From Heavenly Ham to a Frozen Gelée

One of the beauties of San Sebastián is how well it feeds all types of budgets. The marquee restaurants, the ones with the Michelin stars and the white tablecloths, will cost you dearly (and with the U.S. dollar continuing to crater, there has probably never been a worse time for American food tourists to titillate their palates in Europe). But you don’t have to visit those places to eat well in San Sebastián. The city has lots of modest restaurants serving excellent food, and it also has scores of pintxos (tapas) bars, which are justly regarded as one of San Sebastián’s signature attractions. The best option, if you can swing it, is to sample both the high-end and the low. Part of the fun of dining out in San Sebastián is how seamlessly one can move between the simple and the surreal, the quotidian and the otherworldly.

I spent one night doing a pintxos crawl in Parte Vieja, the old section of San Sebastián. This warren of narrow streets and alleyways, located at the foot of Monte Urgull, one of the two hills that bookend the city, is a charming area that is home to a huge number of pintxos bars, almost all of which are inviting. Pintxos is bar food, and as you walk through the old town, past watering holes whose counters are lined with ham sandwiches, marinated vegetables and fish, and sundry other items, temptation is everywhere. But some bars are better than others, and the good ones all seem to have certain specialties. Figuring out where to go and what exactly to eat requires some local knowledge, which Gabriella Ranelli de Aguirre was kind enough to furnish. She had an entire list of favorites, which I printed out before setting off.

Every food junkie knows that Spain has the best ham in the world, and this was my night to feast on it. According to Gabriella’s tip sheet, La Cepa was the best place for Jabugo ham, considered the ne plus ultra of Spanish pork products. The bar left no doubt as to its specialty: thick legs of cured, air-dried jamón dangled from the ceiling. I walked up to the bar and quickly got down to business with a ham sandwich and a glass of crappy local white wine. (San Sebastián is also renowned for its ciders and cider houses, but the season only runs from January through mid-April.) The glistening, buttery ham was sensational, and one sandwich quickly became three. The bar was packed with boisterous locals; it was a very happy happy hour at La Cepa. The guys behind the bar weren’t so full of good cheer; they were a dour, rough-looking crew who gave the place a slightly raffish feel. I had the distinct impression that they would be across the bar and in your face rather swiftly if there were ever a problem. Just so long as they didn’t knock over those great ham sandwiches.

The bar I liked best—I ended up stopping in three times that night—was Ganbara, a bright, cozy tavern that was also overflowing with patrons. (I’m guessing not many people cook dinner during the week in San Sebastián. Why bother when you can load up on pintxos?) The food was excellent: There was more ham, this time served on miniature croissants (I made it a triumvirate again), as well as shrimp brochettes, foie gras, deviled eggs, marinated fish, and marinated hot peppers. Gabriella had said that Ganbara was known for its wild mushrooms, and sure enough, a big pile of them sat at the end of the bar nearest the kitchen. I decided to give one a try. The bartender grabbed a plump mushroom, dispatched it to the kitchen, and delivered it to me a few minutes later grilled and sliced, with just a touch of olive oil and salt. It was the meatiest, woodsiest, most delicious mushroom I think I’ve ever had. The price was impressive, too: 17 euros ($25). I probably wouldn’t have ordered it had I known the tariff, but I was very glad that I did. (Click here for more on the cost of eating in San Sebastián.)

The night before, I’d journeyed into the hills above San Sebastián with Gabriella to experience a different kind of Basque cooking: new wave. Mugaritz is a Michelin two-star restaurant located 15 twisting, turning minutes or so from the center of town. Its 36-year-old chef, Andoni Aduriz, has been widely hailed as the rising star of Spanish gastronomy, the heir to Arzak and Adrià. Like his culinary forbears, Aduriz approaches the stove in a spirit of scientific inquiry. In fact, he apparently spent several years collaborating with the liver-transplant unit at the University of Granada in an effort to gain greater insight into the functions of duck livers. (I’m assuming the transplant unit didn’t actually treat aquatic patients.)

Given Aduriz’s reputation and background, I was a little wary of Mugaritz. For my taste, a lot of the New Cooking, Spanish and otherwise, too often sinks into gimmickry and self-parody, and I anticipated some eye-rolling moments. But the setting was the first clue that perhaps things wouldn’t be quite as I had expected: Far from being some modernist abomination, the restaurant was located in a gorgeous farmhouse, which one entered via an outdoor terrace seductively perfumed by an adjacent garden. (Gabriella later told me that Aduriz had acquired the property from an old farmer who still lived on the grounds.) Before sitting down, we popped into the kitchen for a look. Aduriz was out of town, but his No. 2 was there. He came up to greet us holding several test tubes, to which my initial response was, Oh shit, it really is going to be George Jetson food. But it turned out the test tubes contained fairly anodyne stuff: cold vegetable soup and warm squid juice.

A few minutes later, we were shown to the table, where two small white envelopes sat atop each place setting. Both envelopes were printed in English. One read, “150 min. … submit!”; the other, “150 min. … rebel!” Inside each was a card. The “submit” card promised “150 minutes to feel, imagine, reminisce, discover. 150 minutes to contemplate.” The “rebel” card threatened “150 minutes to feel embarrassed, flustered, fed up. 150 minutes of suffering.” Given my reservations about molecular gastronomy, as well as my contrarian streak, rebelliousness would have seemed the natural choice. But I decided instead to submit (I think I was softened up by jetlag), and it was a wise move.

The food wasn’t nearly as outlandish as I had expected. There was really only one dish that was truly outré—strands of spider crab served in a frozen gelée of prawns, flowers, and saffron pistils. Liquid nitrogen had been used to freeze the gelée, so each of the small bowls arrived in a cloud of smoke. To avoid burning our mouths, we were advised to wait until the vapors had cleared. The dish turned out to be a textbook case of form trumping flavor: Once the pyrotechnics ended, we were left with a poignantly bland concoction. But everything else on the menu was quite good (a few dishes were a little too timid and could have used more seasoning). For me, the highlight of the evening was one of the two desserts we were served: violet ice cream with hot marzipan and spiced bread and green tea shavings. The ice cream itself was hauntingly good, with a freshness and intensity of flavor beyond anything I’d ever experienced in a frozen dessert. Nearly three months later, I still haven’t gotten the taste out of my mind, and if a restaurant can make you daydream about even just one dish, it’s done its job.