That San Sebastián does stellar food is hardly news. You can feast famously on pintxos, and there are more three-star restaurants than you can shake a stick at. But after a few days perching on bar stools and/or fighting your way to the front to order your food, you need a sit-down job. Most foodies visiting SS head for one of the (many) world-famous, high-end, San Pellegrino World’s Best restaurants.
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). We’re more into young, fun, buzzy places, the kind that are still on the up, with one star max or – better still – working towards one.
One that really hit the spot was Kokotxa (@restaurante_kokotxa on Instagram) – the name means ‘cod cheek’, a favoured part of the fish in the Basque country. It’s situated in the Parte Vieja of the city – note that 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, above). They just celebrated their tenth year in the Michelin 1-star firmament, and have 2 suns (out of the maximum 3 awarded) in the Repsol guide to Spanish restaurants, 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 photos on the white walls.
We went for the menu del mercado (€65 + 10% VAT) which opened with a show-stopping 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. 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 – not cod cheeks, but – 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…).
Wines: 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. We had a fine cava for an apero, followed by a citrussy Penedés (pure Xarel-lo), a mouth-filling white Rioja and a decent Verdejo.
I could have done with a bit more warmth from the human beans in attendance, but I loved the food, the different textures and flavours – and the chance to sit down in comfort after a few days of pintxo-perching. Would I go back (always the test)? You betcha!