The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: A gastronomic adventure in the streets of San Sebastian
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi attends the Gastronomika festival in San Sebastian, and discovers the wonders of Spanish pintxos.vir sanghvi Updated: Oct 18, 2017 13:35 IST
Sometimes a hotel can make or break your trip. I was invited to San Sebastian to attend Gastronomika, an international foodie seminar where India was the focus country this year. The organisers very kindly agreed to put up the Indian journalists who were invited at the conference hotel. All of us (Sourish Bhattacharya, Pushpesh Pant, Rashmi Uday Singh and myself) happily accepted.
But something seemed off to me. So I did a little digging and discovered that while the town of San Sebastian had one lovely historical hotel, we were to stay at a much less exciting establishment. I thanked the organisers for their generosity, but don’t worry about me, I said. I’ll find my own hotel, will pay for it myself and stay separately from the others.
Turned out to be the best decision I made.
Except that it wasn’t easy to pull off. The Maria Cristina is to San Sebastian what the Taj is to Mumbai: a wonderful grand hotel with a glorious history. Sadly, Gastronomika coincided with an international radiology conference which had taken over two thirds of the hotel’s rooms. The radiologists only returned to their own countries and their X-ray machines at the very end of Gastronomika.
But with lots of pushing I was lucky enough to find a room for the entire duration of Gastronomika and for the extra day I intended to stay. (No, it wasn’t cheap. But what the hell? You only go to San Sebastian once. Well, may be not just once, I’m not so sure any longer…)
When I checked in I discovered that the hotel was a two-minute walk from the conference complex where Gastronomika was being held; that my room had a terrace that overlooked the sea; and that the Maria Cristina is now probably better run than it ever has been. The hotel is owned by the town of San Sebastian (the municipality) and was managed by Starwood as part of its Luxury Collection. Starwood has now been taken over by Marriott, which also owns Ritz Carlton and a Ritz Carlton veteran, Ned Capeleris, has been despatched to run it to Ritz Carlton levels of excellence . So, you now have a legendary European hotel run to the finest Ritz Carlton standards. I have stayed in hotels all over Spain but nothing even comes close to the Maria Cristina in terms of the service and the experience.
The hotel has yet another advantage. Because it is decades-old, it borders the old town of San Sebastian with its narrow, cobbled streets, its churches, its old shops and of course its pintxo bars.
It took me a while to work out that San Sebastian is part of the Basque country which has always regarded itself as being culturally distinct from Spain. The language the people speak is not remotely like Spanish, many of their names are different and for many years, they ran a fierce secessionist movement.
One consequence of this cultural distinction is that there are no tapas in San Sebastian. Well, okay, there are, but the Basques call them pintxos and argue that they are a completely different phenomenon from the tapas of Spain. Originally, a pintxo was a bit of food stuck on to a piece of bread with a stick (the word pintxo means stick) but now they come cold (arrayed on the bar) or hot (made fresh in the kitchen and often, terrifyingly elaborate). The Basques will go to a bar, order two pintxo, move to another bar, eat another two or three and keep moving till they are full (or drunk).
On my second day in San Sebastián I got a map and decided to explore the pintxo bars in the old town. On the way I ran into the celebrated chefs Manish Mehrotra and Sriram Aylur, who were going eating with their sous chefs.
“I know where to go,” said Manish confidently. So I put away my map and our little party followed Manish’s lead. We walked an inordinately long time but I only got suspicious when we seemed to be crossing the same shops again and again.
By now, Manish had realised that he may have overestimated his sense of direction, so he began going up to pedestrians and asking directions. He finally found an English speaker who looked at our exhausted little band pityingly and said “I am very sorry but you have come in the opposite direction” before pointing the way back.
But the story has a happy ending. We found the pintxo bar Manish had been looking for. While Sriram and I went off to pick cold pintxos from the bar, Manish ordered hot pintxos from the menu. Sadly, the stuff Sriram and I had chosen paled before the wonderful pintxos that Manish ordered, among them plump langoustines sautéed with olive oil and garlic and mashed potatoes with prawns.
While the pintxo tradition is strong in San Sebastian, the city’s main claim to gastronomic fame is the quality of its many Michelin starred restaurants. Apparently, San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per square mile than any other region in the world.
Gastronomika had organised dinners on most nights. I missed the first one but went to the second because it was being held downstairs at the Maria Cristina’s banquet rooms. Helene Darroze who runs a pop-up at the hotel was doing the dessert (her take on the Rum Baba) but all the other courses were collaborations between the great Spanish chefs who were attending Gastronomika from out of town.
I sat between the great Manjit Gill and Thomas Zacharias of Bombay Canteen and saw how they reacted so I don’t think I am being unfair when I say that the food was complete rubbish. Manjit maintained a stony silence throughout and Thomas was reluctant to criticise another chef’s work but he wasted all his food, which told its own story. I have attended many banquets where chefs from out of town collaborate in unfamiliar kitchens and the food is always terrible. The only way to judge a chef is in his own kitchen.
The following night, Gastronomika hosted dinner at Elkano, perhaps the greatest fish restaurant in Spain which is located just outside San Sebastian. Elkano is best known for its tradition of chargrilling fish on oak simply seasoned with only olive oil and salt. All the fish is local and the grilled turbot is legendary.
Given how bad the dinner had been on the night before, I kept my expectations in check but as it turned out, the food was sensational. Of course the turbot was amazing but so were the grilled tuna and a dish comprising three takes on a local speciality: hake chin. In between, we had a plate of simply grilled local ceps (the mushroom the Italians call porcini). They did all this for seventy people, serving each course at the same time – quite incredible for what is just a medium-sized family-run restaurant.
There are four great restaurants in San Sebastian. The least known among foreigners in Martin Berasategui, perhaps because his name is so hard to spell, let alone pronounce. Eventually I took to calling him Martin Unpronounceable, to avoid embarrassing myself.
Arzak, run by a media-friendly father-and-daughter team, is globally famous. Akelarre is well known to foodies. And Mugaritz is a legend among chefs who admire the chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’s innovations.
I couldn’t do all four. So I narrowed it down to two. Of these, Mugaritz is the most cerebral. Chef Andoni lectures regularly on food-related subjects at such universities as Harvard and MIT. He has gone beyond merely creating tasty food to pushing the boundaries of what we think of as food and how we look at ingredients.
Each day, the kitchen at Mugaritz makes around 60 dishes. Each table gets around 25 of them. I don’t know what process they use to decide who gets what but on the night I went, Chef Sourabh Udinia of Masala Library, who was at the next table, got dishes I did not taste: stew of mushrooms, bone marrow with mole leaves, lobster and fern, minestrone etc. And of my 30 dishes (the chef decides how many courses you get) Sourabh did not get half.
I really can’t list all 30 of the dishes I ate but I was stunned by the imagination. In one dish, they had scientifically extracted the flavour molecules of aged Riesling and paired them with caviar. Another dish turned pigeon into a wafer and served it with concentrated pigeon essence. Pork tripe was transformed into a stuffed pork scratching and curled into interesting twirls.
The wine pairings also change every day. But I will never forget a very special Chassagne Montrachet, the Echezeaux from Domaine Romanee Conti and a Château d’Yquem 1990. All 20 wines and sakes were amazing.
That left Martin Berasategui.
This may have been the best meal of my trip. From his specialty of a parfait of foie gras and smoked eel to a tiny omelette filled with truffle to a foamy mushroom broth, to foie gras shaped to look like black truffles and served with an essence of ceps and trompettes to the tenderest, most flavourful, Galician beef —it was all amazing.
And though he has two three Michelin star restaurants (the other is in Barcelona), Martin was warm and friendly, going from table to table along with an interpreter.
So will I go back to San Sebastian? Though I started out by saying that it was the trip of a lifetime, I think I’ll be back. There are restaurants to try, pintxos to eat and the Maria Cristina awaits.