Just when we thought San Sebastián had more than its fair share of stars, three more walked in.
The Hotel María Cristina, A Luxury Collection Hotel, is by far the finest spot to sleep in San Sebastián. And now it’s put a huge wager on the starred cuisine offering of the city as well, launching a “pop-up” restaurant from Hélène Darroze, a three-star French chef. The pop-up, recently opened, will run through October‚ which means visitors to the city this summer have the chance to try a female's contribution to starred cuisine in the city. Easy....along with your reso at Arzak or Mugaritz, you can toss one in and eat from the hands of the 2015 World's Best Female Chef, without having to visit Hélène's outposts in Paris, London, and Moscow.
Hélène moves into this male-dominated Michelin territory with smiles and effusive praise for the permanent stars in San Sebastián; a nice gesture and a necessary one. “I have stars, and years of work behind me, but I am keeping it humble because Donosti is the top of the world of cooking,” she has said. And she should know; her parents live in Biarritz, and she was a fervent visitor of the city, even citing the memory of walking by the María Cristina, dreaming of one day staying there.
Well, she's definitely there now, with a restaurant whose menu is structured around the idea of a series of ‘pintxos’ followed by a main dish. There are three menus to choose from, priced at €98, €125 and €175. Local ingredients, displayed under bell jars at the entrance, are given their due attention, and the table is set with local objets d'art, like knives from les Couteliers Basques and structures by Iñigo Manterola.
Before the parade of food begins, diners are presented with something to aid in their decision: a kaiku of walnuts lasered with the proteins of the main plates. Can't decide? Grab a walnut. A little gimmicky, but it helps to lighten up the fine-dining atmosphere. The first dish, caviar OSCIETRA ROYAL, however, snaps your attention back to where it belongs. Caviar and a jelly made from white cocoa bean from Béarn cover a delicious Fine de Claire oyster. This was the best oyster dish I've had in a starred setting ever.
The next dish bore the name of Tarifa, a small town in Cadíz province in the South of Spain. A strip of red tuna with a roll of tuna purée in a crunchy case, studded with pickles, which got a bath of gazpacho consommé at the table.
Then, on to Cataluña, with almond as a star ingredient. This was one of my favorite dishes: lobster, pickled beaches, bottargaand basil, all swimming in a lovely ajoblanco. Ajoblanco is a salmorejo with almonds instead of tomatoes, the most unlikely candidate for a savory soup base.
Continuing to explore the cuisine of all of Spain, a mini homage to Huelva and its superb shrimp. This one with Eastern flavors: carrot, citrus, and coriander, tandoori style.
Then, the ubiquitous squid, which is just starting its peak season in this corner of the world. This was delicious, but, then, how could it not be? Squid ink rice with chorizo and parmigiano reggiano. And yes, that is a photobomb by a loaf from The Loaf.
Though the restaurant is a pop-up, the hotel has made some big investments, like this impressive wine cooler, built into a circular dead space in the entry. Voilá! A display of the pretty incredible wines you can choose to accompany your meal, with both French and Spanish representation (the latter selected by the sommelier of San Sebastián Food).
On to the main entree: at our table, we each chose a different dish. Beef, salmon, hake and, for yours truly, chicken. Not just any chicken: from La Ferme de Tauziet, and with its skin lifted and filled for an extra flavorful breast. Accompanied by a superb sauce (God bless the French!) and porcini with eggplant. I think it was the best at the table...
Continuing the theme of 'French people are just more civilized', a lovely strawberries and cream dessert, featuring'Gariguette' strawberries. This old and much-loved French variety was topped with a lovely basil whipped emulsion.
A strong finish, overall, with Darroze's signature baba doused with Darroze family armagnac (not pictured) and a death-by-Dominican chocolate dessert, which hit all the right notes between sweet and salty, light and filling. Really blows the desserts of similar pedigree in the area out of the water.
The pop-up is open from the 8 of June to the 30th of October, and word is it’s filling rapidly. Don’t miss San Sebastián’s temporary star, female and all.
Lunch and dinner reservations here.