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Published: September 30th 2017
Geo: 43.3231, -1.98137
We had some grand plans today, a day trip back over the border to St Jean de Luz, to explore the French side of the Basque country - but sadly and shockingly, all that cheap Spanish wine seems to have rendered it impossible for us to wake up in a timely fashion! No matter - all that meant was that we get to enjoy the heat wave on San Sebastian's beeches, and stuff ourselves again with the tasty local treats!
It's been a long time since I've actually lived in San Sebastian, most recently as a young school boy in the 1940s - that's when I grew up with my boy Juan Mari. Who is Juan Mari, you ask? Well he's only the most highly-regarded master of Nuevo Basque cuisine, that's who! His eponymous restaurant Arzak is one of the key stops for gourmands from around the world, as they make their pilgrimage across Europe.
Even at a young age, I sensed something special about my boy, when we would hang out after school at his parents' restaurant, chatting, playing, and doing homework. I remember those days like they were only yesterday - his mom and pop, Francisca and Juan Ramon,
Ham Heaven at Mercado de la Bretxa ...
... apparently, some of the finest jamon available are the ones wrapped in black fabric.
treated me like their own, cooking up all kinds of culinary delights for us growing boys, each of us completely famished after yet another exhausting day of learning. But still, never did I dream that he would become the shining culinary star that he is today.
So of course, I had to connect with Juan Mari before arriving, and book a table at his renowned restaurant! But then ... what the hell????!?!? "Sorry Lil Buddha, but we are closed for vacation when you are arriving, and will be out of the country on holiday!" When I heard that, my heart shattered into a thousand pieces, like the most perfectly-prepared glassy crème brulee crust getting slammed onto the kitchen floor!
What to do? There was no point in pouting, so all we could do was look for an alternative, settling on Restaurant Ni Neu for lunch today. I use the term "settle" lightly here, since we "settled" for a restaurant that isn't world famous and world class, but is still pretty awesome in its own right, serving up some fine examples of Nuevo Basque cooking. And the bonus? Well, a meal here only costs about 1/10 of what it would have at
Top-Notch Seafood ...
... not only is the quality here great, but the presentation as well.
Arzak, so it worked out for the best!
Lunch here was pretty awesome, but there were a couple of complaints - the fact that no rose wine was available meant that we only were able to get a bottle each of white and red as our included wines! What a rip off! After being spoiled with three bottles at La Fabrica, anything less is unacceptable! But the second complaint was far worse - one of the key tenets of Nuevo Basque cuisine is exploring and investigating new techniques, but this time, they went too far! Our ginger sponge cake was as unappetizing as it was visually unappealing, resembling a bowl of aerated crap!
It was a shame, because lunch was top notch, and ending on such a low note left a less-than-favourable impression, particularly when everybody else's dessert looked stunning - poached peaches, colourful cakes, and torrija, the Basque version of French toast ... if only our "sponge" cake was half as good as those were! In fairness, the waitress did warn us that it wasn't really a sponge cake, but we never suspected that it would have been such a gloopy, bitter mess. We came here for lunch, not a science
Ni Neu ...
... a fairly-recent addition to the Nouveau Basque scene here in San Sebastian, located inside the modern Kursaal Congress Centre. Unfortunately, they didn't have any rose wine here, so we were short changed and only received two bottles of wine with lunch.
But the good thing about Basque cuisine is that, if you had the extreme misfortune of eating anything remotely bad, you'll later make up for it with the most sublime culinary experience. In fact, we only had to wait a few hours before forgetting about the horrific sponge cake disaster, when we hit up the Old Town for another round of pintxos. The strategy was different tonight, though, after doing a rather thorough tour last night - tonight, we went straight back to La Cuchara de San Telmo for more of their heavenly raciones.
Even better than last night, it was unfathomable that anything could top what they put out - until we stumbled down the street to Gandarias, for some cochinillo, the most succulent suckling pig imaginable, and a very traditional Spanish dish. I used to think that either Chinese roasted pork, or Italian porchetta was the pinnacle of pork - well, this cochinillo blew them all away! The skin was so light and crispy, that it was almost like breaking through a crème brulee's caramelized sugar crust, and once inside, the pork was so juicy, tender, and fatty that it simply dissolved on your tongue. It was definitely
... normally, I'm all over anything squid ink, but this squid ink risotto with a tomato was WAY too strong. It wasn't fishy in a this-fish-isn't-fresh kind of way, but just too intense. Justin seemed to love it, though. I forgot to take a picture of it, but my starter was sautéed fresh seasonal vegetables in a cream sauce made from Idiazabal, a local sheep's cheese. FANTASTIC, I could've just drank the sauce on its own. Served with a few crisp gnocchi, it was the perfect start to the meal, and surprisingly light. The assortment of local vegetables was stunning - tiny little peeled sweet tomatoes and squash were the most memorable, and it was sprinkled with some hazelnuts that offered up a nice aroma and texture to the dish.
pricey at 20 Euros, but was worth every cent of it! I actually pulled a Luke Skywalker and crawled inside of the warm pig like it was a Tauntaun, and had a nice little nap.
So though we never got to connect with Juan Mari, we still managed to have culinary experiences today that are second to none - sure, a gourmet experience at a world-famous restaurant would have been an unforgettable experience, but there is something to be said for the simplest and most traditional of dishes, when they are executed flawlessly. Too bad I ate too much of the pork, and felt like I needed a C-section after!
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