Friday, September 24, 2010

San Sebastian Pintxos - Casa Senra, Mil Catas, Hidalgo 56

Casa Senra is not the most celebrated of San Sebastian's pintxos bars. But after a couple of visits, it's proving to be one of my personal favorites. Senra is not in the scenic Parte Vieja, but in the more business-like Barrio Gros,[*] and its layout is simple and utilitarian: a long bar stacked with platters of pintxos, along with several picnic-style benches along the wall, plus a few tables outside. Its pintxos are perhaps not as adventurous or inventive as some you might find. But the staff is friendly, the quality of the ingredients excellent, and the croquetas - well, they're possibly the best I've had anywhere.

The two pintxos closest to the foreground in this picture were a couple of my favorites: bacalao mousse topped with shavings of serrano ham and caramelized onions, and then behind those, soft bacon topped with escalivada-style grilled peppers, fried eggplant, Swiss cheese, and some more onions. Though these are out on the bar for the taking, the bartenders will quickly shepherd them back to the kitchen to warm up before serving.

Additional warm items are prepared by the kitchen as they're ordered, and we tried a couple of these:

Txipirones, served over a bed of chestnut purée, with some confit potatoes, all generously drizzled with a jet-black squid ink sauce, and topped with some frizzy fried leek greens. The combination of squid and chestnut seemed unlikely, but could perhaps be seen as a play on the longstanding tradition of mar y montaña (surf 'n' turf) dishes so common throughout Spain. It was a dramatic-looking dish with equally bold flavors.

Possibly even richer was the "Champi con Foie," with mushrooms and seared foie gras cloaked under a creamy aioli, with some reduced vinegar and a drizzle of green herb sauce for a bit of contrast.

But those croquetas! Available with fillings both customary (jamón ibérico) and perhaps not (almejas con salsa verde, morcilla), these delivered everything you should be looking for in a croqueta: crisp, not overwhelmingly greasy exterior; molten, lightly textured creamy interior; and a generous amount of the chosen filling. The croquetas filled with clams and green sauce were possibly my favorite, though it would be difficult to choose between them and the morcilla ones I had last year.

(continued ...)

Right around the corner from Casa Senra, heading toward the Zurriola Beach, is Mil Catas. There are a number of bars along Calle Zabaleta, a wide street whose bars have the advantage of offering lots of outdoor seating. There is a large banner in the front of Mil Catas announcing their success in the 2009 "Campeonato de Gipuzkoa de Pintxos," an annual pintxos contest which apparently brings in judges from all over Spain. (Mil Catas' chef, José Luis Carrillo, apparently also runs the highly regarded El Patio de Ramuntxo, which won the "Eusko Label" award at the same contest.) So how was the winning dish?

Hidden beneath the mound of foam is a perfectly cooked, warm scallop. The foam itself was vividly infused with lemon-y citrus flavor (a riposte to the foamaphobes who bemoan foams as often being "flavorless scum"), echoed by an aioli dabbed on the plate, and bolstered and enhanced by large crystals of sea salt. I thought the tepid, shelled berberechos (cockles) were superfluous, but everything else about this was just wonderful.

Also intriguing and successful was the grilled octopus, served with a sticky but not overly sweet orange glaze. The octopus was tender, with just a touch of that slightly slippery texture that the Spaniards enjoy.

More traditional, but no less satisfying, were these navajas (razor clams) drizzled with a vibrant green oil speckled with parsley and green onion, and garlic chips.

If you are walking from the Gros towards the Parte Vieja, you would do well to make a stop along the way at Hidalgo 56. This nondescript-looking place could have easily slipped by unnoticed, but for the fact that one of their signature dishes (as I learned at Todopintxos, which is an invaluable resource for San Sebastian pintxos bars) is a "Volcan de Morcilla." No, I'm not going to miss that.

I'm glad I didn't. This volcano-shaped mound of crumbled blood sausage was lightened, I believe, with some bread crumbs, speckled throughout with plumped raisins, topped with a gorgeous sunset-orange egg yolk, sprinkled with some coarse sea salt, and accompanied by a smear of apple purée for some sweet counterpoint to all the richness. A great dish. As a loyal blood-n-guts fan, I was also pleasantly surprised to see callos on the menu here. Callos, a tripe stew specked with chorizo and morcilla, is more typically a Madrileño dish, and it was interesting to see it make its way up here to the Basque Coast. Hidalgo 56's version was as rich and satisfying as any I've had.

If you are plotting a txikiteo in San Sebastian, do not overlook the Barrio Gros.

Casa Senra
Calle de San Francisco 32
Donostia-San Sebastian
+34 943 29 38 19

Mil Catas
Calle Zabaleta 55
Donostia-San Sebastian
+34 943 32 16 56

Hidalgo 56
Paseo Colon 15
Donostia-San Sebastian
+34 943 27 96 54

[*]Though perhaps not as overrun with tourists, the Barrio Gros has no lack of high quality pintxos bars in comparison to the Parte Vieja. Indeed, my favorite from our last trip, Aloña Berri, is in the Gros, though sadly it was temporarily closed during our visit and is apparently looking for a new location.

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