Category: San Sebastian

Dead fish


I’ve been looking through the photos I took while in San Sebastian, and found a few rather macabre shots from the Pescaderia or the old fish market in town. I thought it would be fun to share them.

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Elkano, simply, from the sea

When asked where the beautiful Turbot on our plate had come from, our
waiter simply gestured toward to sea just beyond the windows.
"Everything we serve here come from right there", he said. Elkano is
that kind of restaurant, where deceptively simple technique gives way
to the superlative freshness of the local ingredients. And that’s
precisely why we had gone there in the first place.

We had arrived only a few hours prior, a flight from Paris to Biarritz,
on the French side of the Basque country, then an hour or so drive to
San Sebastian. After a brief rest at the hotel, our friend Mikael
joined us for the drive to Guetaria, for dinner at the famous seafood
house Elkano. And so began our saga of driving –or getting lost,
rather- in the maze that’s the highways and byways of Donostia.

By the time we arrived at the restaurant it was far too close to
midnight, having gone over 40km the wrong direction and back again. We
rehearsed the starving children look with each other in the car, hoping
to be pathetic enough that they would serve us still, despite the
hours. Happily, we once again underestimated how late people ate in
Spain. Not only that they took us in without complaint, two more tables arrived even later than we did, and the
restaurant seated them without missing a beat.

We took a quick glance through the menu, though it was just for show.
We knew what we had come all that way for, and it’s the Turbot. That
majestic fish, whose sweet, succulent flesh and gelatinous bones are
considered by many a great chef to be the very finest specimen of fish
in the world.

We told our nice waiter that we were there for the Turbot. Yes, we
came all the way out here for the Turbot so could we PLEASE have a
Turbot, and might we have it NOW?

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The place that made perhaps the biggest impression on me on this last trip to Europe –on yet another a pilgrimage to many starry restaurants- was, surprisingly, a kitchen without even a star to its name. This restaurant, called Etxebarri, which simply means ‘new house’ in Basque, was the very definition of the phrase ‘middle of nowhere’, and serves up the kind of strikingly personal cuisine that makes one sit up and take notice.

A friend had warned us that the normally useful directions from Via Michelin were incorrect, and gave us instead a tattered treasure map with pencil markings on the roads where we were supposed to turn. We had a better idea though, or at least we thought we had one. We had a GPS in our rental car, whom we dubbed Hal II, and for whom we lavished blind faith. Need I say that our better idea turned out to be hardly better than nothing at all?

Driving in and around San Sebastian is quite non-trivial. Many of the major arteries in and out of the main city overlap each other, with varyingly named motorways sharing the same actual road. Signs on the roadside look at times like a long series of coded messages. Adding insult to injury, everything is labeled in both Castellano (standard Spanish) and Euskara (Basque). Not that I would ever begrudge a people so proud of their heritage, but, speaking neither Basque nor Spanish, I found myself in a constant state of confusion in the world full of math equations in place of a road sign!

After an action-filled drive from San Sebastian (ahem, Donostia), we finally made our way to a little town called Axpe, where Etxebarri locates. The restaurant is in an unbelievably beautiful setting, in a village seemingly comprised of only a few traditional stone buildings, set against a dramatic hillside. The picture doesn’t do it justice at all.

We came all the way here in seach of the distinct cuisine of the chef, Victor Arguinzoniz, the renown grill master of the region. To say that grilling is his passion would be an understatement. Not only that every dish out of his kitchen is grilled, but he makes his own charcoal, and even invented his own oven and grilling contraptions to take it to a whole other level.

It’s the kind of highly personalized cuisine that could be confounding to some. Michelin, who is unusually generous in this area –San Sebastian has the highest ratio of Michelin star per capita- gives him no star at all. I’m not sure if it was because they couldn’t understand him, or perhaps simply couldn’t find him.

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