Thursday, August 30, 2012

San Sebastian, Spain - Day Two in the Basque Country

Day two started with breakfast at Oiartzun, a bakery and gelateria just one block up from the beach, near the City Hall. This bakery is absolutely out of this world, and your biggest problem will be deciding what to order. Solution: go back every hour on the hour and try something new, or look for the signs indicating which pastries are the speciality of the house. 

We took a long walk around the town again after breakfast. The Kursaal Convention Center and Auditorium is a particularly striking building designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, and is home to the biggest film festival in Spain, The San Sebastian International Film Festival.

City Hall

Kursaal Music Hall

Lunch was a five minute drive out of town to one of the World's 50 Best Restaurants called Arzak led by a father - daughter team. The chef, Elena Arzak, who came out and greeted us at the table, was voted The World's Best Female Chef 2012. To fully experience this cuisine, you should order the tasting menu (€178).

Lunch started off with bread service (wheat and white served with Andalusian olive oil) and five small bites. 
Chorizo with tonic and corn, figs and black pudding
Kabraroka (scorpion fish) pudding in fried fideos (a type of vermicelli used in Spanish cuisine)
Ancho y Fresa 
Marinated sardines and strawberry
Gooseberry with coconut
Cromlech y Cebello con Te y Cafe
Cromlech stuffed with foie gras and carmelized onions dusted with coffee and green tea
Crab with anise waves
White tuna, prickly pear and figs
Chocolates in the shape of screws, bottle caps, keys, and bolts
The bolts were dark chocolate bits, and nuts were salted white chocolate blobs that were painted grey. Bottle caps were made of gelatin and topped with pop rocks, while the keys were silver dusted chocolate.

My overall sentiments on Arzak are the following: if you enjoy the Michelin dining experience of tiny little bites of interesting flavor juxtapositions and don't mind staff hovering over you every second and a final price tag that requires smelling salts, then go for it. 

As for me, I was infinitely happier ordering a plate of pinchos and local wine for €15 at the bars in town and kibitzing with the locals. Maybe, like me, you have heard so much about Arzak over the years that you just need to experience it for yourself. 

After lunch we hit the shops to take a look at the new fall fashions (whereby "take a look" means we did some serious credit card damage). I would highly recommend two stores, the first is the Noventa Grados Concept Store, for all your high-end, edgy, brands: Balenciaga, Rick Owens, Stella McCartney, Margiela, Marc Jacobs, etc. 

Our second favorite shop, was the very reasonably priced El Hangar, which carries trendy pieces with fun details, and all of the items are arranged by color. This shop is so popular that there are two locations within mere blocks of each other. I picked up a fabulous fur vest and a matching obi-style leather belt, as well as a fur collar that can be worn with absolutely any top.

All of that shopping worked up an appetite, or perhaps we just stretched our stomachs so much over the last few days that now we required more food ... either way we hit the pinchos bars again for dinner. 

Now listen carefully: no trip to San Sebastian is complete without a stop at La Vina for their world famous cheesecake (tarta de queso).  

I have talked to New Yorkers who are die-hard cheesecake fans and swear by their favorites in NYC and Queens, and even they conceded that this cheesecake tops them all! Its light and fluffy and melts in your mouth, almost like a soufflé with a caramelized top (not dense and filling like the kind we are used to at home). I think the person on Trip Advisor who wrote "ENJOY THE CHEESECAKE AND DIE!!!" said it best.

Don't tell anyone, but I took a huge slice to go and ate it for breakfast the next morning on our drive to France. I would have bought an entire cake to take home and share with friends if I thought it would have lasted more than an hour in my possession. 

Animated locals at La Vina

I will be dreaming about the food we had on this trip for the rest of my life. I hope to come back here someday soon to relive it all again. Until then, I will be on a vicious diet :-) 
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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

San Sebastian, Spain - Day One in the Basque Country

I just spent a hugely enjoyable four day weekend in the Basque Country in San Sebastian, Spain and Biarritz, France. I had wanted to go to this region for some time now, as I heard that San Sebastian is the gastronomic capital of Europe (they have many Michelin star restaurants, not to mention pintxos bars) and all my friends who have gone have come back raving about it. I cannot recommend this area enough!!

We flew into Biarritz from London and drove the 40 minutes to San Sebastian (you can also fly into Bilbao and drive as well). As for hotel choices the two best are: the 5 star beautifully interior designed Starwood property Maria Cristina, which is not on the ocean, or the 4 star Hotel Londres, which is smack on the beach. We went for the sea view room at the Hotel Londres and left the balcony door open each night so we could fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves.  

Our balcony at Hotel Londres. Jacket, Giorgio Armani. Dress, Roberto Cavalli. 

As we arrived very early in the morning, our first stop was breakfast. We decided to go straight for the famous pintxos (or pinchos) in the local bars, which are like tapas, and are a huge component of the social scene in San Sebastian. Pincho means spike, and refers to the toothpick that is put through these bar snacks to keep them together. We both had a huge Spanish omelette (eggs, onions and potatoes) in bread and sat outside at a traditional bar called Bideluze (Plaza de Guipuzcoa, 14in the center.

After breakfast (well it was already noon) we spent the rest of the day getting to know this quaint town, walking through the small streets, doing some shopping and peeking in the windows of all of the amazing bakeries. We took a long walk on the beach in the beautiful sunshine and then got ready for the main event: bar hopping for pinchos all evening.

Our first stop was Gandarias. This is how it works: you ask the bartender for a plate, you help yourself to the huge array of pinchos laid out on the bar, and then show your plate to the bartender so he can tell you your total. You also order your wine from him and if you like, hot pinchos, like croquettes as well. Make sure to order the hot steak pinchos at the bar, this is what Gandarias is famous for.

The famous steak pinchos at Gandarias
Hot baccala croquettes ... creamy and delicious!

After gorging ourselves on pinchos and wine at Gandarias, we went to another bar called Bar Aralar. Each bar has its own special pinchos, so you can pop in and out of each one, grab your favorites and then head to the next. I absolutely loved the pinchos! You spend as much time as you want in each bar, there is no waiting to be served or hanging around to receive the bill, it is great for socializing and meeting new people, and you can taste tons of different things so the meal is always varied. I wish I could eat like this every night! The best part is the prices are dirt cheap. A glass of amazing local wine was €1.70.

After our pinchos dinner, we took a very long walk around the port, the beach and the boardwalk and watched the sun set. We were particularly struck by the friendliness of the local people. 

Dress, Roberto Cavalli. Long cardigan, JCrew.

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