San Sebastian, a small city with a collective 16 Michelin stars, is much much more than its pinxtos. Chuleton de Buey steak at Bar Nestor, homestyle meals at men-only private cooking clubs, spring lamb and cheese at farms on foothills of the Basque Highlands, Michelin starred restaurants such as Kokotxa and vineyard tours will blow your mind and tastebuds.
CHULETON DE BUEY – insanely delicious oxen steak at Bar Nestor
Located in San Sebastian’s Old Town, Bar Nestor is hailed as having the best steak in the world, its Chuletón de Buey bone-in ribeye a T-Rex of steaks weighing in at over a kilo. I’ll cut through the suspense – yes, it leaves the Tomahawk and Porterhouse in the dust. What’s amazing is the rib-in steak comes from mature oxen, “buey” in Spanish, from animals over 16 years of age. The meat is hung as much as 200 days.
Climate and locale – the region boasts lush highlands – and the raising of the animals – Spanish breeders believe their wellbeing translates to quality – make all the difference. The oxen freely range on highland grass with additional feed that might include grain, sprouts or even acorns. The result – fat marbling with an incredible depth and complexity.
The cut, a few kilos’ weight, is meant for sharing and is the perfect size to tolerate high heat grilling over a wood and charcoal fire. Bar Nestor grills it fat on, coated in coarse sea salt for at least 40 minutes until the surface is caramelized, its edges are crunchy while the interior is buttery, juicy and tender. Amazingly, the still-smoking steak is served with no resting!
The server slices it for you on the hot plate and hastily steps back for the feeding frenzy to begin. The Chuletón de Buey has charred undertones, unctuous fatty top notes and a melody of intense flavor. I can’t begin describe its richness and depth – every chew provokes a deluge of saliva and the explosion of taste intensifies with the crunch of salt crystals.
Ambience-wise, the restaurant was the least charming we’d visited in the town, given its overly bright lights and scanty tables and seats. Meanwhile, the two snowy-haired owner-chefs were downright crotchety, which I guess happens if you’ve been grilling steak for 100 years. They informed my friends and I that we could only order “the Chuletón” from 8pm onwards. Which meant yay! we could sit at a narrow side table and drink for an hour under the watchful eye of yellowing articles obscuring the wall beside us, lauding the restaurant.
True enough at 8 pm sharp, a cheekily grinning waiter (twinkling eyes isn’t a literary trope with this guy) brought us two cuts of steak to choose from, blithely joking that they came from “Poland”. The cooking shrinks the steak by a third, but most chuleton is plenty for two or three people. Especially paired with Bar Nestor’s smoky grilled Padron peppers and addictive heirloom tomato salad swimming in olive oil.
Second best part of the meal? The steak, four glasses of various wines and the two salads cost only forty four Euros!
Dinner at one of San Seb’s Secret Gastronomic Societies
Dozens of men-only secret societies are invisible amongst San Sebastian’s humming bars until you know what to look for. Sturdy and worn doors and small, discreet plaques are the only giveaway to a hidden world where men socialize, cook, eat and drink. Women, barred from the kitchen, are allowed in only as guests of members. These are txokos, or secret gastronomic societies. These clubs are considered home away from home even by Basque women, who joke that this keeps the boys from mischief.
The societies range in age, standing, membership numbers and physical size. But they have in common well equipped and stocked kitchens and wine cellar/bars, huge communal tables for gatherings. And within each society, all members are equal. Food, friendship and local tipple are the religion here, and members approach cooking with a casual-competitive air. After each gathering, diners drop cash into wooden boxes to cover the host-chef’s expenses in an honor system that’s bound the community for over a hundred years (the first Basque men’s gastronomic society registered in the 1870s). It’s almost impossible or tourists to join a meal or even visit as they are communal hotspots and space in San Sebastian, therefore membership, is tight.
I managed to sneak peeks at two secret societies in Old Town, and dine at a third by booking with Urban Adventures San Sebastian. If you’re lucky enough to see someone slipping in the door to one of these places, stop them and just ask very politely to have a quick look-see. I groveled.
Our dinner at the Sociedad Gastronomica Itztlpe cooked by Chef Xabi was superb. Maybe things taste better with and sense of the forbidden (dude, the club’s name says “secret”!) even though I did for the meal. Bottles of txacoli wine were poured liberally throughout the three hour meal. The six visitors at the table had so much fun with translator and guide Tomasz. I blame that and the alcohol for taking too-few photos of the food.
The chef prepared a six course of salmorejo soup, squid-seafood salad, mashed potato patties filled with seafood swimming in a red piquillo sauce, a killer sirloin steak seared to salt crusted perfection with mushroom sauced walnut-cheese filled pasta and finally dessert (a cookie-base-ice cream and sorbet soaked in orange juice). Not haute cuisine but deliciously created with heart and skill.
Basques are a reserved people so it was lovely when a private group of diners shared their seafood terrine for our approval, their competitive cooking juices sparked by our enthusiasm.
SPRING LAMB, IDIAZABAL CHEESE AND CIDER LUNCH AT ADARRAZPI SHEEP FARM
Heaven…that’s where the first bite of roasted spring lamb transported me to. Physically, I was only 35 minutes’ from the city on a farm tour organized by Basque Cooltours for sheep herding and cheese making. That amazing lamb, so sweet and clean tasting as it was still milk fed, was simply seasoned with salt and garlic and baked five hours over a charcoal flame until it melted in the mouth. And coated with natural juices so carmelized that the sauce was the color of marmite. The farm’s own cheese was served as a starter with membrillo and bread.
After the meal, their incredibly smart and spry 12-year old sheepdog Ainhoa herded a flock of sheep up, down and sideways the pasture while shepherd Mikel gesticulated with his crook and whistled orders. Citybred Mickel underwent 6 months’ training at a Shepherd’s School to learn how to farm livestock and make Idiazabal cheese, bought stock off a retiring shepherd, then worked hard to get financing for his business. His wife Inma put me to work prepping curds and stuffing them into molds to be pressed then cured for two months.
This intimate eatery in Old Town San Sebastian is named after the gelatinous fish jowls beloved of the Basques. It reflects the reverence the owner-chef Dani Lopez has for top quality local ingredients. His deft fusion dishes – Andulacian and Asian influences tinge his menu – yet remain rooted in Basque traditions and display a mastery at plating. Reservations advised as it only seats 30. And check their website for holiday closures. The Tasting, Farm and A la carte menus change seasonally. We had a lot of fun with ordering one of each tasting and farm (priced at 87€ for seven courses and 62€ for six courses). . So reasonable for world class artistry. The Ala carte menu was reasonable as well, with fish mains priced 25 to 31€ while meats were 26 to 30€. My favorites was out of this world the Mackarel Tartar with apple, cucumber and celery sorbet, and the bite sized Bresse Pigeon with black sesame
Open Tuesday to Saturday 1:30 pm to 3 pm; 8:30 pm to 10:30 pm
Calle del Campanario, 11, 20003 Donostia-San Sebastián; Tel +34 943 42 19 04
If after all of that you still crave pinxtos, here are my lists of bars or if you’re ready for a drink here’s all about aTxacoli wine tour.