Donosti Dining Update, vol i

On my blog, I've always covered whatever I want—from the days when I used to post about cooking in my tiny Alabama kitchen to now, writing about all things Basque as I go on five years here in San Sebastián.  Five years is a long time, a sixth of my lifetime, and it recently hit me that this will be the place I've lived the longest in my adult life.  It makes sense, then, that I have seen a lot of changes here in San Sebastián. Old, wood-covered bars closing and turning into mini-Ikea outposts; tourists beginning to cross the bridge into Gros;  the birth of pintxo pote; the importation of cocktails, brunch, and cupcakes; and a general awakening, for better or worse, to the existence of an outside world.

This, along with the emergence from a nationwide recession, means a lot of new businesses opening, many of them restaurants, cafés and bars. If there's one thing I'm short on, it's time. And I've always written my blog with an eye for excellence, insisting on covering only spots that really blow me out of the water.  But that means I miss a lot of coverage, and I feel like I am letting my readers and visitors to San Sebastián down.  

With that prologue, I would like to introduce the Donosti Dining Update, a semi-weekly collection of new(ish) spots in San Sebastián just to keep us all in the know.

san sebastián restaurants & how i rate them

Since this is my blog and I can do what I want, I have curated a strange group of criteria that summarizes the way my brain breaks down a restaurant experience. Ratings are from 0-5 and highly subjective.

$$ : Tuning in to how I felt looking at the check. The general price to quality ratio, the relation to how good it was to how much I paid. 
Vibeyness :  I'm super sensitive to ambience. Love low lighting and textures. Don't like virtual Pinterest reality.
Gobackability :  How likely is this place to be somewhere I make a regular haunt?
WIFI:  👍 or 👎, self-explanatory, ¿jyes?
Martimeter : The general feeling I have about the place, an unexplainable rating yet perhaps the most important of all.. 

That said, here goes the first-ever Donosti Dining Update:

Gerald's bar

Gerald's Bar comes to San Sebastián straight from Australia, bringing with it the Anglo-Saxon sensibility that is, fortunately for them, just beginning to catch on in San Sebastián. The menu marks its differences in the enthusiastic presence of seasonal vegetables, herbs and spices. Think Australian restaurant that serves its idea of European food opens branch in Europe serving a cuisine twice-removed.

We had quite a few plates....stewed garbanzos, salmon with dill, lamb shank with eggplant and potato, and a citrus mousse.  All familiar plates if you read English-language foodie glossies, but for the locals of San Sebastián I think there is a bit more of an exotic air. For me, the vibe, the charcuterie and cheese plates, and the longer-than-average wine-by-the-glass list are the main attractions.   I appreciate the foreign touches, like a bit of luxurious butter with bread to start and tunes from *gasp* a record player. ¡Qué guay!

$$ :  ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Vibeyness : ★  ★ ★ ★ ★
Gobackability : ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
WIFI: (look for in future editions...i forgot to ask, ok?)
Martimeter :  ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Gerald's Bar
Calle Iparragirre, 13 (GROS)

ambigu EStación

Okay, Ambigu isn't all that new— I think the first time I went there was a year ago. However, it's been on my longstanding list of new places to blog about and I wanted to get to it.  Housed in the former parte vieja branch of Iturrioz, it was one of the first bar-cafés to inaugurate the trend of "different" design, of paying attention to details and doing so in a way that is not typically Basque.

Ambigu has a menu made for sharing.  Don't expect pintxos...the only consistent offering is a croqueta.  These are full and half raciones, and they are not your standard San Sebastián fare:  green salad with strawberries, bacalao ravioli, pea and scallop risotto....

We had a wrap and their patatas bravas. They fell somewhere between normal bravas and excellent bravas. A pinch of salt could have made the difference.

Apart from their dinner menu, Ambigu is notable for its brunch and breakfast offerings.  A rare find in San Sebastián, that's for sure.

$$ :  ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Vibeyness : ★  ★  ☆ ☆
Gobackability : ★   ☆ ☆
WIFI: (look for in future editions...i forgot to ask, ok?)
Martimeter :  ★ ★  ☆ ☆

Ambigu Estación
Calle Aldamar, 12 (VIEJO)
http://www.ambiguestacion.com

chocomint

No sooner than a street or plaza is made pedestrian-friendly, you can count on a few coffee-shop/bakeries to pop up. Chocomint, with its oh-so-cutesy logo and branding, is one of these.  First feeling: happiness. Not another bakery chain.  First feeling checked upon our visit....the majority of the baked goods sold there are from a larger, locally based chain.

As far as homemade goods go, you can look for the mini- and regular-sized cupcakes, as well as the layer cakes.  They were cute, but the one we tried was over-soaked with an over-watery simple syrup and honestly just barely adequate, nothing special enough to write home about. Sigh. 

$$ :  ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Vibeyness : ★  ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Gobackability : ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
WIFI: 👎 (supposedly, but it didn't work)
Martimeter :  ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Chocomint
Calle Usandizaga, 5 (GROS)

 

I have a list going for future updates, but if there's somewhere you want me to checkout, leave it in the comments!

Top 5 Sit-Down Meals in San Sebastián's Old Town

Oh, San Sebastián. Everyone loves you for your outer beauty, for your beaches and your pintxos.  But those of us who know you well know that there is so much more on the inside to appreciate. We know that it's not always time to hop from bar to bar, drink in hand. Sometimes you want the ambience of the Old Town, but in a seated, more relaxed setting.  It's a question that consistently gets raised among my friends and I: where can we go sit down and have great meal, without getting too far from the action?

That's why I've compiled this list, my Top 5 places to sit down for lunch or dinner, right in the heart of San Sebastián's pintxo scene.  The fruit of much thought and research. So ignore (if you can) those small bites lining the bars and pull up a chair at one of these fine establishments. On egin!

ALDANONDO JATETXEA

Steak + wooden tables + simple sides + tradition = Basque Country. Aldanondo is the no-frills, locally recommended Old Town spot to enjoy this tried-and-true formula. Sit back, order a bottle of Rioja and a plate of croquetas to begin, and wait for your steak and its adornments to arrive.  And just feel so....Basque.

 Euskal Herria Kalea, 6, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa | +34 943 42 28 52

BODEGÓN ALEJANDRO

There's something about Bodegón Alejandro that just seems to make it the right choice on every occasion.  It's a spot where you can eat without breaking the bank (daily lunch prix fixe runs you about 30 euros), but where great flavor meets just the right amount of innovation. Bodegón Alejandro has a deep, connected local history, once belonging to the family of famed chef Martín Berasategui. Now they offer traditional plates with pleasing touches of modernity.

 Calle de Fermín Calbetón, 4, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa | +34 943 42 71 58

ASTELENA 1997

Astelena has been one of my favorite sit-down spots since I first ate there years back.  This restaurant could easily be overlooked by a tourist in San Sebastián, but its unremarkable façade houses some serious cooking.   Most notable here, for me, are the veggies. I go to eat cardoon, artichoke, white asparagus...whatever is in season, knowing that it will be carefully cooked and presented. And its chef de cuisine, Ander Gonzalez, hosts the national Basque cooking show I appear on as a judge each week.

 Euskal Herria Kalea, 3, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa | +34 943 42 58 67

KOKOTXA

This spot, headed by chef Dani López and Estela Velasco, garners its mention mainly for its Michelin star. It's not Kokotxa's fault that there's three three-star Michelin spots in this tiny town. López's cuisine draws inspiration from all over Spain, with delicate and picture-perfect plates. A great place in the Old Town to experience Michelin without going all-out Arzak/Akelarre/Berasategui/Mugaritz. (photo: http://bixigarri.com)

 Calle del Campanario, 11, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa | +34 943 42 19 04

CASA UROLA

Casa Urola is one of those restaurants that has been around for a long time, since 1956 to be exact. However, in 2012 it was updated and handed over to the capable hands of Pablo Loureiro, a local chef who has trained in many of the city's top kitchens, from Rodil to Branka.  What sets Loureiro and Urola apart, however, is an absolute and unwavering commitment to local, seasonal products of highest quality. This is one of those spots with producers passing through the back door throughout the morning, arms loaded with boxes of mushrooms or coolers of line-caught squid.  The perfect place to experience classic yet updated Basque food based squarely on its amazing product.

 Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 20, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa | +34 943 44 13 71

HONORABLE MENTION

This list is super how-do-hipsters-say curated, but there is one spot that deserves an honorable mention: Ganbara.  Didn't make the list because I personally have never been in the dining room, but it comes highly recommended by all chefs in town and Amaia is an amor.  Look for a post in the future!