I’ve been sitting at my computer for too long, unable to write. Am I lacking motivation because I haven’t yet shaken the food coma that seemed to take hold of me the second I walked into my first pintxo bar? Or maybe writing about the outlandish sums of money that I just spent on food will make it all the more real? I think it’s a combination of the two – an unshakable food coma and spending more money on food in the past three days than I have in the past two months.
Here’s the thing. I love good food – clean flavors and fresh ingredients. When it comes to dining out, some of my very favorite meals come from small, inexpensive restaurants: Tu Lan in San Francisco (#17!), Taim in the West Village, Lucali in Brooklyn, Natural Café in Santa Barbara and Green Leaf in Seattle. I love that good food doesn’t have to be expensive. When it is expensive, like it was at Etxebarri and Mugaritz, then I expect good food. When the restaurant is considered one of the best in the world, Mugaritz is #4 and Etxebarri is #39, according to the chefs and critics on the San Pellegrino “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” panel, then I expect good food plus impeccable service and a knowledgeable server. I hoped both meals would be educational experiences because I knew I would be eating food that I couldn’t otherwise whip up on my own.
Let me backtrack a bit to set the scene. The drive from Barcelona took seven hours. We could have made it in five, but we moseyed up to San Sebastian in true Spanish style, stopping for café (con leche, cortado or solo) every hour or so and eating lunch in a small town that happened to have its annual medieval festival in full swing. The drive was gorgeous and the scenery grew increasingly greener and cloudy as we drew closer to our destination. We arrived just as the sun was setting. I was still satiated from the medieval meatball soup we ate with wooden spoons and too much road trip candy. Who cares? It was time for pintxos and txakolina!
The San Sebastian crew, in order of appearance:
The Road Trippers
– Lee. Hometown: Chicago, Illinois. Current city: Barcelona. Connection: My friend who owns and runs Somnio Hostel with her sister, Lauren.
– Lauren. Hometown: Chicago, Illinois. Current city: Barcelona. Connection: My friend, Lee’s sister and partner at Somnio Hostel.
– Gorana. Hometown: Somewhere in Serbia. Current city: London. Connection: Lauren’s friend from her previous job in the finance world.
– Keith. Hometown: Panama and Colorado. Connection: Lee and Lauren’s friend who now lives in Barcelona.
– David. Hometown: Birmingham, Alabama. Current city: Dublin. Connection: Friends with Lee, Lauren and more recently me. I first met David at the calcotada back in March.
– Rob. Hometown: Somewhere in New Jersey. Current city: London. Connection: David’s friend and travel buddy.
Keith was our designated translator and teacher of all things Basque. His grandmother was born near San Sebastian (Donostia) and has always spoken to Keith in Euskara, her native tongue. The language is next to impossible to speak as far as I can tell because it sounds like nothing I’ve heard before. I actually think it sounds more Japanese than anything else. It took me three days to remember how to say thank you: “Eskerrik asko.” Keith speaks Euskara fluently, along with Spanish, Catalan and Chinese, plus a little French, Italian and Russian. He is fascinated by languages and exceedingly patient – exactly the guy you want on any journey into uncharted territory. Apparently his grandmother has always told him that the Basque region is “just a little bit better” than anywhere else in the world. It turned into the theme of our weekend. The rolling hills carpeted in shades of green that uncannily resembled a Bob Ross painting looked “just a little bit better” than the hills in the Navarra region. The pintxo with seared foie topped with sautéed mushroom and chevre was “just a little bit better” than maybe anything I’d ever put in my mouth…until I ate the next pintxo and then that one was “just a little bit better” than the last.
Pintxos are brilliant. They are small (a bite or two) taste sensations of miniature edible art. Aside from a few that can be ordered off of a small menu, they are spread out on top of the bar and ready to be consumed. A short glass of txakolina, the local effervescent white wine, is poured into a glass to whet the appetite. Lauren brought along her trusty pintxo book, “Los Mejores Pintxos de Donostia”, that features a color photo of one pintxo on each page, the recipe, and the restaurant that invented it in tiny letters at the bottom. It was our foodie guidebook for the weekend. If page 36 looked good, we found it and ate it.
The first night we ate at three or four different pintxo bars, each one different and completely delicious. Some of my favorites: The two mushroom caps filled with hot garlicky juice perched on a slice of bread that soaked up the extra juice, tasty and thoughtfully designed. The deep-fried pimiento stuffed with blood sausage with a crisp, tempura shell and velvet center. The round wheel of warm goat cheese sprinkled with nuts and a veil of sweet mixed fruit. The postage stamp sized square of roasted pork with a creamy cauliflower puree.
The next day, our lunch reservations were at 1pm at Etxebarri, about an hour west of San Sebastian. The restaurant is housed in an old country home in a small village. The countryside is stunning. It looks like something out of a fairytale – old stone houses, intensely green grass, misty hillsides with solid slabs of grey rock peeking through. I half expected to see gnomes greet us at the door.
I took photos of every dish we were served at Etxebarri because I envisioned enjoying a meal that I’d look forward to writing about in detail. The food was, overall, very good. I bet that most of the ten courses contained seven ingredients or less, which I tend to think of as a good indicator of quality, unfussy fare. Yet, I left our lunch feeling like my splurge hadn’t been worth it. I decided not to dwell on my disappointment because what would be the point? What’s done was done. But, it got me thinking about the finality of a meal. Spending money on food is non-refundable (there are exceptions, like alerting the server of the cockroach in the taco, resulting in free dinner and seemingly endless free margaritas for the table) with the end result being satisfaction. When I buy a skirt and a week later come to realize it resembles the one I had to wear as part of my fifth grade uniform, then I simply return it for store credit at the very least. This meal, like all meals, was final.
I think it’s fair to say that when I’m paying over 150 euros for lunch, I want to eat well and feel taken care of. Shoot, I don’t do this sort of thing everyday! But, even if I did wine and dine at fancy establishments all the time, I think I’d expect the same things: really good food, excellent service and an overall feeling of satisfaction. The bottom line is that I didn’t feel welcome. The overall tone of service was unfriendly and then it was the smaller things that only contributed – we always had to pour our own wine and empty plates were cleared before others were finished with their food. I felt rushed and the meal didn’t feel special.
Mugaritz, on the other hand, was special. The food was really good, but not any better than the food at Etxebarri. It was the knowledgeable service, atmosphere and care that went into our lunch that made the experience a positive one. I took photos of every course but one, the pumpkin bite that came second to last. If it hadn’t been for the kind reminders from my friends to put my fork down and pick up my camera, then I’d have a lot less to show for the meal. I will post some of the good photos along with our menu.
To set the stage a bit, Mugaritz is about a half hour’s drive from San Sebastian. Like Extebarri, it’s surrounded by beautiful countryside, but it’s not an old establishment. When we arrived, we were ushered into a small cottage that serves as their waiting room. The bathroom is stocked with disposable toothbrushes and little packets of toothpaste. I brushed before we headed into the dining room for our meal and took another toothbrush for the road. Never know when it might come in handy. In the cottage, we were served cava and potato rocks. Umm hmm, potato rocks. What appears to be a bowl full of smallish river stones was exactly that, but with edible potatoes made to look like the stones placed on top. We each picked a potato from the bowl and dipped it into a homemade garlic mayonnaise (hence the need for the toothbrush before lunch). Just as we finished, we were beckoned to the restaurant and the feasting commenced.