I had been agonizing over which of the two well-known seafood restaurants I would have my lunch at in the small port town of Getaria, a half-hour bus ride from San Sebastian. Both share nearly identical menus, specializing in fish grilled outside a la parilla (also known as a la brasa), over an open fire. Kaia Kaipe offers a great portside location and the opportunity to eat on their terrace -- but what if that meant it was touristy? Elkano, up the street away from the port, is reputed by some to be slightly better.
Then I spied the sign. "HAY SARDINAS." That alone was enticement enough for a sardine-lover like myself. Then when I learned I could have the table with a clear view of the grill, the last available table on the terrace, I knew Kaia Kaipe was the right choice. I think the waitress was amused when I opted to dine facing the outdoor grill rather than the supposedly more desirable view of the port.
Water is water, though. How often do you get to see a gorgeous 10-foot long outdoor grill built into the side of a restaurant. It's the stuff of fantasies for any grill cook. And I had front row seats to the show.
As each table placed their orders, the kitchen delivered on a platter the fish, always whole, to the cook outside. The cook then deftly grabbed the beast, made any necessary slashes to ensure even cooking, tossed it in the appropriately sized and shaped basket (he had three to choose from), showered it with sea salt and plunked it down on the grill. He'd flip it once, then, when perfectly cooked, pry it from the basket and onto a plate, which would then be raced to your table.
I was delighted when my sardines (six of them, all for me!) arrived, spectacularly blistered by the fire, juicy and perfectly seasoned. I greedily devoured them, glancing over my shoulder every now and then to glimpse the sea from which they came. I suppose a more sensible person would have ordered a salad to start his meal, but I am who I am.
I nearly forgot to mention that these lovely sardines were preceded by one of my other favorites, cured anchovy fillets covered in olive oil. Paired with a glass of the local lightly fizzy Txakoli white wine (grown in the hills above town, with a view of the Atlantic), they served to perfectly whet my appetite for the sardines and my next course.
My entrée was, of course, grilled fish. Lenguado (Dover sole), to be precise, which was again properly seasoned and cooked, firm and juicy. When it was delivered, my second performance of the day was the expert tableside filleting of the fish. A Spanish friend of mine tells me that learning how to fillet a cooked fish is part of the education of every young school child, as important as learning to tie your own shoelaces. By the time they're 10, they are experts at a simple skill that few professional waiters in the US know how to manage.
I capped off my fish feast with a refreshing cup of lemon sorbet mixed with Cava, smugly congratulating myself on my choice of restaurants. Then I spent the next two hours hiking through the txakoli vineyards, making sure that I would have room for my next meal.