Despite the presence of a veritable constellation of Michelin stars in San Sebastián, I mainly came here to eat pintxos, the local form of tapas. The Basques, and in particular the Donostiarrans, have elevated these small dishes to an art form. Pintxos at the finest bars are haute-cuisine in miniature, tiny culinary jewels akin to the amuse-bouche that begins a meal at the finest restaurants. In fact, their intent is to serve a similar purpose, to whet the appetite before you move onto a sit-down meal at another restaurant. To accompany your pintxos, you generally order a glass of the local txakoli wine or a zurrito, a 6-oz. pour of draft beer.
Some nights, however, pintxos became my entire meal, a progression of courses not unlike a tasting menu, but only costing $2.50-3.50 each. Depending on the place, 6 or 8 would make a satisfying light meal. Throughout my week in San Sebastián, I ate at more than a dozen pintxos bars in the Old Quarter and the Gros neighborhood.
Two bars stood out from the crowd: Aloña Berri in Gros and La Cuchara de San Telmo in the Old Quarter. Interestingly, in atmosphere they couldn't be more different.
When you enter Aloña Berri (Calle Bermingham, 24, Gros), you are immediately welcomed by the enthusiastic staff. The decor is classically refined, more like a Viennese café than a stereotypical tapas bar. The chef is the Lance Armstrong of the annual pintxos contests. If he enters a contest, the competitors know they are competing for second place. His presentations are meticulous works of culinary art, with unusual flavors and contrasting textures to equal their appearance.
His latest prize-winner, which took months to develop, is called Chipiron (baby squid) en Equilibria del Mar. It has four components that you are instructed to eat in a specific order. First, the tender paella-like disk of rice that tastes like a bite of arroz negre when dragged through the squiggle of ink. Then comes a shard of some sort of salty sugar, followed by the squid body itself, which explodes in your mouth with sweet juices. Finally, a shot of warm soup concludes the mini-fiesta in your mouth. His other pintxos are relatively more simple, but definitely more refined than the average canapés you get elsewhere. There is gazpacho with yogurt mousse, brie with fig and walnut, foie gras with red currants, warm sea urchin in its shell, duck confit with orange, all as delicious as they are beautiful.
My other favorite bar is La Cuchara de San Telmo (Calle 31 de Agosto, 28). Tucked away in a corner of the Old Quarter, this is the punk rocker of pintxos bars. Tattoos and piercings are de rigueur, the music is loud, the smoke thick. Unlike Aloña Berri, outsiders are tolerated at best. I personally love the attitude, and the food is fantastic. One of the chefs is Catalan, one Basque, so you get food unlike anywhere else in town.
The chefs eschew the traditional smorgasbord of premade canapés spread out on the bar counter, which makes you wonder if you should even call these pintxos. In San Francisco, we call them "small plates." You order off a chalkboard of 15-20 items, updated daily, then the bartender shouts the order to the raucous cooks in the open kitchen, a few yards away.
The food is the kind of food cooks like to eat on their nights off, rustic, hearty and boldly flavored. Braised beef cheeks, skate with mushrooms, crispy fried salt cod with romesco, a caramelized chunk of foie gras, fried pimientos de padron, stuffed baby squid, and gloriously gelatinous braised pig snout (I didn't know what it was until I returned to my hotel and looked up morros in my dictionary). On the lighter side, there is also a gazpacho and a brilliant half a tomato stuffed with tuna belly. I was in heaven.
Other excellent pintxos bars and their specialties include, in the Old Quarter, Txepetxa for exquisitely marinated anchovies paired with one other ingredient, like olive paste, pepper relish, trout caviar, or papaya (C/Pescadería, 5); Ganbara for wild mushrooms (C/San Jerónimo, 21); Goiz Argi (C/Fermín Calbetón, 4) for salt cod, shrimp brochettes or lamb meatballs; and Astelena (C/Iñigo, 1) for monkfish brochettes or guindilla peppers. In Gros, don't miss Bar Bergara (C/General Artetxe, 8) for the best selection of canapé-style pintxos in the city, including their oddly named "false lasagna" of marinated anchovies and diced ratatouille drizzled with balsamic vinegar.