Trapped and Happy in San Sebastián: Dinner at Gandarias

“Friday at 00:15” means Thursday night, not Friday night.

This most rookiest of mistakes cost me two hours of despair and a two hundred dollar flight the following morning. As the loss of my night bus from San Sebastián to Barcelona began to sink in, I found myself focusing solely on the negatives: money lost, time in Girona [my next destination] lost, nowhere to stay and, the most irritating truth of all, that the situation could’ve so easily not happened. As I cursed myself unforgivingly for having been so careless, the benefits of staying an extra day in SantSeb didn’t even occur to me. After a beer, a cigarette and a few kind words from a boy who saved my butt, I began to realize that maybe this wasn’t so bad after all.

The boy was a boy I met two nights prior during a late night rampage of the bars of Donostia. Undeterred by the cynical malhumor aimed at him throughout the night, he had given me his number por si acaso. I had saved it under an ironic name, never expecting to actually use it. But he had been a courteous and patient Basque, so I reached out to him for help in this time of need. Not only did he let me stay at his apartment, which had spectacular views of the Old Town and the river, he also spent the afternoon showing me around his city. Most importantly, he brought me to Casa Gandarias, where I ended up having the best pintxos of the trip.

14After a beer at the lookout near the Donostia aquarium we needed sustenance [and another beer]. For him there was no question where we’d get it. Gandarria is known to be one of the best in the business, clearly having gathered a following around town. The owner’s own son, the boy’s good friend, works there pouring txacoli and dealing out the pintxos. That’s him, pictured below. On a Friday night the place was hectic but I secured a little spot at the end of the standing bar against the back wall. He asked me what I would like to eat and I responded, “Anything but tortillas; you pick!” (It’s not that tortillas aren’t delicious; it’s just that it feels weird to eat an omelet at 11 p.m.) The boy nodded and advanced to the bar, swallowed up by the hungry crowd and disappearing from sight altogether. A few minutes later he emerged again, grinning and balancing more little plates than he could carry. He set things down and went back for more.

211At one point I too snuck a peek at the Gandarias bar and was awed by the quality. Lord, did things look good. The cold, open-faced mini sandies looked phenomenal, brilliantly colorful with ingredients expertly combined. The boy knew what to get warmed up, what to get cooked to order and what to leave alone. This right away improved the experience, as I didn’t prior realize that one had to ask to get certain things thrown into the oven before eating. In my ignorance I had been shoving all kinds of stuff into my mouth cold when they were actually supposed to be heated. Being at temperature is one thing, but these pintxos were also best in taste by far.

5Gandarias kicks butt at both the surf and the turf. The solomillo pintxo carried a beautiful round of sirloin beefsteak topped with a roasted green pepper and some flakes of sea salt sprinkled over the top. The meat was fantastically tender and juicy, grilled to the perfect texture with sexy lines of char running diagonally across. The sliver of pepper was caramelized sweet, adding a slippery smooth layer of veg to the exterior, while also serving as a buffer between salt and meat and allowing the salt to touch each bite more indirectly. Normally, a piece of beef mounted on a round of plain bread tends to worry me. I expect it to be tough and chewy, making for awkward bites as the bread gets lost in the struggle between teeth and hunk. But this one was soft and easy to masticate. And it was delicious.

7Next up, turf. Skewers of three plump, de-shelled shrimp with bits of bacon between each. The trio was topped with a slightly sweet relish of peppers and onions that contrasted nicely with the smoky, salty pork fat and brought out the natural sweetness of the shrimp. The curled little creatures were nice and tight in texture with the sweat of the veggies hydrating that which the grill had dried out. At Gandarias the steak and shrimp pintxos are absolute must-orders and people seem to know. I saw more of these little skewers cross that counter than there were mouths to feed in the entire restaurant. 

8Another popular one seemed to be the scallop and shrimp, both grilled and set on a bed of greens. Nobody actually ate the greens and the shrimp didn’t seem like anything special after the skewered rascals juiced up with bacon and veggies. What mattered in this dish, the only thing that mattered, was the scallop. I say without exaggeration that it was one of the best I’ve had. The buxom little muscle was relatively small in size but bursting with flavor, sweet the way only fresh marine meat can be. It was angelically soft and clean, giggling at me its milky white flesh seductively. The gritty caramelized exterior scraped my tongue delicately, setting up my palate with its slightly salty, nutty flavor. The thing practically fell apart in my mouth, the filet mignon of the sea.

10A pintxo I had been eyeing but didn’t order before were the Gernika peppers, fried and served in a heap with only a bit of salt for seasoning.  This one really can’t be missed and I would’ve very much regretted overlooking them. The Gernika is a local variety of pepper. While the species is originally from America, it is often associated with the region of Vizcaya where it is most commonly produced. The peppers are soft but have a snap to them, full of life despite the busted skin. They’re leafy green in flavor with a sweetness that is accentuated by sea salt. Not spicy and hot at all, but very mild and easy to eat. They are the perfect beer-side snack to share and impossible to have just one or two of.

412 copy13 copyI shied away at first from the plate of fried lumps that seemed rather unceremoniously dumped onto a plate, ungarnished. No lemon, no edible flower, no creamy white sauce to dip them into to make you feel even worse about the calories. But as I watched the boy bite into an oblong croquette, I saw its thin crust crack magnificently, revealing frothy white filling spotted with pink cubes of ham. With my eyes glued to the piece I reached for the the other reflexively. Sometimes a fried thing is the cheapest of tricks. The crunch teases at the most primeval of urges and the taste of salt and oil welcomes you warmly to the Dark Side. You regret seconds after what you’re putting in your body.

But there were no regrets in the case of the fried stuff at Gandarias, other than not having ordered more of it. The ham croquette was just as crispy, creamy and delicate as it looked. The thing was very dense, but the fried coat was thin and pleasantly grainy against the tongue. The smooth cream on the inside flooded the mouth with the smoky ham it was infused with. There was also a flat, round puck of fried that revealed a skewered prawn when bitten into. In this case the cream had taken on the sweet flavor of the shellfish. Thin, granular bread crumb crust with silky soft, warm filling and a plump, tight little shrimp for texture. Far from the typical croquettes one finds in bars around San Sebastián or restaurants anywhere in Spain, these set an impossibly high standard for the fried stuff of future dining experiences.

10455417_2702975013589_2540209173814695807_nReflecting back upon my last day in San Sebastián, I remember panic in the morning, dread in the afternoon and absolute palatal bliss by nightfall. While it had rained constantly during my visit, that last afternoon was sunny and warm and perfect for sightseeing. As it was the Day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and a Friday night, the streets were packed with people happily celebrating the festival. There was a parade of super-sized gigantes and crazed cabezudos [“big heads”] who slapped women and children with blown up pig bladders. And in the evening there were spectacular fireworks over the city; we watched them across the the boy’s living room window. Ironically, I ended up arriving to Barcelona only 2 hours later than the 8-hour night bus would’ve gotten me there. And so it came to be that my mistake was the very best part of my Basque excursion. It brought about a perfect day in San Sebastián.

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