price – presumably their target clientele is price-insensitive and has decided to go anyway, willy-nilly. Or maybe it’s the kind of place that “if you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it”.