A week in San Sebastian

Friday, July 20th , 2012


San Sebastian (Donostia to the locals) is a charming coastal city in the heart of the Basque country. It is 102km (63 miles) from Bilbao airport if you want to fly in, an hour or so by car using the motorway linking Bilbao and San Sebastian. From the UK you can fly directly to Bilbao from Heathrow via Iberian Airlines (there is no direct British Airways flight), or from Stansted using Easyjet. San Sebastian is blessed with a glorious natural setting, with a crescent shaped harbour, a pier separating two extensive sandy beaches, framed by spectacular cliffs at either end. The architecture is elegant, reflecting the heritage of San Sebastian as the favoured holiday destination of the Spanish monarchy.

San Sebastian is a treasure trove for food lovers at all levels, from simple bars to elaborate cuisine. In the heart of the pedestrianised old town are literally dozens of pintxos (tapas) bars alongside the shops. People stroll between these, having a glass of wine and a small plate of food at each. Most bars have a speciality dish, and it would take weeks to fully sample the dishes on offer just within these few city streets. I tried a few of these, such as the tortilla at Nestor and the suckling pig at Cuchera, but on this trip I only had a chance to dabble in the pintxos. I did enjoy a lesser known bar called Casa Urola, where I tried a wider range of dishes over two visits, but I barely scratched the surface of the pintxos scene here. A place to avoid is Branka, which boasts very ordinary food though a stunning view over the harbour.

There is a deep local food culture in the area, with excellent produce available in the local markets. We stayed, as we did on previous trips, at the recently refurbished and excellent Maria Christina hotel, which is just on the edge of the old town, a short stroll from the beach. I was particularly impressed by the seafood restaurant Elkarno in a little fishing village called Geteria, Here we ate whole turbot grilled over charcoal in the open air, and the quality of the fish was breathtaking, simply served but with superb flavour. This is a restaurant that seems to have eluded Michelin entirely, yet the turbot here was better than at most three star Michelin restaurants. As a bonus, some of the prestigious Spanish wines in their cellar are well below the UK retail price. It reminded me of Extebarri, the excellent grill restaurant in the nearby Pyrenees.

At the fine dining end of things, San Sebastian has no less than three restaurants with three Michelin stars, as well as arguably the current spiritual home of modern cooking in the form of two star Mugaritz. Akelarre was closed this week, but I revisited Arzak and Martin Bersatagui, with unexpected results. On my last visit here I very much enjoyed Arzak but was unimpressed by Martin Bersatagui, but on this trip Martin Bersatagui delivered a much-improved meal, whereas Arzak had a distinctly off night compared to my two prior experiences here.

Mugaritz is the kind of restaurant that is likely to leave you with a strong impression, or way or the other, with its highly technical modernist cooking using just about every culinary gadget and trickery known to man. I did not enjoy it very much, as ingredient quality was mediocre and many of the taste combinations seemed just to clash or be experimental for the sake of it, rather than being nice to eat.

The find of the trip was a very simple but very authentic local restaurant called Ibai, a place well known to locals but again seemingly off the tourist map, and one of the toughest reservations to get in the city. This had simply dazzling seafood and vegetable produce, cooked simply to show off the pure flavour of the ingredients. I had some of the best sole and squid I have ever eaten in my life here. Overall, San Sebastian is a delightful place to visit for a vacation, with its lovely setting, glorious beaches and terrific food at all levels.