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Chiseled Basque mountains, country roads hidden from global positioning systems, fields of shaggy sheep, old men in berets? Too postcard perfect. And to eat an unadorned cast of sea creatures, their essence sullied by little more than salt, butter and charcoal smoke? More simple perfection. Maybe too much so.

Etxebarri parking lot

I wasn’t convinced that Etxebarri was for me. Do you think I talk about chain restaurants and all of their cheese-smothered, common denominator glory because I’m being ironic? No, I need the grotesque in my life, and by grotesque I mean greatness. I’m also confused.

Sheep in axpe

It doesn’t seem right for me to deride Americans’ blind obsession with Italy and all the Tuscan trappings while allowing for faux stone farmhouses and never ending bowls of pasta in the suburbs. I hate our fixation with old world charm. When everyone agrees on what natural beauty is—A grassy rolling hill? A vineyard at sunrise?—it becomes a cliché.

Next you start travertining up your suburban home, installing a wrought iron wine rack and putting up wallpaper borders painted with clusters of grapes. Mass produced facsimiles cloud what was appealing about the original in the first place and it all starts seeming tainted.

Now, I have a hard time with genuine Italian landscapes because it makes me think of Olive Garden. Yes, the Olive Garden that I occasionally enjoy. Like I said, I’m confused.

Etxebarri facade

Luckily, there isn’t a mainstream fetishization of Spanish culture in the US—at least not beyond calling anything served on something smaller than a dinner plate, tapas. When I stand in a courtyard in Axpe and stare at  a whitewashed stone facade, I don't think Vegas casino or Cheesecake Factory (maybe a little Swiss chalet).

But of course, Extebarri, an asador famous (even my mom knew it from No Reservations, which I thought she wasn’t watching anymore because she thought Tony was arrogant) for chef  Victor Arguinzoniz’ mastery of smoke—and its hard to get to location between San Sebastián and Bilbao—is no facsimile. It’s also all that it was cracked up to be.

Etxebarri chorizo

We’d been gorging on various chorizos from a fancy deli near our apartment; little spicy ones, fat vinegary ones, but none of the cured sausages were as soft and balanced as the three fork-and-knife slices we were served as an introduction.

Etxebarri goat butter

The thick slab of smoked goat’s milk butter, the creamiest cream mixed with full-on barnyard funk and campfire, was almost overpowering at first. Rich, sooty and caprine with only a few paper-thin slices of mushroom for diversion, this was possibly the most decadent treat I’ve encountered, no truffles, foie gras or gold leaf necessary.

Etxebarri gambas

Palamós prawns, mine with one feeler that unfurled a half-foot off of the plate, were spot-on. I pulled the head from the body before thinking to suck the head and had to salvage the rush of smoked, buttery liquid with a hunk of rustic bread. I could make a whole meal (a very expensive meal) out of these meaty crustaceans. These were a highlight.

Etxebarri baby octopus

The octopus were small where the prawns were mighty. Grilled, but not charred, the little creatures were served in a straightforward manner with only a little smudge of ink for reference. I’ve seen other write-ups where there was an accompanying onion jam, but all I remember was the naturally sweet flesh, no extra sweetness.

Etxebarri shaved mushrooms, egg yolk

Wild Saint George’s mushrooms formed a tuft atop of a perfectly runny egg yolk (I can’t tell you how many times in recent history I’ve been served a way too stiff yolk—ok, twice, both in Brooklyn). Despite the egg’s brightness, this was a very quiet dish, a respite course. I don’t recall what was listed on the menu, but I imagine these were hongos. I’d asked my Madrileño Spanish teacher before my trip whether they used seta or hongo in Spain and he said seta. Of course, hongos abounded on every menu in San Sebastian and sat whole, big as a baby’s head in baskets on countertops. I’m not sure if this is because the Basque region is crazy for wild mushrooms or that my teacher isn’t really into food—I mean, he eats soyrizo.

Etxebarri pea soup

Pea soup showcased more spring produce and was smokier from wood than ham. Ok, there was a tiny wisp of jamón lurking the green puree. And of course, a flower.

Etxebarri angulas

Angulas, not the imposter gulas seen in grocery stores and on pintxos, were buttery, slippery with an unexpected crunch like firm fish noodles. I tried looking for their microscopic eyes to remember they were actually eels.

Etxebarri sardine

No eyes on the plump, headless sardine. The oiliness was cut by the handful of arugula.

Etxebarri txuleta

Even though full—little things always add up—I knew the chuleta was coming and was excited for a hunk of meat. I’d been anticipating its arrival after seeing family-sized versions of it on the tables of large groups of Spanish-speakers who’d ordered a la carte (which isn’t a bad idea if you’ve been once and already did the tasting to know what you like most).  I don’t know that there’s such a thing as a doggie bag in Spain, or Europe in general (it seems to be ok in Asia and Latin America), a bolsa de perro? (Bolsa para perros, which is what you get if you Google bolsa de perro,  is something very different.) So, the medium-rare-verging-on-rare (beware, done meat-lovers, you’re not asked) slices of aged beef had to all be eaten on the spot. A super-vinegary side salad helps revive the appetite. We discreetly tried to get all the fatty, charred remainders clinging to the bone without resorting to using our hands and gnawing. Those are the best bits.

Etxebarri lemon custard

A lemony custard, supremely eggy, sugar powdered, and possibly the only non-smoked dish.

Etxebarri smoked milk ice cream

Can you smoke ice cream? Of course you can. The innocent-looking scoop of vanilla hit with an ashy background and berry (blackberry?) sauce made me think that s’mores might be good with a smudge of fruity jam.

Etxebarri rainy courtyard

The only rainstorm of the week hit when we were inside.

I thoroughly enjoyed the blast of nature and purity, in fact, it might’ve been the most memorable meal of all from this week in Spain, but I still made (ok, he wanted to go too) James pull over the rental car at Eroski, a massive supermarket, in a small town right before the highway on-ramp. It was time to cram-in some less picturesque culture.

Etxebarri * Plaza San Juan, 1, Axpe, Spain


I’ve put off writing about the Michelin-starred portion of my now-ancient-seeming vacation (I already need another one!) because, honestly, if you follow restaurant blogs to any degree and even casually keep up on Spanish cuisine, you’ve probably seen countless versions of these photos before (I just chanced upon a stranger’s fresh Mugaritz batch this morning via vias on Twitter) and probably captured with more finesse. Maybe you’ve seen the potatoes that look like rocks or the haystack out front near the parking lot or maybe shots of a blogger in the pristine kitchen at Mugaritz (I didn’t ask—that’s just something nice they do). I was here, I ate this, I did this! Me too.

Mugaritz entrance

Who knows the motivations that drive the mortals paying out of their own pockets to travel to far-flung destinations, snap photos and post their uninfluential impressions online. Are they showing off, bragging? Sharing knowledge, being servicey? As the I Ate At El Bulli Pieces build to a crescendo (men named Adam are now helicoptering in? By the way, have you ever seen an IAAEBP  not written by a man? ) I can’t fault a single non-Heather Graham (is Spain considering her a VIP like Hasselhoff being big in Germany?) for wanting to document and capture a memorable dining experience, despite the lack of vintage Dom Pérignon (at least none of the last call at El Bulli missives referred to it as champers, ugh) and five dozen courses. Mugaritz may not be El Bulli–and it doesn't need to be–but common folk should also be able to indulge in blathering on about their trips to Spain. Me, I like to dork out on food.

Mugaritz dining room

And not all food bloggers and Chowhounders are starry-eyed. Mugaritz is the most polarizing of the San Sebastián upper tier. That many say the service and atmosphere trumps the food, had me a little nervous. Yes, the cooking is far more conceptual than Extebarri and even more so than at Arzak, where experimental techniques are also employed (a little more playfully), but anyone with the means to do so  should certainly experience Andoni Luis Aduriz’s food first-hand. At least once. Once might be enough for most. I would go back for a different season, if I lived closer by.

Mugaritz kitchen

I went in a little blind, not scrutinizing Flickr beforehand or knowing much about the philosophy. I’m paraphrasing a bit but when given the kitchen tour a third of the way through the meal by one of the chefs, Oswaldo, he explained that they were “focusing on texture,” a worthy sense to explore and one less prized in the West unless we’re talking about popcorn and potato chip crunch—Americans love crunch.  In parts of Asia, people enjoy the crackle of cartilage and fried bones, slipperiness of noodles and the mucilaginous quality of fermented soy. 

At Mugaritz texture wasn’t being completely favored over taste, but prioritized to some degree. In fact, I was a little surprised to hear that they don’t use local produce, but cross the French border and shop at markets in Saint-Jean-de-Luz where the vegetables are smaller, better textured and the flavor concentrated. Despite a penchant for morphing  ingredients, Mugaritz is very about nature. Once I realized this approach, my expectations shifted for the remainder of the meal and gave me a different perspective on what I had already eaten.

Mugaritz cards

You’re given the option to submit or rebel. I wonder how much the menus vary because everyone seems to rebel. “150 minutes to feel embarrassed, flustered, fed up. 150 minutes of suffering,” you’re warned. When all of the amuses started arriving at once, willy-nilly with hard to catch explanations, some in English, some in Spanish (I took the suggestion of not seeing the menu ahead of time so everything would be a surprise) we joked, “It’s working–they are trying to fluster us!” I’m high-strung, so it doesn’t take much.  But really, a tableful of treats to start has been the modus operandi at most modern Spanish restaurants I’ve dined at, not the one-by-one procession I've encountered in the US. This is when you can sit back and sip your aperitif; cava, non-vintage, if you’re me.

Mugaritz piedras comestibles

Piedras comestibles. The edible rocks with a kaolin (an edible clay, which I ate twice in this week, oddly–or maybe not for San Sebastián. I only knew what it was because a million years ago when I visited my sister after she first moved to the UK, I noticed an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal called kaolin and morphine. Did I just whet your appetite?) shell. These are served with an aioli for dipping and they’re sitting in a pepper mixture, probably the only pepper I encountered the whole spice-phobic week. Weirdly, these did not taste super-potato-like but kind of bland. Maybe it’s those French low-flavor vegetables at work.

Mugaritz cerveza de legumbres tostadas, tapa de olivas y albuias con tomillo

Cerveza de legumbres tostadas, tapa de olivas y alubias con tomillo. The warm “beer” made from toasted chickpeas and olives crafted from beans (for those who’ll never taste Adrià’s famous spherefied green olives) set the tone. The temperature and earthy, mealiness messed with the expected cold and yeasty, briny tastes.

Mugaritz cristal de almidón y azúcar manchado con praliné y coraels del buey de mar

Cristal de almidón y azúcar manchado con praliné y corales del buey de mar. I immediately started losing track of what was what—was this real sea urchin or “sea urchin?”—and stopped over-analyzing. Crackly and sweet like uni candy, I tried to enjoy the arrangements of the food as they were, not a puzzle.

Mugaritz focaccia de almidón de pueraria a la parilla

Focaccia de almidón de pueraria a la parilla. Brittle, crackle-bread skeleton, grilled and made of a powdered herb called pueraria. I don’t know what the tomato-y swipes were. Maybe a little challenging in its plainness.

Mugaritz el verdor de guisantes lágrima animado con acederas rojas y mascarpone

El verdor de guisantes lágrima animado con acederas rojas y mascarpone. Rice krispie peas without much distraction from the listed mascarpone.

Mugaritz soup progression

Sopa de mortero con especias, semillas, caldo de pescados y hierbas frescas. This broth epitomized Mugaritz for me. It was certainly some crunchy soup. Interactive dishes are tricky—how long should I pound this stuff before we move on to the next step? Sesames in your teeth, blasts of pink peppercorn, slightly bitter herbs so prominent, I barely even noticed the fish broth after it was poured. Flavor and texture.

Mugaritz shhh...muerdete la lengua

Shhh…muerdete la lengua. Ok, I do like puzzles even though I said above that I was trying to take everything at face value too. But in this case, we were told to guess the secret ingredient. Something beefy? Indeed, cow tongue had apparently been, cooked then pulled apart strand by strand (I would never have the patience to stage at a restaurant) and dried into floss. I’m crazy about meat floss, though I like mine fried, Thai-style full of chiles and shredded lime leaves. This was more purist, a little Brillo-y and it even had the dreaded flowers, while the predominant flavor was roasted garlic hidden inside the bramble. But when thinking back to Mugaritz over the course of a week, this is the dish that always came to mind first. Pretty, kind of grotesque, fanciful. I wouldn’t want to eat an entire meal of compositions like this, but I appreciated the diversion.

Mugaritz potaje meloso de pan cubierto de carne de buey de mar y geránio rosa

Potaje meloso de pan cubierto de carne de buey de mar y geránio rosa. I was not crazy about this one. Yes, yes, I’ve admitted my baby-ish aversion to flower petals in my food, but it’s purely a visual mental block. This soup, though, was completely perfumed with geranium, much worse than actually seeing petals. The shredded crab mixed with hunks of soggy torn bread created a white, floral sludge that was hard to finish. I can’t fawn over everything, right?

Mugaritz potaje de avellanas con nácar

Potaje de avellanas con nácar. Similar to boiled peanuts, but hazelnuts with crispy pearlescent candy. I would not call this a potage.

Mugaritz lomo de merluza servido en un jugo lechoso de brotes de coles estofadas

Llomo de merluza servido en un jugo lechoso de brotes de coles estofadas. From here the dishes started veering more into what I’d call food food, rich, little, elegant bowlfuls. I’m not sure what cabbage shoots are, but they were as mild as the hake

Mugaritz láminas de entrécula, emulsión de carne asada y cristales de sal

Láminas de entrécula, emulsión de carne asada y cristales de sal. A petite cut of beef from around the kidneys, the opposite of the region’s beloved txuleta, was served with an emulsified grilled meat butter that ranks right up there with Etxebarri’s smoked goat’s milk butter.

Mugaritz ossobuco royal trabado con aceite de bogavante tostado

Ossobuco royal trabado con aceite de bogavante tostado. That would be ossobuco in quotes. I originally thought this was bone marrow, but it might be tendons. Whatever the silky nuggets may be, they’ve been cooked down to a hyper-concentrated, gelatinous state and flavored with lobster oil. This is where bread comes in handy.

Mugaritz rabito de cerdo ibérico, hojas crocantes y aceite de semillas tostadas

Rabito de cerdo ibérico, hojas crocantes y aceite de semillas tostadas. The pig’s tail had been distilled to the point of two textures: opposites: gooey and crisp. Each bite pure pork. I have seen other photos of this dish with crackers on top. Maybe it’s better in its purest state?  Another surprising thing we were told when in the kitchen earlier on was that we should feel free to voice any dislikes ahead of time (I would never say flowers, though I might think it) to let them know if we wanted more of something or another course. That seemed kind of outrageous to me like when my stepsister once asked for more mushrooms on her schnitzel at The Rheinlander (she got them). I wouldn’t feel right about it, but this would be the dish for sure. I could just be an gelatinous-umami maniac because the preceding dish had the same appeal. Of course, at this point you’re not really hungry for double-portions of anything.

Mugaritz brioche helado de vainilla con agua de cebada

Brioche helado de vainilla con agua de cebada. Definitely more of a fluffy snowball than a brioche. I did not really notice the barley.

Mugaritz crema fria de limon con nabo encurtido en azucar no dulce

Crema fria de limon con nabo encurtido en azucar no dulce. White was the theme for desserts. This was lemony and served with what I thought was jicama but I’m now seeing was daikon. They both have that similar neutral crunch that could work in a dessert.

Mugaritz cucurucho de flores y clavos

Cucurucho de flores y clavos. Flowers, ice cream and chocolate nails stuck into a box of chocolate dirt. It was interesting that they contrast the delicate with the utilitarian at the meal’s end. Arzak also has a send-off array of bonbons that includes candy nuts and bolts.

Mugaritz patio

Afterward, lunchers retired to the still-sunny patio for coffee or a glass of cava—and a cigarette, the tell-tale sign that you may be surrounded by food-travelers, but not Americans.

Full set of Mugaritz photos.

Mugaritz * Otzazulueta Baserria. Aldura Aldea, 20, San Sebastián, Spain


Indecent Proposal


I'm no TV recapper and I'm certainly not going to start now (especially since the Top Chef Masters episode in question aired nearly a full week ago). But what? A surprise marriage proposal meal (for a woman whose favorite foods are salad and pretzels and has never shellfish? At last that's what I think she said–I wasn't really paying attention because I was imagining all the places a diamond ring could be stashed) They could’ve at least made up for subecting viewers, i.e. me to such pap by going full-on cheese and HIDING THE RING IN THE FOOD. Has everyone become tasteful all of a sudden? Even IHOP let me down. Oh, and she said, yes, by the way.

The Dutch

The Dutch, with its new lunch menu, seemed like the perfect candidate for my sporadic effort (Má Pêche was the first) to eat more real lunches instead of lentil soup, dried seaweed and water at my desk. Dreary.

The dutch cocktails

Cocktails beat water coolers anytime. The Aviation Royale, which wouldn’t have been out of place on New York’s lineup of rainbow drinks, tweaks the standard gin, crème de violette (Yvette, in this case) and lemon by adding sparkling Vouvray for fizz. I wasn’t double-fisting, hence, I don’t recall the name of gingery cocktail on the right—it doesn’t match any of the descriptions from their online menu.

The dutch cornbread

A baby loaf of jalapeño cornbread and butter sets the tone: American, homespun, a little spicy.

The dutch barrio tripe

Tripe and Fritos may be the new pickled tongue and soda crackers, marrying organ meats with a more familiar staple. Brooklyn Star with their tripe chili and The Dutch now with Barrio tripe, are both tapping into a Tex-Mex canon, heavier on the Mex. The tender, stewed meat topped with chopped avocado, radishes, white onion and those corn chips tasted like an open-faced taco.

The dutch asparagus

Of course, The Dutch is not strictly Southwestern. The asparagus in a curry-kaffir lime sauce and crushed peanuts was as light as the tripe was heavy. We needed a vegetable. Maybe I’m just coming down off of my post-vacation seared-foie gras-for-$5 San Sebastián high, but isn’t $14 a lot of money for a dish of asparagus, Jersey asparagus, or any asparagus? Ok, maybe German white asparagus that has been flown in straight from the soil?
The dutch sloppy duck

The sloppy duck sandwich may be a little messy but it isn’t a minced, saucy Manwich affair. Instead, the dark meat remains chunky and is flavored like a banh mi with hits of sriricha heat, salty fish sauce and lemongrass brightness. And more crushed peanuts. The minted cucumber salad that accompanied the sandwich was refreshing, but I nipped that nod to health right in the bud with a side order of fries. I could tell from the plates sitting on the tables to my right and left that these were going to be real, thin, double-fried beauties, an anti-steak fry.

One fried item was plenty, which meant I had to forego the fried chicken that’s only served at lunch and late night. A return visit wouldn’t be out of the question because the pie selection—coconut cream and lemongrass?—could also stand some exploring. I’ll just refrain from the asparagus next time.

The Dutch * 131 Sullivan St., New York, NY


La Cuchara de San Telmo

La Cuchara de San Telmo and Zeruko were the only pintxo bars I visited twice. The variety of food demanded it and both left me with the feeling that I didn’t get an adequate initial experience due to the bodies-to-open-space ratio. During the first La Cuchara excursion on a Sunday afternoon, we had to squeeze and hover until a ledge opened up and then instantly felt the pressure to free up our space (this is what it normally looks like inside). It’s a popular place.

La cuchara de san telmo facade

On a Tuesday night, though, the narrow room was practically empty. We weren’t even hungry, but had to seize the opportunity luxuriate in the relatively open space. It was just us and a motley crew of European men speaking to each other in heavily accented English about how horrible American food is because one of them was taken to a Southern restaurant where he was served fried alligator that was flavorless with batter thicker than the meat. But did it taste like chicken? More than once I overheard Europeans speaking in English about Americans customs. Of course our food isn’t all fried, but yeah, at most non-upscale restaurants the check will be brought before you ask for it.

La cuchara de san telmo foie con jalea de manzana

Foie con compota de manzana. Simple, seared foie gras with apple jelly and plenty of coarse sea salt. For 3,6 Euros? This dish sums up San Sebastián’s affordable luxury.

La cuchara de san telmo vieira toro envuelta en tocineta de bellota

Vieira “toro” envuelta en tocineta de bellota. I goofily pride myself on my Spanish food vocabulary (not my conversational skills, definitely not those). I know the words for mussels, clams, razor clams, langoustine, lobster, shrimp, soft-shell crab, crab, many fish, and spider crab and cod cheeks in Basque…ok, I’ll stop, but I had never heard the word for scallops. I just chose vieira because I liked the toro in quotes and figured it would be something playful. Um, and I could parse that there would some sort of ibérico bacon involved. Yes.

La cuchara de san telmo oreja de cerdo caramelizada

Oreja de cerdo ibérico salteada y crujiente. I will always order a pig’s ear anything if available. Spanish and Filipino preparations always get the gooey/crisp thing right, though I had never encountered an entire ear served whole like a steak. Usually, I see this cut sliced into chunks or ribbons. Maybe it’s just to disguise its original origin?

La cuchara de san telmo pulpo salteado con hojas de berza asada

Pulpo salteado con hojas de berza asada. Ok, I learned another word: berza. I hadn’t expected any cabbage on my pintxos. Charring the octopus and sautéing the greens turned both kind of sweet.

La cuchara de san telmo canelón casero de carnes de cocidos

Canelón casero de carnes de cocidos. Boiled meats doesn’t make this filled pasta tube sound so attractive, but you know it’s not going to taste like gray shoe leather. I chose it because I only wanted something small (this was on the already-full-of-foie-moriclla-and-suckling pig second spontaneous visit). One useful thing that I noted after being able to get an unobstructed view of the menu, was that you can order any pintxo as a ración, which would be entrée-sized in the US (we’re the only weirdos who call the main dish an entrée—it seems like everyone else in the world uses that for appetizers) or half that. Maybe you’d like a whole plate of canelónes?

La Cuchara de San Telmo * Calle 31 de Agosto, 28, San Sebastián, Spain


Munto isn’t a bar you read about on blogs or in travel articles. It’s “regular” (pronounced in the way I can’t do: reg quickly with a rolled R, then goo lar). I popped in because it wasn’t unbearably crowded, but not in a warning sign, stay away manner. (Never mind, that as soon as I scored a stool, a group stumbling, singing–Euro sports fans, always with the chanting–soccer celebrants took over.)

Munto interior

The selection of pintxos on the counter were workhorse, and more representative of what you might see in a corner bar in any neighborhood, which meant bocadillos, lots of things stacked on bread like at Casa Senra and plenty of room temperature mayonnaise. The amount of chopped seafood bound by the eggy emulsion sitting for hours at a time would likely violate NYC health codes, and maybe common decency.

Munto jamon, sun-dried tomato, brie & shrimp salad pintxos

We’re probably just prudes because my chopped pork  pintxo topped with sliver of jamón was good (and that wasn’t just txakoli clouding my judgment). The jamón, sun-dried tomato, brie and oregano wasn’t bad either.

Munto jamon, egg, pimiento pintxo

Tiny fried eggs (quail?) were also commonly found as garnish, this one covering pimiento and more jamón. I’ve considered throwing a pintxo party (everyone's invited!) especially since I have a slew of recipes from Pintxos de Vanguardia a la Donostia to work with. But honestly, I would probably end up putting together something like this, not the poached quail egg lollipop with baby eels from Zeruko.

Munto facade

Munto * Calle de Fermin Calbeton, 17, San Sebastián, Spain

La Cepa

La Cepa is the worn, wood-accented type of bar that just seems wrong free of cigarette smoke haze. You don't acheive that dusty patina overnight.

La cepa facade

People just smoke in the doorway, anyway.

La cepa bar

I did wonder what years of indoor smoking must have done to all of those hanging hams.

La cepa jamón de jabugo

I only tasted bursts of pure porkiness, more meaty than saline and smoothed by fat, in these slices—a media ración—of jamón Jabugo.

You won’t find dazzling culinary stunts at La Cepa. Sometimes you need a rest. We’d already spent Saturday afternoon standing and sampling pintxos and weren’t in a mood for any cerebral hours-long tasting menus, so we returned to La Cepa simply to sit down for bit and enjoy simple homestyle food. This is not a complaint, but it’s easy to fall victim to palate (and foot and stomach) fatigue on a trip like this. A similar thing happens in S.E. Asia; after a few nights and days of street food and hawker stalls in appetite-killing heat, you just want to absorb some air conditioning indoors for a meal or two. Comfort over exploration.

La cepa ensalada mixta

Ensaladas mixtas, I learned, are more than just tossed lettuce and tomato. Olives and  hunks of oil-cured tuna make it more of a meal salad. You are provided with oil, vinegar and salt to create your own dressing, but never pepper. I wonder what peppermill sales look like for Spain compared to the US.

La cepa callos

Callos aren’t Basque at all, but I was feeling like tripe instead of some of the larger beef and fish dishes that were on the menu. The blubbery, spongy ribbons were braised in a tomato-based sauce, thickened naturally by collagen, plain as that. Some recipes call for morcilla or chorizo, but this version had no more than a few bits of jamón—La Cepa is a hammy place, after all—to complement the organ meat.

La cepa magras

Neither of us knew what magras were, but James ordered it anyway. It turned out to be a cazuela of ham and eggs really; long slices of jamón and three (yes, three) poached eggs floating around in a tomato sauce that didn’t taste like the callos despite similar appearances. 

La cepa dining room

The back dining room (the bar was full of Spanish speakers glued to the big Real Madrid- Barça matches) was clearly for tourists, though not a trap. However, it was the only place I experienced big groups of stereotypical Midwesterners, two tables at opposite ends of the room filled with balding men in khakis and belt-clipped phones, who appeared to be in town for business, not gastronomy. I preferred the young Latino-looking (are there short, brown Spaniards?) couple who’d moved on from their bottle of Cava to shots. How do you say p.d.a. en español?

La Cepa * Calle 31 de Agosto, San Sebastián, Spain

La Mejillonera

Really, what’s the difference between pintxos and fast food in San Sebastián? Both serve alcohol, prepare things quickly and you can throw your trash on the floor (I did not because it feels weird).

Mejillonera duo

In the case of La Mejillonera, the distinction is more a matter of decor. The plastic, back-lit photo menu—mussels, fried calamari sandwiches and patatas bravas make up the bulk of it—just has that McDonald’s look (though not the orderliness—there are no such thing as lines; you have to force your way to the front of the counter and shout out your order loud enough to be heard).

Bar la mejionera tigres

Plates of mussels served on the half shell come with sauces like mahonesa, vinegreta and marinara. Tigre, a spicy (Spanish spicy, which is to say not at all. Like in Argentina, you won’t find pepper on the table) tomato sauce seemed to be most popular based on cries of “tigre!” being called out when ready. It’s a little messy, but it’s easier to just pick up and slurp rather than fuss with the fat wooden toothpicks.

La mejionera patatas bravas

They truly love their allioli suave. I’ve never seen this consistency or volume before and I’ve eaten a fair amount of patatas bravas in Spain and the US. The tigre sauce does double duty here.

La Mejillonera * Calle Puerto, 15 San Sebastián, Spain


Melts In Your Mouth…


I wish had the full photo of 96 drinks arranged in color order like in the print magazine so I could post the mindbogglingly pretty picture. Oh, slideshows…11 extra cocktails, though.

For my purposes (admiring unnaturally colored food) I’m most taken with the cooler end of the color spectrum, and blue is the best of all. Rum House’s Not in Your Hand (pictured above) is the most inventive in that it’s the only one of five examples that derives the crystalline blue shade from a source other than curacao. The secret ingredient? Blue M&M’s.

Photo credit: Danny Kim/

Casa Senra

I thought I was becoming a seasoned pintxo-orderer by the time I ended up at Casa Senra, mid-way though vacation. Apparently, I still had fear in my eyes. “No tiene miedo!” said the young man behind the bar, nudging us to just pick up a plate and start plopping things on it. (Not all places are d.i.y., though, which is why I was waiting to see if another customer just jumped in or had things plated by staff.)

Casa senra bar

Casa senra anchoa pintxo

I ended up only picking one because my heart was set on a few cooked dishes. It’s amazing how much flavor can be crammed onto one slice of bread: anchovies, jamón, green pimientos, cheese and caramelized onions. I guess I should take back what I said earlier about not seeing meat and cheese together on pintxos.

Casa senra menu

Choosing with your eyes can be fun, but the more elaborate pintxos need to be ordered from the menu. Wow, I’m just noticing a wild mushroom dish with Coca-Cola sauce scrawled at the bottom.

Casa senra txampi con foie y suave ailioli

My txampi con foie y suave allioli got attention from strangers—and for good reason—the architectural wonder nearly appears to have been sealed in fondant. That is the work of the so-called smooth aioli, which is blanketing a fat mushroom, block of foie gras and a bread base in all of its emulsified glory. How can a person who can only stand mayonnaise in small doses down a creation like this? I ate first, internalized later. Basque country is no place for gastronomic mental blocks.

Casa senra montadito de txipiron pelayo y bakalao

I’m not 100% sure what’s going on with this montadito de txipiron pelayo y bakalao. In places like Barcelona, a montadito is essential a pintxo, something stacked on bread like the anchovy cavalcade above. Here, anything on anything seemed to be a montadito and I’m guessing that the bottom layer where the advertised squid (txipiron) was lurking. Its ink certainly played a role, as did the rectangle of salt cod crowned with frizzled leeks.

What I’m completely clueless about (any insight would be appreciated) is what Pelayo means. I can’t determine if it’s a region, style or breed of squid or something else, altogether. I get the sense that txipiron pelayo is a non-descriptive namesake like oysters Rockefeller or veal Oscar.

Casa senra facade

Casa Senra * San Francisco, 32, San Sebastián, Spain