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San Sebastián, in the Basque Country, has always been a city known for its gastronomic diversity - so much so that it has become a major destination on the list of all food trotters. Two main roads led the city to this position: its dozens of pintxos bars (each with its specialties, where it is possible to taste all the delicacies that made the region famous in the food world); and its stellar restaurants, with acclaimed chefs behind fine dining concepts showing all the exuberance of Basque cuisine in inventive, thought-provoking dishes.
But a new gastronomic scene seems to be gaining more prominence in the coastal city bathed by the Bay of Biscay, with more Michelin stars per square meter than many around the world. Run by young chefs, new restaurants seek more innovative proposals without forgetting the traditions. With one foot in the past and another in the present, they look for a more contemporary, cosmopolitan approach to their dishes, and they are making the local food scene even more vibrant.
The rise of Gros
The majority of these new concepts are located in Gros, a hip and youthful neighborhood, situated between the Kuursal Palace and Monte Ulia. These new restaurants and bars have in common the concern of serving a more local audience, not just the tourists who flock the streets of the city - especially in the Old Town area. They offer well-prepared food with great ingredients and amazing glasses of wine in a more authentic and no-frills atmosphere.
That’s the case of Bar Matalauva, where Borja García, former head chef of R&D in Akelarre (where he worked for 15 years), boasts all the wisdom accumulated in a fine dining kitchen to create upgraded pintxos for an audience that crowds his few tables. His creations range from salmon caviar with cauliflower puree and preserved cauliflower to spring mushrooms sauteed and served with a soft egg. García’s recipes don't take more than three ingredients and are made using only a char-broiler, a sous-vide machine or a microwave, without a flame of fire.
“Since we don’t have a license to work with a traditional stove, the problem of cooking without gas seemed an interesting challenge. By having fewer resources, it is necessary to make up for them and think a lot to create the dishes”, he explains.
According to him, the gastronomic scene in San Sebastián seems more varied and exciting now. “Since many new concepts start from a chef or entrepreneur's personal project, this means that they are different from the rest and in general very strict to details and quality”, says García, who was born in Gros neighborhood.
Not far from there, other restaurants have spread throughout the city, showing the consolidation of this more casual format. In the recently opened Aho-Mihi Kantina, the main goal is to "share" tapas and all the dishes in the menu.
Mainly with Basque and Catalan products, the restaurant aims to become a regular meeting place in Egia, a neighborhood patronized by locals.
The creations have a cosmopolitan influence ranging from marinated salmon to pulled pork sandwich, from an entire seabass roasted Mediterranean style to a risotto al pesto with tomato and mascarpone, as well as typical Spanish fideauas and kinds of rice.
The atmosphere is cheerful and pleasant, and the wine list, besides counting on a good selection of bottles, is divided not by types of wine, but by the client’s mood of the day: nostalgic, rebellious or adventurous. Most of the options come from the Catalonia region. Following the current trend, all the vegetables come from local farmers, and the beer is artisanal, in line with those hip venues focused more on millennials.
Acclaimed chefs go casual
Even famous chefs of the city, with great representation in the world-wide gastronomic scene, began to bet on more casual concepts. One of the pioneers was Andoni Luis Aduriz, of the award-winning Mugaritz, who decided to embrace his first business in decades by opening Topa Sukaldería in Gros neighborhood in 2017. "I did not want to create pintxos bar only because I'm in San Sebastian", he told Fine Dining Lovers then.
Topa is a popular, party-centric and affordable restaurant devoted to Latin American cuisine: Aduriz recreates Latin American recipes, cooking habits, and techniques by using Basque ingredients - to highlight the region's produce. There are Mexican tacos, Peruvian tiraditos and ceviche, Cuban habanera-style picadillos, Brazilian caipirinha, and much more in the menu - all made his way. It's a latina party, where guests can come often.
Acclaimed chef Pedro Subijana has also decided to offer a more casual place to attract other kinds of guests to his newly opened hotel located in the same building of his starred restaurant Akelarre. Oteiza, how the bar was named, serves haute cuisine and Basque snacks that pair well with good glasses of wine from Spain (and other countries). Subijana also offers in Oteiza some iconic dishes from Akelarre's history, such as the tuna belly with wasabi ice cream and the roasted pork with Iberian jamon emulsion in a more informal setting.