Monday, November 10, 2014

The Pintxo Trail

Gang's all here!

The weather forecast in San Sebastian called for rain. Had it been our first visit to this picturesque, seaside foodie’s paradise, we might have been dismayed; but on our previous visit we’d walked all over the city, exploring its hills, valleys, and alleyways, even climbing its tiny mountain with the big stone Jesus to get the best views of the cape and the surrounding countryside. This visit, we had no real need for good weather: it’s always warm and toasty in a pintxo bar.

If you’ve never been to a Spanish pintxo bar, it’s a pretty awesome sight. Most are on the small side, the actual bar typically holding enough space for half a dozen stools, with the remaining space for standing (read: crowding). Along the length of the bar sit dozens of plates of different pintxos end to end, as many as they can fit. The plates’ contents range from simple slices of chunky tortilla espanola, to soft baguette sandwiches, each a rainbow of different meats, cheeses, and condiments, to mystery croquettes and pimenton-flurried octopus skewers. You simply get a plate and work your way down the line, buffet style, grabbing and piling whatever captures your appetite; once you’re content with your loot, they tally up your score and tell you the damage. Most items are cold, but bartenders will usually offer to warm up the things best eaten hot.

San Sebastian is well-known for its ample pintxo bars and restaurants, to the extent that there is something referred to as the “pintxo trail,” a path through the city, chasing culinary gems and local specialties from this bar to that. We, however, had our own trail to follow: seeking out our favorite spots from our last visit and scouting some new ones. The densest accumulation of pintxo bars is in the Parte Vieja neighborhood; it was no coincidence that’s where our hotel was. We checked in and headed to the streets immediately, ready to begin the trail.

The first couple of spots we decided on had a stark, traditional feel (a popular brand in these establishments) and were populated almost entirely by locals. We surveyed the bounty before us at the first bar, loaded up our plates, and ordered a couple of sidras (flat cider typical of Spain and Basque Country). Half the fun of drinking sidra in Spain is watching them pour it, always from as far from the glass as possible. In this case, the tap was angled so that the bartender could fully extend his right arm, which held the glass, while he worked the tap with his left hand. The sidra shot a good 3 feet from the tap and directly into the waiting glass, creating a heady foam but remaining unspilled. One got the sense this wasn't his first pour.

We found a small table, sat down, and took a second to appreciate the moment: back in San Sebastian, enjoying our first of many great meals, there was nowhere else we could wish to be. We chomped and chewed, smacking our lips and talking about little more than the yummy offerings before us: highlights included some of the best pickled sardines we'd ever tasted, and a genius mini-tartlette of braised beef short rib and mashed potatoes, a tiny, flaky cup of pure comfort. Julia gushed over skewers of marinated artichokes to tender you could squish them between your fingers, and we marveled at the simple beauty of jamon, goat cheese and sun-dried tomato on baguette: the home run of this uncomplicated combo cannot be overstated. We feasted like jolly hobbits, moving from bar to bar and leaving a trail of grease-covered cocktail napkins (which are notoriously and immensely inadequate in Spanish pintxo bars) in our wake.

Along our trail, we sought, and eventually found (thanks to Julia) a bar familiar to us from our last visit; only last time we'd found it too late, already feeling near satiation, and had to miss out on most of what it had to offer. This time we made no such mistake, and our good sense was rewarded. The pintxos here were a bit more modern, though no less drool-inducing.

His hopping days are over.
There were frogs' legs, fried crispy and plated dramatically on slate; we ate them like chicken wings and picked the bones clean… why dirty a fork? Juicy shrimp were wrapped in potato noodles, their texture smacking of satisfaction: a crispy, salty outside belied a sweet and sumptuous inside.
'Bound' for greatness…

Of course, the show-stealer was the pig trotter terrine (known as manitas, or "little hands") topped with foie gras. Each bite demanded that you chew slowly, savoring the richness and admiring the sweet-salty contrast; crisped, gelatinous, savory pork below melted together with sweet, creamy foie gras, creating the kind of tasting experience that induced heaving sighs from the eater. We knew we weren't going to top something so decadently over-the-top, so we threw in the towel for the afternoon and headed home for a nap.
I'm calling it: "foie-nitas!"

We couldn't even think about food until after ten o'clock that night (just like real Spaniards!). We also figured we needed something a bit more substantial than an assortment of little bites. Fortunately there was a restaurant on our street serving Spanish rice dishes, something we'd been craving since our arrival to the country. We ordered what most would call a simple paella: rice cooked with chicken stock, shellfish, shrimp, and squid. The rice was moist and chewy with just enough bite, and the essence of the seafood melted together and coated each grain with sticky yumminess. The harmony of flavors elevated the dish, their intoxicating aromas making our eyes close as visions of bivalves danced in our heads. A refreshing bottle of Txakoli was the perfect compliment to wash it all down, and we ate heartily, welcoming the comforting sustenance that tasted nothing short of home-cooked.
We didn't know whether to grab a spoon or just climb in...

San Sebastian eating rule: One item per person is never enough.
Breakfast the next morning was a foregone conclusion: pastries! We made a beeline for one bakery in particular, our favorite in town. When I’d worked at Martin Berasategui, all bread served at the restaurant came from there, which is how we’d found it on our last trip. We ordered a standard three pastries to share, deciding on a croissant, a (very amply filled) chocolate croissant , and a chocolate chip brioche. They were just as good as we'd remembered: the brioche was like eating a sweet little cloud, and the croissants flaked and crisped as we tore them apart, popping buttery morsels into our mouths like hungry hungry hippos.

Decapitation anticipation...
After breakfast, our trail lead us along the sea and across the river to the Parte Gros, another neighborhood in San Sebastian well known for its bars and restaurants. On our last visit, the restaurant Mil Catas had just won best pintxos in San Sebastian, and they were doing some pretty killer things in the kitchen. This time, we returned to Mil Catas for lunch, rain just starting to fall as we arrived. Though they didn't seem to be slinging mind-blowing pintxos these days, the menu had plenty of promise. We started with a plate of head-on prawns. Their bodies dripped succulent, salty juices all over the plate as we broke them apart, and after we sucked the heads, we used our bread to mop up every tasty drop until the plate was clean.

Just how I like my cheese: brûléed and boozey.
Next came a salad topped with a very special slab of goat cheese: the entire puck had been caramelized on the plancha and drizzled with a honey-sherry reduction. The cheese broke apart as we ate our salad, the warm reduction slightly melting its creamy morsels and creating a delicious synthesis of sweet and tangy. Braised oxtail over mashed potatoes with crispy leeks was the final course, the perfect entree for a cold, rainy day. Big forkfuls of hearty, saucy beef smeared in creamy potatoes did well to warm our insides and put smiles on our faces.

Dinner that night was at A Fuego Negro: one of my absolute favorite restaurants on Earth, and the place that had introduced me to Toro wine, granting it a particularly special place in my heart. Definitely a restaurant on the hip and artsy side, aesthetically and gastronomically, A Fuego Negro specializes in creative, avant-garde presentations. They rode Spain’s swell of molecular gastronomy at its height, but they don’t take themselves too seriously and they’re all about comfort food; so eating there means you’re likely going to see some weird stuff, but you’ll probably like (almost) all of it.

We ordered a bottle of Toro and started with a delightful snack of pickled garlic, perfectly cured anchovies, and lightly roasted cherry tomatoes. Simple and delicious, they whet our appetites for the fun to come as we perused the menu further. And while we had certainly enjoyed a healthy helping of foie gras since arriving to the country, we could not resist the appeal of the pumpkin-vanilla jam that accompanied it… for the sake of research and inspiration, of course. Though house-made, the goosey goodness arrived to the table in an adorable vintage tin, bruleed and accompanied by slices of whole wheat baguette and that transcendent jam. We slathered bread with velvety foie, dolloping jam and giggling in the levity such a snack induces. We had only just begun!
Another round of duck, duck, goose…

Donuts, ice cream, and trash... But not really.
The next few treats that arrived to the table piqued our curiosity: all were outside-the-box interpretations of classic Spanish snacks, whimsical in their presentation as well as their preparation. The first was “pieles bravas,” fried potato skins accompanied by spicy sauce and served in a tiny red garbage can. Then there was the crab… ice cream. Its flavor was that of crab bisque with an extra touch of sweetness, a necessary addition to make seafood work as an ice cream, and it sat atop a nest of picked crab meat and diced avocado. Though not our favorite item of the day, it was certainly unique and worth the experience. Stealing the show were the squid “donuts,” (yes, squid donuts!) earning top marks for both their flavor and creativity. The squid was first cooked, then pureed and blended with its ink until a creamy texture was achieved; this was piped into donut-shaped molds, then frozen. Finally, the donuts were dipped in tempura batter and flash-fried to order. They melted in your mouth as you chewed, flavor and texture running over every tastebud. Mind blown? Mind blown.

There was a butter lettuce salad with diced T-bone steak and popcorn, whose tender leaves were dressed simply in beef drippings and a pinch of salt, so tasty it made me want to dance on the table. A slider with a side of banana chips gave us pause as it was placed on our table; we didn’t remember ordering any slider. Low and behold, it was the horse mackerel dish, seasoned, cooked, and plated to flawlessly emulate a hamburger. Mind blown again. As I’d hoped, A Fuego Negro had delivered the kind of meal that left us satiated, but also inspired, chattering about what we’d seen and tasted, and excited to offer our own interpretations once we were back in the kitchen.

The next afternoon, our taxi pulled up in front of Restaurant Martin Berasategui’s impeccably maintained front entrance, the façade looking just as I remembered it. We were greeted warmly at reception, as several of the servers that had been my friends during my days there as a cook still remained at the restaurant. After a bit of catching up and a quick visit to the kitchen, which had been newly remodeled, we settled into our table for the 15-course tasting menu.

Our amuse-bouche was a crispy morsel of "sea crunch" tempura with a Txakoli (classic Basque white wine) aioli, beside a halved kumquat, candied, and filled with citrus gel. The delicate, sweet and tart kumquat was a quintessential example of Berasategui’s style, and of molecular gastronomy in general: take a food, remove its insides, and use them to create a more elevated form of that food; then put these elevated insides back in their original vessel. All bitterness had been removed from the kumquat, its new form both poignant and wholly pleasing.

Vintage Berasategui.
The next course was the one I had been dreaming about for over five years: a mille-feuille of foie gras (yes, more foie), pickled eel, and bruleed green apple. I remembered how I used to watch them produce this in the kitchen, as it was made fresh each day, intrigued by the combination of ingredients. While the green apple made sense to me, the eel appeared to be somewhat out of left field, and I longed for even a morsel to taste for myself. The dish had become the restaurant’s signature, first appearing on the menu in 1995 and remaining, some twenty years later. Though the portion was small, its two bites were all you needed as the contrasting flavors and textures played out their delicate ballet on your palate: tangy eel blended with rich, sweet foie, pinballing off tart green apple before all united in harmony. The texture was no less ethereal, and I chewed slowly, savoring every second. Five years waiting, and I was decidedly not disappointed.

More foam, please.
The next two courses reminded us that we were a stone’s throw from the coast: creamy red shrimp bisque with a generous dollop of shrimp foam, and freshly shucked oysters with coconut milk and kaffir lime gelee. The bisque was tasty, though the amount of foam may have been a bit overkill, and the briny, meaty oyster was balanced well by the softness of the coconut and the aromatic kaffir lime.

One of our favorite courses followed, both for its presentation and its flavor: black garlic and beet salad with some type of pickled whitefish reminiscent of a Jewish deli. The black garlic came in the form of a paste, smeared about the plate in a way that was simultaneously messy and artistic; the beets came in half a dozen different forms, scattered amidst the black garlic. There was beet foam, beet ice, beet leather dried into chips, even a quenelle of beet ‘tartar,’ showcasing the kind of knife skills one would expect from a three-Michelin Star establishment. After we admired the helter-skelter beauty of the dish, we mixed it all together for a taste experience that was as different as it was delicious. There were so many varying notes of sweet, yet the dish was savory; I finished every last bit, savoring its flavor and intrigued by its creativity.
Finger-painting with your food!

Uni custard came next, impeccably prepared, full of unmistakable uni flavor, creamy, and not too salty. It was served in a porcelain abalone shell topped with fennel salad and seaweed cream; and though I am accustomed to eating my seaweed wrapped around fish and rice or shredded in wakame, I couldn’t argue that it was tasty. The soup, topped with what I believe was anise foam (again with the foams), was warm, soothing, and exceptional: raw white asparagus and the whey of Idiazabal (like a smoked Manchego) cheese, blended to perfection. Definitely my first time eating asparagus blended with whey, but that's why you go to eat at MB. Yummy. After the soup was a gorgeous, runny egg yolk held in place under what we discovered to be pork jowl, cured like lardo and sliced to translucent thinness. Like a little ravioli, you popped it and let the illuminous amber yolk flow lazily into the rest of the dish, which included a creamed herb puree and a sprinkling of micro greens and flower petals.

The Ensalada Tibia was the most visually striking course, without a doubt. Dozens and dozens (and dozens) of carefully placed micro-greens, flower petals, and individual lettuce leaves decorated a canvas of tomato-water gelee, along with scattered vegetables in their daintiest forms: asparagus tips, quartered cherry tomatoes, and shaved lettuce hearts, not to mention some sexy-as-hell morsels of lobster claw. I know for a fact that every single item (more than 60 in total) was deliberately placed with tweezers, because this salad was one of the plates I would build during my time working there. Its construction began each day at 7am and concluded no less than six hours later. Though plating it became the bane of my life in that kitchen, I have to admit that, viewing it as a diner, it was exquisite to behold.

We didn't actually eat it… it's hanging on our wall now.

Step 1: Scrape from bottom of boat...
Nearly at the end of the line, the last two savory dishes were a strong finish. The first was sea bass, plated with (surprise, surprise) a dollop of foam, some precious little balls of crispy tempura filled with silky, runny egg yolk, and a creamy barnacle sauce. I was quite surprised to learn that barnacles were edible, and even more surprised that they were my favorite part of the dish, their chewy texture reminding me of perfectly cooked octopus.

Pretty bird… Pretty bird...
The last savory plate was another I had been waiting for: pigeon, cooked to such perfection that you never wanted to stop chewing it. When I’d worked in the kitchen, my friend Jay, a fellow Californian, would sneak me tender morsels of the fatty bird whenever possible, and they quickly became my favorite Scooby snacks* in the entire kitchen. Getting to enjoy a full portion of the pigeon, aside tender, diced porcini mushrooms, “liquid tubers with truffle,” and pigeon jus, was equal parts validation and elation.

Dessert must be mentioned, though neither Julia nor I were particularly blown away by its final two courses… to be fair, being "not blown away" at this place is a pretty relative term. The first included gin, mint, cucumber, and green apple in the form of various nitrous puffs, cubes, and other abnormal gastro-physicalities, spread out over a lime gelee. It was worth admiring but didn't quite ring our bell. The chocolate sponge cake, however, was unbelievably light, like some sort of cotton candy cookie, and a nice contrast to the dense, crunchy bits of chocolate studded throughout. The scotch ice cream (yes, scotch ice cream) beside it was the one thing that did actually blow me away, as smoky and peaty as the genuine article. Even the petit fours that arrived to finish the meal were perched among the branches of a twisting, sculpted iron ‘tree’ (for lack of a better word), accompanied by a fruit juice that emulated port wine and a creamy milk flavored with Armagnac.

Straight out of the best forest EVER.

We left with full bellies, and feeling like royalty. The service had been nothing short of perfect, and the meal was one we would likely never forget. I took pride in the months I spent cutting my teeth in the restaurant’s bowels, and I was delighted to have had the opportunity to experience things from the other side of the kitchen doors. We retired to our rooms for a much needed nap, and did not eat until noon the next day.

As our train pulled away from San Sebastian, we reflected happily on the trail that had left us filled with exquisite food and wonderful memories. Bordeaux was our next stop, and we had a feeling it was only going to get better.

*For those who haven’t worked in kitchens, “Scooby snacks” are the scraps and morsels of food that cooks share with one another, usually made up of the trimmings or less presentable (though no less delicious) parts of menu items.

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