Monday, November 17, 2014

Searching for Treasures, Avoiding the Traps - a Visit to Bar Zazpi in San Sebastian, Spain

Shrimp (Gambas) to Die For
San Sebastian is a wonderful food mecca in the beautiful Basque country of Spain. If you are a foodie or thinking about becoming one, I highly recommend visiting San Sebastian at least once - and if you’re like us, it will immediately become a regular stop on your vacation itinerary.  A big part of the attraction of San Sebastian for me is that there you can find everything from a simple, but life changing Shrimp Pintxo (the Basque version of Spanish tapas) for 2.50 at a little spot call Goiz-Argi in the Parte Vieja (Old Part) of San Sebastian, to all the Michelin starred restaurants you could ever want. In fact, San Sebastian is one of the top cities in the world for total number of Michelin stars per square meter - outdoing even Paris, France.  Not quite sure yet? How about a beautiful piece of seared Foie Gras with Apple Compote at another spot in the Parte Vieja, La Cuchara de San Telmo?  Just being inside (pintxos served only inside!) and listening to the crowd make their pintxo orders, as the servers yell orders back to the kitchen…”Luis… Dos Foie!”, “Luis… Cuatro Foie!, Dos Ravioli!” and hearing Luis shout the orders back was all part of the great experience there.

Luis! Dos Foie!!



Martin Berasategui
We have been lucky enough to dine at Martin Berasategui (three Michelin stars) this year, Mugaritz (two Michelin stars) a few years ago, and hope to visit Arzak and Akelare (each with three stars) sometime in the future. Our experience at these restaurants have been consistently awesome, you just need to pack a suitcase full of cash and expect to pay between $500 - $1,000 for a meal for two plus wine… and you really need to drink the wine! Each time we go to San Sebastian we typically stay 3 nights/4 days and plan to hit one of the heavy hitter Michelin star spots. Past trips have also included one of my all time favorite places - Asador Etxebarri, which is actually about 1 hour outside of San Sebastian. That leaves us three-ish days to enjoy the more reasonably priced offerings of the area.  

It’s super easy to Google Michelin star restaurants in order to find restaurants to try in a particular area, but the toughest part is actually getting a reservation.  Tourists, foodies, and travelers from all over the world are googling the exact same thing and trying to get the exact window table for two that you are hoping to score.  The challenge is finding those other places that offer wonderful food, great service, and a memorable experience in a town where food options are very plentiful.  With any destination that draws a large number of tourists each year, there are plenty of “touristy” spots that are easy to find near tourist attractions, probably recommended by your hotel staff, have lots of tables with very little waiting for impatient tourists. In short, everything you don’t want to look for if you are a foodie.  Will you be able to eat at these places? Of course - but do you really want to visit such a food haven and eat uninspired food, designed not to challenge or confuse the palate of the tourist crowd, and designed to be cranked out in a manner valuing quick over quality?  I do realize that the world has those who look at food as “meh, eating is just something we have to do.”  Like vegans, I know they exist and have seen them in the wild - but do not understand the point of view at all!
How do you find the hidden treasures of a town like San Sebastian or any town for that matter? There is no easy answer - you just have to work for it.  Did pirates make they treasures easy to find? No - because it’s a valuable thing you don’t want to share with anyone but your closest friends and family so that treasure doesn’t get tarnished by becoming overrun with tourists.   Don’t ask the concierge at your hotel where to go, ask the front desk clerk where they like to eat - for a quick bite, for a good cocktail, for a special occasion - whatever type of meal or drink you want at that moment. Ask a store clerk, cab driver, the people who live and work there. 

The map to our hidden treasure for our 2014 trip to Spain was provided to us by great friends we’ve made at restaurant and bar Casa Pedro near Cangas de Onis in Asturias, Spain.  Chef Christian at Casa Pedro spent a few years of his early cooking career at a few spots in San Sebastian, including the wonderful Mugaritz. A chef who lived and worked in a city is the ultimate source for the best places to eat - so we turned to him for some recommendations. He recommended a spot called Bar Zazpi, the restaurant of Chef Paul Arrillaga who Christian described as “como un hermano” or “like a brother” as they had cooked together for five years at various spots. 

Upon our arrival in San Sebastian we headed straight to Bar Zazpi for an “early” dinner (on the Spanish meal timetable!) at 9:30p.  We asked for Chef Paul, proclaiming that Chef Christian from Asturias has sent us.  After enjoying a couple of glasses of a wonderful Godello (a white wine I know mostly from Bierzo, Spain, but this one was from Galacia), we were greeted by Chef Paul.  Chef Christian is a young man, so I was not expecting Chef Paul to be anything but a young man as well… but Chef Paul is in fact a VERY YOUNG man at only 24 years old.  Very gracious and generous with his time during a busy service, Wino4life wife in her fluent Spanish asked Chef Paul to cook us dishes of his choosing.  Whenever you have an opportunity like this, I highly recommend letting the Chef choose the dishes. Rest assured that the artist will provide you with the dishes he prizes most and those that have the best product available that day.  On another day you will likely get a very different meal - let the artist entertain you and enthrall your senses.

Our dinner actually started while we enjoyed our Galacian Godello, a dish of simply prepared potatoes that were so delicious and an excellent pairing to our white wine.. 

Next up - a light and wonderful salad which included the strong but delicious Cabrales cheese from Asturias. Not a item on the current menu...but it should be!

Huevo, Jamon, Patatas, and Trufas. Like an ode to an American breakfast, kicked up many many notches - with a little truffle thrown in for earthy goodness. So inventive and so delicious.

Arroz Negro con Ali-oli. Delicious squid ink flavor cut by the acidic ali-oli.

Bacaloa con Ajoarriero de sus Callos. A deliciously salty fish served over a delicately flavored stew.

Ravioli Cremoso de Rabo. Probably my favorite dish in this stellar meal, the oxtail ravioli was delicious and really stood out with the Bai Gorri Crianza Rioja we were drinking.

Cubo de Pancetta Glaseada.  A close runner up on my favorite dishes list, a beautiful cube of pancetta topped with a rich sauce. 

Terrina de Fruta Carmelizada. Our dinner wrapped up in style with a very nice desert of caramelized fruit in a terrine.

After our meal, we asked for a menu signed by both owners - but much like the meal, we got more than we expected. A menu personalized with a freshly lipsticked kiss! You can be sure that this menu will be framed and join our other collection of memories of great meals that adorn our dining room wall.

It was very inspiring to meet this young couple who are working together to pursue the dream of owning and operating a restaurant. They open 6 days a week, and like most other Spanish restaurants they open early 8a or 9a everyday, and stay open very late - until 11:30p or 1a, depending on the day. Unlike most Spanish restaurants, they do not close for a few hours during the off times of the day - so they are almost constantly at it, without even the traditional break during the day for a siesta.

The bottom line is this: you need to go to San Sebastian. Try the Michelin starred restaurants - it will be more of an experience than just a meal. But while there - look for some of those other treasures that don't show up in the Michelin guide (yet!), and I highly suggest Bar Zazpi as the first stop on your treasure hunt. See a young couple living the dream of owning and operating their own restaurant and all the hard work and unbelievable hours that come with it. Before the commercialism, while the Chef is still has a hand in actually creating the dishes AND cooking your food, and not just providing the “face” of the restaurant for publicity purposes. Like an undiscovered musician that you can hear in a small, intimate club setting for a reasonably priced ticket, which will always be more memorable than you and 30,000 others in a sold-out arena with a ticket that may rival that Michelin starred dinner!

Bar Zazpi is located at San Marcial Kalea, 7, 20005 San Sebastián. Do yourself a favor and check it out!

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