Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Pintxos, San Sebastian Food

Sartre and I visited the chic San Sebastian for a couple of nights after our wedding with a focused agenda. To eat pintxos and go to one of the three 3 Michelin star restaurants there.

San Sebastian is a sophisticated shrine to food on the Bay of Biscay. It has the most Michelin stars per head or per square metre, depending on the survey you’re reading.

The local obsession with good cooking and eating is as alive today as it was when San Sebastian first emerged as a culinary hotspot. 

Its pre-eminence as a foodie destination might be to do with its local bounty. San Sebastian is enviably well-endowed when it comes to local produce. From seafood and meats, to chocolate, cheeses and wines, most bases can be covered within a stone’s throw from the town.

It might also have to do with when well-to-do Spanish and French families first hit upon going to San Sebastian for their holidays. Chefs followed the money, and soon the town was attracting top culinary talent.

On the Pinxto Hunting food tour run by San Sebastian Food, our tour guide Lourdes offered a social reason behind the growth of pintxo bars & restaurants. Because Spanish apartments tend to be on the small side, Spanish people don’t invite friends to their homes for dinner parties. Instead, they meet (and eat) on the street.

And in that spirit we ventured out into the balmy evening to eat a curated selection of the best pintxos with accompany wines.


The vibrancy of the pintxos were matched only by the vibrancy of our guide for the night, Lourdes from San Sebastian Food.

The value in this tour lies mostly in having the rules of getting by at a pintxo bar spelt out to you. As Lourdes demonstrated, the worst thing you can do is be polite. Instead, use chin and elbow to make your presence felt at a crowded bar.

The process of pintxo freaks out a lot of tourists. The trick is not to be duped by a large plate, but instead take a small plate and eat what you fancy. At the end, you pay for what you took, deduced by the bar owner’s eagle-eye and corroborated by the detritus on your plate.

We ate everything from fabulous rare steak, to spicy sausage, to fake baby eels. Apparently, painting strips of white fish with the markings of elvers is big business here, tapping into local demand for a delicacy that is hard to come by.


We ate the Basque Region’s answer to crème brulee.  We were shown how to ‘break’ the effervescent local wine Txakoli by pouring it from height. We learned how the Gilda pintxo earned its name and more importantly, got to devour it – a near perfect skewer of olives, guindilla peppers and anchovies.

We ate substantial pintxos, much more the size of a hearty starter, of creamy fondant potatoes and mushrooms. We ate rosy pink duck, alongside kebabs of prawns, monkfish and ham.

We stopped outside one of the city’s many gastronomic societies, which have played a large part in the development of San Sebastian society and foodiness. These are private clubs attended by men mostly (until recently) where the club members take turns cooking dinner for each other. After eating the costs are calculated, and members all chip in, according to a trust system.

There’s a patriarchal flavor to these clubs and women are still forbidden from some of the societies. Lourdes told us that her mother never minded her father spending his nights at his gastronomic society, since it meant he couldn’t be out womanizing.

In this way, these gastronomic societies are somewhere between a British golf club and working men’s club. A social lifeline, a focus on food and company, and a piece of living history.

We were certainly full and probably a little bit tipsy by the end of the evening. And not a patatas bravas in sight. Which, in San Sebastian, is the sign of a good night.

Restaurant review: Akelare, San Sebastian

Alongside Arzak and Mugaritz, Akelare is one of the three restaurants in San Sebastian to have been awarded three Michelin stars and Sartre and I decided to treat one another on a short break there.

As we approached Akelare, I imagined how it must have felt winding up the track to Casa Montjoi and El Bulli.

For those of us that missed the boat on dining at El Bulli, it’s a cruel game to imagine what it must have been like to dine there. But I couldn’t help it.

Countrified track up to a swish hilltop restaurant, surrounded by shining sea and unspoilt hills? Check.

A chef whose inventiveness is only matched by his mastery of classic techniques and flavours? Check.   

Fellow diners who are smitten by the famous chef who politely poses for photograph and walks the room? Check.

But this is no poor relation to El Bulli. Akelare has its own distinctive character.

The mighty figure at the centre of this restaurant, Pedro Subijana, presides over a kitchen so inventive it rivals Pixar on a good day. Here, creativity is the courier of dish after fabulous dish. 

Akelare is so good that it makes accomplished dinners produced by very competent chefs look amateurish and unrefined. Not once does a plate land in front of you without eliciting a little gasp of wonder. But neither does the technique overshadow the eating.

Every dish was well balanced and precisely designed.  This is a kitchen that has the nonchalant audacity to run three different tasting menus at the same time. Guests choose from the Aranori menu, the Bekarki menu or The Akelare’s Classics.

Sartre and I each had a different 9 course tasting menu.

My first course was prawns and French beans cooked at the table in a firepot. A simple dish, but one with such hefty local heritage that it brought the campfires of early Basque settlers right through the posh windows and straight to my table.  

One of my courses was White Beans with Chorizo, which looked just as it sounded, but was in fact a vegan dish of a trompe de l’oeil “chorizo” and white beans.

On that note, visual trickery and theatrical rug-pulls run through both menus. 

Sartre opted for his menu largely because of The Broken Jar of Yoghurt, a teasingly lifelike smashed jar, made of sugar, edible ink and paper.

There were pillows of coconut mousse with a fake egg, made of almond marzipan.

Exquisite suckling pig with an utterly realistic looking bone, in fact made out of candy.

The chunkiest, meltiest piece of foe gras with ‘salt and pepper’ – really, black rice and sugar posing as the better-known condiments, lending a sweetness to foie gras that I hadn’t tasted before.

And beyond the visual trickery, there was sublime cooking. Plain old sublime cooking.

There was the most finely minced, velvet steak tartare.

A Mexican-influenced roasted pigeon dish with mole and dark chocolate.

The orange ‘tocino de cielo’ sheet with fruit leaves. This, traditionally, is a flan. At Akelare, it’s reimagined as a stained glass window. As bewitching to look at as it is to eat.

To strike a contrast to the gushiness of this review, it’s worth mentioning that the restaurant itself is a little curious. One part sleek and corporate. One part breathy windows looking onto the Bay of Biscay. And one part seventies ski chalet, with a preponderance of polished wood and tongue and groove ceilings.

There were renovation works going on when we visited and apparently, the restaurant will soon be accompanied by rooms.

And finally. The way that chefs deal with their public says a lot about them in my book.

Some chefs studiously avoid interacting with their public. They believe they should only be engaged in the kitchen and not appear front of house. This might be because they lack the chit-chat to hold court with their clients. Whilst others believe food is only art and never commerce, and this breed doesn’t wish to think about their paying customers, much less shake them by the hand.  

But not only does Pedro Subijana spend time roaming the dining room, shaking hands and engaging in one or two words of small talk with everybody, he also takes the bins out at the end of the night.

As Sartre and I waited for our taxi to roll up the drive, we noticed Pedro leaving. Out of his whites and in his civvies, we saw him drop off some bin bags on his way out, before roaring off into the night in his sportscar.

That’s pretty rare.

And speaks of a chef comfortably at home with who he is and his place on the culinary scene. Yet one who is endlessly restless when it comes to his food.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Restaurant review: Dirty Bones, Kingly Court

I had high hopes for Dirty Bones and, apart from the delightful company I went there with, they were largely unmet.

The décor is now standard-issue dive-diner. And it’s become a cliché that is not, in truth, much cooler than a Byron. You know the score –the kitchen on show, leather-clad booths, distressed metals, and hootchy-kootchy vintage art on the walls.

The service was patchy and they successfully niggled one of my personal niggles by taking at least 15 minutes to bring the first round of drinks.

The food was OK and, to give due credit, it was well-received by some of my fellow diners.

The Mac Ball was the stand-out dish for me, a gleefully greasy take on an arancini.

The Dirty Fries were moreish. The ½ pile of Crispy Fried Chicken was good but not great. I’ve had better chicken in several places, including Meat Mission’s Hippie Chicks and the buttermilk chicken at The Ten Bells, to name two.

I think the measure of good comfort food is abandoning your table manners. Not giving a cuss for cutlery, stuffing it in and thieving your partner’s fries. And Dirty Bones missed this mark. 

On a spectrum of greasy, glorious American fare, I would opt for Spuntino at the finer end or Shake Shack at the everyday end every time.   

Restaurant review: HKK, London EC2

This place is as muscular as Phillip Marlowe chaining a pack of Camels and polishing off a quart of brandy on a hangover.

It is a dark, glossy, high spec, high stakes kind of a place. A restaurant dreamt up for the exclusive use of power lunchers and power brokers.

Part of the Hakkasan empire, this edge of City outpost deals in a pricey but impressive Chinese tasting menu.

A party of us entertained clients in the private dining room, with its Bladerunner-blue tinged window looking on to the kitchen. The service was flawless and the beverage pairing (including cocktails, hot and cold sake, and teas, as well as wines) was inventive and lent a good deal of pomp to the proceedings.


The courses of note were many, including picture perfect dim sum, the pork belly mantou (a dirtier slider you would not find in Dirty Bones), Wagyu beef in king sanpei sauce, and a piquant little five spice pumpkin cake.


But the real pull here is the roasted cherry wood Peking duck, a theatrical spectacle of knife skills and meticulous plating up in two ways – an addictive little pancake as well as a chunk of the breast meat. The duck is deeply flavoursome and moist, glazed to an incredible colour and handled with all the reverence of the Kray twin’s Mum.

Whilst the food is exquisite, I challenge you to get through a meal here without thinking you’ve seen the Mark Hanna character from Wolf of Wall Street, leading his table of guests in a resounding, chest-thumping Money Chant.

Restaurant review: Sharps x Nathan Outlaw, The Mariner's, Rock

A return trip to the consistently brilliant The Mariner's at Rock, where the Sharps Brewery and Nathan Outlaw alliance continues to produce delicious food and beer combinations.

This time, the freshest Porthilly oysters with shallot vinegar, followed by creamed leeks and butter bread on sourdough.

There's something honest and intensely appealing about these locally sourced, simply assembled dishes. Made all the more agreeable from a cosy vantage point, watching the elements batter the boats out on the Camel Estuary.