Wednesday, September 22, 2010

San Sebastian Pintxos - A Fuego Negro, La Cuchara de San Telmo

There are enough Michelin stars in and about San Sebastian to make up a constellation, but some of the best eating in this food mecca can be found in its many bars and their seemingly infinite selection of pintxos. We first visited San Sebastian about a year and a half ago, and sampled several excellent pintxos bars. We had the good fortune to be back in San Sebastian recently, and made return visits to several of those same bars, and some new ones as well.

Last year's post conveys my genuine awe at the culinary wonderland that San Sebastian is, and so I won't repeat myself here. I also won't dare try to recount each of the many morsels we sampled, which would be well nigh impossible. Rather, this is just a list of some of the highlights. Before diving in, though, a couple observations that are hopefully not duplicative of my comments from last year:

First, one of the things I found so remarkable is that even with the plethora of pintxos bars in the town - surely well more than a hundred over just a few square miles - it seems that virtually all of them have their regulars. We couldn't sit down in the homiest little hole in the wall for more than fifteen minutes without somebody showing up who the bartender knew (and usually also knew their drink order). Another thing I found interesting is that there is no firm division between "traditional" and "contemporary," at least as far as the customer base is concerned. Even in the most modern bars, serving the most contemporary, unusual bites, you would find bushy-moustached Basque old-timers enjoying a bite next to tattooed, serially-pierced hipsters. If the food is good, that's all that matters to these people - and most of the food is very, very good.

As I did last year, I'll divide my notes between the Parte Vieja (the "Old Town") on the west side of the Urumea River, and the more commercial Barrio Gros on the east side, running into the Zurriola beach. Our exploration of the Parte Vieja was somewhat limited this time around on account of the Bandera de la Concha, a very popular boat regatta which is apparently celebrated by massive crowds of sloppy drunk teenagers afterwards by crowding into the Parte Vieja, strewing about thousands of broken plastic drink cups, and urinating in the streets. Ah, to be young again ...

A Fuego Negro is a slick looking place done up mostly in shades of black and red which offered some of the most creative and delicious dishes we experienced on this trip. They feature both contemporary takes on some Spanish classics, as well as some more esoteric choices in miniature pintxo form. The menu starts with "Txupitos and Apertifs," clever combinations of a bite and a drink in one little item.

Here, "Fino & Ajo Ibérico" took the form of half-frozen "cloves" of ajo blanco, the classic Spanish garlic soup, with cubes of fino sherry gelée and a fine dice of apple.

"Salmorejo Txerry Sobre Migas Ibéricas," meanwhile, was served as a orb of the gazpacho-like soup, infused with sherry, in sorbet form, nestled in a little bed of bread crumbs, and sprinkled with a bit of pimenton. Both of these were wonderful, invigorating bites.

(continued ...)

Moving on to their pintxos, or "Kositas" as styled on the menu, "Txitxarro-Oveja-Menta-Cereza" (Sardine-Sheep's Cheese-Mint-Cherry) sounded like either an unlikely, brilliant combination or a train wreck,[*] so I had to try it. It was comprised of a dice of fresh, raw sardine along with several cubes of a tangy sheeps' milk cheese, over a cracker spread with a thin film of a cherry cream, topped with a fine julienne of fresh mint. And it actually worked, with the mint and cherry providing a counterpoint to the oily, slightly fishy sardine, and the cheese giving a touch of salty creaminess.

The "Oreja con Helado de Mole" presented another perhaps unlikely combination: pickled pig's ear with a mole ice cream. The pig's ear was tender and nearly jellied, with just the faintest hint of that cartilagenous firmness in the middle that provides a visceral reminder of what you're eating when you order pig's ear. And the spicy, creamy mole ice cream made a great accompaniment for those willing to accept the prospect of a savory ice cream. And if, like me, you're a fan of such things, you could also try the "Txangurro-Aguacate-Regaliz," a pintxo comprised of a quenelle each of spider crab, avocado, and licorice ice creams. Baskin Robbins would have a lot more than 31 flavors if they were this bold.

No PacoJet appears to have been involved in the preparation of this egg dish, or "Un Huevo! ... con Hongo y Jamón." Nor was it, as I somewhat jadedly anticipated, a perfectly oozy 63.5°C egg, the current darling of every chef who's acquired an immersion circulator. Rather, this egg had a puffy, almost meringue-like shell (like a Baked Alaska meringue, not a hard meringue) encasing the classic gooey yolk, served over a bed of sautéed mushrooms and topped with some bits of crispy ham. This egg would satisfy both those who crave the perfectly cooked, runny yolk, and those who are put off by the equally runny white of the "63.5°C egg." I'm intrigued by how they do it: my suspicion is that the egg is in fact immersion circulated, perhaps at a slightly lower temperature, and then quickly fried in olive oil to firm up the white.

Right down the street from A Fuego Negro is La Cuchara de San Telmo, which is one of San Sebastian's more celebrated contemporary pintxos bars. I was somewhat underwhelmed by it on our last visit: though the things we had were quite good, there was a sameness to all of them that made the overall experience a bit less impressive. It is different than most of the other pintxos bars in San Sebastian in that rather than spreading some items across the bar to tempt the customers, everything is made to order off the menu in a tiny little cubicle of a kitchen in the back of the restaurant, which itself is not much larger than some walk-in closets. We ordered a few different items this time to try to mix things up better than last time.

This Oreja de Cerdo - another pig's ear - was undeniably delicious,with a lovely gelatinous texture, and served over what I think was a chickpea purée with an herbacious "tximitxurri" drizzled across the top.

The Queso de Cabra was a wheel of funky, crumbly goat's cheese, topped with some roasted vegetables and - again? - a drizzle of an herby green sauce. This was the same thing that we experienced the last time, where it seemed like every dish was sauced and composed the same way. I looked in the kitchen to see if Bobby Flay was in there with a green squeeze bottle, but didn't spot him.

All was redeemed, though, by this Croqueta de Mollejas, a croqueta of sweetbreads that was so meltingly tender it had to be eaten with a spoon. Rather than the customary croqueta which features some filling suspended in a bechamel, rolled in bread crumbs and fried, the exterior of this one had an almost tempura-like shell, which encased a creamy filling that seemed to be entirely composed of puréed sweetbreads. Rich, decadent, and utterly delicious. I barely even noticed that it had green sauce drizzled on it.

Next - Casa Senra, Mil Catas, and Hidalgo 56 in the Barrio Gros.

A Fuego Negro
Calle 31 de Agosto 31
Donostia San Sebastian Spain
+34 650 13 53 73

La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 de Agosto 28
Donostia San Sebastian Spain
+34 943 420 840

[*]As David St. Hubbins put it in Spinal Tap, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."


  1. The mystery of the A Fuego Negro egg has been explained by a recent visitor and reader: the only part of the "egg" that is actually egg is the white - the runny golden interior is actually a reduced and thickened pumpkin purée!

  2. I fear I'm a bit late with responses here but have only just stumbled onto your website. Originally I was just looking for your reviews of Akelare and Arzak (trying to decide between the two for myself) but saw your pintxos reports too.

    Rather than comment on multiple pages about each of the bars I have written them all here instead:
    Casa Senra also do good solomillo (duck and venison)
    Cuchara de San Telmo this year are doing excellent veal cheeks. They are still doing the Queso de Cabra too. I hadn't noticed the green sauce thing before so now I will pay more attention next time I visit.
    A Fuego Negro is one of my favourites. This year they have a makcobe (mini burger) with txips (fried banana chips), quite unusual for pintxos but simply devine - I ordered another! They also have a dessert called 'child crying' which is great, look online for explanation pictures.

    To your list I would also add Borda Berri and Bar Astelena for places to try.