January 13, 2013

Gourmet Tapas by the Sea...

I wish I could have stayed in Rioja forever, but soon it was time to leave this region of Spain and Hotel Villa de Ábalos. We continued our journey north and drove up over the mountains into Pais Vasco or Basque Country. As we drove the landscape changed and became more green, lush, and wooded. The architecture changed; we left the medieval stone house of Rioja behind and they were replaced by wooden houses and twentieth century apartment buildings. Vineyards and cattle made way to industry and sheep grazing. We were now in Basque Country.

Soon we were driving into the seaside city of San Sebastián. Called Donostia in the Basque language, this picturesque city is situated between two hills along a crescent-shaped beach. The beach is capped at both ends by small peaks. Monte Urgull rises above the old town on the east end of the beach and is adorned with a Christ statue that overlooks the streets below. At the base of Monte Urgull is the old city, a labyrinth of cobblestones streets and tapas bars. The west end of the beach Monte Ugueldo rises from the sea. The city seems nestled in between two bookends.

And my favorite thing about this city? It’s a food town. Yes, Donostia (or San Sebastián) is definitely a place to come when you’re hungry. There are simple tapas bars serving delicious little bites and highly acclaimed restaurants and everything in between.

Gambas a la plancha at Bar Goiz Argi
In the Basque language tapas are called pintxos (pronounced "peen-tcho"). While we were there tried several (okay, many) of the pintxos bars in Donostia. All of the good, but a few stood out - Bar Goiz Argi, Ganbara, and Borda Berri. Most pintxos bars offer a wide array of small dishes, however, each place has its speciality. At Bar Goiz Argi that special dish is Gambas a la plancha (or shrimp cooked on a flat grill). When we arrived we found a place to stand at the crowded bar and ordered the shrimp and txakoli (pronounced "choc-o-lee"), a crisp white Basque wine. The shrimp were perfect and paired well with the txakoli. They had a slight smoky flavor and were served with a fresh tomato pepper sauce.

Hongos a la plancha y yema at Ganbara
At Ganbara the speciality is hongos a la plancha y yema or grilled wild mushrooms with egg yolk. And it was delicious! The combination of woodsy flavor of the mushrooms and the rich egg yolk was simple and very good. Before leaving Ganbara we tried one another pintxo - peppers stuffed with bacalao (or salt cod). These had an intense pepper flavor which was muted by the creamy fish and potato filling. To accompany our dishes we each got a glass of Rioja.

Risotto at Borda Berri
I’ve saved the best for last - Borda Berri. This pintxos bar is located on Calle Fermin Calbeton, a few doors down from Bar Goiz Argi. Here specialities here are risotto and beef checks. In addition, there are daily specials on a chalkboard behind the bar. I ordered mushroom risotto and marmitako and Jonathan ordered the beef cheeks and ribs. Soon we were enjoying our small plates and glasses of Rioja. The risotto was creamy with a rich, woodsy flavor. And unlike most risottos this one was made with orzo instead of rice. But, the marmitako (a local seafood stew) was my favorite dish.

Marmitako at Ganbara
The best part of enjoying pintxo is that you get to enjoy a small plate, glass or wine or cider, and the atmosphere at one place at each place, then you move on to the next. Not only does it give you the opportunity to try a wide variety of delicious morsels, it allows you to keep moving and see much more of the city in one evening.

The narrow streets in the old part of Donostia (or San Sebastián)
After a night of pintxos bar hopping, we walked around the narrow streets of the old city for a while. This area of Spain is politically complicated. The Basque people are very proud of their culture, traditions, and language. And there is a faction that would like to be independent from the rest of Spain. There are reminders of this throughout the whole region - Basque flags, political banners and murals, beautiful arts, and (of course) the local food. And at the end of the night, you can stroll along the beach promenade, where the sea and land come together to create this beautiful place.

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