A short bus ride away from Donostia is the charming Basque fishing village of Hondarribia best known for its spacious beaches and its fusion of Spanish and French architecture. A 10-minute boat ride and you’re in France, in the town of Hendaye across the bay. As is generally true of places within Euskadi, the village of Hondarribia is packed with bars and restaurants which are packed with locals and tourists livin’ the good life.
After quite a long night out my travel buddies and I were looking rough, but we persevered in our plans to see the sites and to not let a few too many txacolis mess with our agenda. We arrived to Hondarribia hungry. As we rambled down Restaurant Ave, or in this case Calle San Pedro, we rubbernecked at every restaurant we passed, ogling the pintxos like a couple of up-to-no-good teenage boys checkin’ out girls at the mall. But when we came across Gran Sol I grinded to a halt, lowered my sunglasses and all but hooted “Ayyyy mamacita!”
It’s hard not to notice a restaurant with barrels set out front as standing tables and a mass of young people nomming enthusiastically while noticeably enjoying themselves a great deal. A slight daytime wine haze looms above the outdoor terrace and the place seems to reek the sweet stench of having absolutely nothing to do on a summer afternoon. I was immediately drawn to the place and investigated the menu, only to find that the restaurant is a bit of a neighborhood institution with an award-winning kitchen. Chef Bixen Muñoz Esnal offers a short a la carte of entrees along with a handful of modern pintxos, elaborate little works of art that have earned Gran Sol a shining reputation. The list of offerings is limited and they don’t seem to change too frequently. These seemed good signs. And while literally everything I saw [as I stared rudely into the plates of those around me] looked fantastic, I ordered the two award winning specialties.
I dug into a messy little thing called the Hondarribia, which contained a layer of crisp toast, topped with seared foie gras and a pile of smoked cod slivers. The dish was also said to contain “dulce de melocotón” or peach marmalade, which I didn’t make out too well. And I’m glad I didn’t, since I don’t like my goose liver paired with so much sweet fruit anyway. All in all I was expecting more from this dish. While the components were individually very nice they just didn’t make sense together. The smoked and salted cod was too potent in flavor and overwhelmed the subtle taste of the foie. And the vinegar swirled over the top added even more of a punch. The delicate liver was ultimately reduced to a mere textural component, which is a waste when it comes to something otherwise so delicious.
My second dish won the 2000 Campeonato Euskal Herria de Pintxos, an annual Basque Country wide pincho championship. This means that in the year 2000 this was considered the best pintxo in Basque-land. This is not all too hard to imagine. A dreamy soft poached egg coated in a subtly sweet tapioca glaze and dispersed squid ink sits on a cushy mound of migas. The latter is a mash of day-old breadcrumbs left to soak in a bit of grease, sausage and bacon before being mixed up with bits of fresh squid and seasoned with onion and white wine. Sprinkled over the top are patatas en paja or shoestring potatoes. Seconds before serving, a hen broth wonderfully complex in flavor is poured over the dish, wetting a portion of the fried potatoes last minute. But just enough of them stay crispy to give the dish textural contrast; the crunch compliments the moist mash of elaborately seasoned bread perfectly. And when the tender egg is broken into, it gushes forth a velvety smooth yolk that binds the rest of the ingredients together and adds luxury to the dish. The bowl was easy on the eyes, like a soft nest of gold. Maybe not what I would consider the classic definition of a pintxo but a wonderful dish nonetheless.
I adored one dish, was disappointed by the other and drooled over all the rest I saw around me at Gran Sol. Although the foie and cod was a hit-and-miss, the nest of egg convinced me of the skill and creativity of the kitchen. And the vibe that first drew me in kept me there through 3 glasses of wine, just enough to wake me up from the gloom of the morning and lead me into a carefree summer afternoon.