Kokotxa – San Sebastian

In a rare quiet corner of San Sebastian’s Old Town, away from the crowded pintxo bars and below the towering Mount Urgull sits Kokotxa. Two months before my trip to San Sebastian I decided it would be the perfect opportunity to visit my first Michelin-starred restaurant. San Sebastian, after all, boasts the second-highest Michelin stars per capita, behind only Kyoto in Japan. It is the epicentre of la nueva cocina, Spain’s answer to France’s nouvelle cuisine, blending traditional food and produce with modern and experimental techniques.

Kokotxa, Basque for cheeks, the tastiest part of any animal, is a small, unpretentious restaurant. Decorations are modest, dress code is casual; there is barely room for 30 people. A group of boisterous Australian and American cruisers occupied over half the dining room. The restaurant was fully booked two months in advance, and could only accommodate us at 9.30pm, normal by Spanish standards of course.

As expected of restaurants of this sort, the staff were friendly and knowledgeable on the day’s menu, options including a six-course “market menu” and nine-course “tasting menu” alongside the à la carte menu. We opted for the former, created from local, seasonal produce. The sommelier recommended an excellent Rioja at a very reasonable €5 a glass.

With so many eateries lining the Old Town, serving an implausibly wide array of pintxos and some excellent steak and seafood on the cheap, the chefs had their work cut out to impress me. After lunching at Bar Nestor, which serves only five items, all staunchly simple, steak, peppers, tortillas, for example, dinner was the polar opposite. Techniques brought to the masses only on Masterchef were abundant, with ample foam, froth and edible earth to please even John Torode. The food, immaculately presented, was almost all excellent.

First came the appetiser, a brownish, beige sauce accompanied by breadsticks. My unsophisticated pallet detected a creamy, cheesy concoction; it turned out to be mayonnaise and mustard, but it whet our appetites sufficiently. The starter, a tomato, red pepper and feta gazpacho was refreshing, mixing the sweetness of the peppers with the tomatoes’ acidity and the tang of the feta perfectly. A dainty, slightly lost, shrimp blini sat beside the soup.

Mains were focused on seasonal and fresh seafood. The highlight came first, an asparagus, scallop, and Jerusalem artichoke salad on an edible earth of chocolate, squid ink, cheese and almonds. It resembled art rather than food, and wouldn’t look out of place on show at the Guggenheim in nearby Bilbao.

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Asparagus, scallop and Jerusalem artichoke salad

Two fish dishes were expertly executed. Cod kokotxa, the restaurant living up to its name, were gelatinous, melt-in-the-mouth pieces of goodness. The waiter insisted kokotxa comes from under the chin, though Google maintains it’s the cheek. Either way, it was a delight, presented on parsley sauce with a mousse made from the cooking juices and olive oil.

Hake in a dashi of dried tuna, seaweed and shiitake was equally tender and tasty, despite combining some of my least favourite flavours, and it was accompanied by a crab and saffron rigatoni.

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Grilled hake Japanese style
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Dessert

 

The only disappointment was a prawn on a bed of beetroot rice and seaweed, which we greedily and somewhat unnecessarily added to the market menu for a seventh course. The prawn wasn’t sweet and tender like others I’ve had, and the beetroot rice lacked flavour. But slow-cooked Iberian pork with a macadamia mousse restored my faith.

The dessert, a sponge cake with things that sound gross, cheese mousse and goat yoghurt ice cream for example, was surprisingly good.

At €75 a head, including drinks, Kokotxa isn’t cheap, but neither is it outrageous compared with some more pretentious rivals. It’s earned its Michelin star for a reason. Local, fresh produce is combined with modern techniques to create intriguing and inspired dishes. It isn’t afraid to look outside Spain for influences, but stays true to its roots.

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Bar Nestor – San Sebastian

I fell in love with San Sebastian last year during a two-day trip. The long, sandy beaches, surrounding mountains and elegant avenues make for a beautiful, unique city. It looks a bit like Rio de Janeiro, complete with a giant Jesus atop Monte Urgull, overlooking the Old Town

Food is the main reason why I like Donostia, as its known in Basque, so much. The Basque Country is famous for its cuisine, from simple, homely fare to some of the world’s finest, and most experimental, restaurants. New Basque Cuisine, modern, innovative cooking influenced by France, emerged in the 1970s, and Arzak, with three Michelin stars, is its most famous proponent.

But visitors to San Sebastian don’t need deep pockets to try an array of mouthwatering dishes. Pintxos, small tapas-like snacks available at every bar, are affordable and always delicious. They can feature almost anything, whether its seafood, cheese, fish, meat or peppers and other vegetables.

Then there is Txuleton, which can be found at many Old Town restaurants. The huge cuts of steak come from old cows, usually past their milking lives, often up to 17 years old; in Britain, most of the beef we eat is two-and-a-half years old.

Twelve months ago, two friends and I stopped by Bar Nestor, a tiny, atmospheric bar in the heart of the Old Town. Football and rugby shirts signed by Basque stars adorn the walls. There are two tables, most people have to make do with a spot at the bar or standing outside.

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Bar Nestor

Last year the beef was sold out by the time we arrived, admittedly rather late. The staff apologised, and gave us free drinks to accompany our superb padrón peppers. I vowed that one day I would return.

Last week I returned to the Basque country with my mother, and I made sure Bar Nestor was our first stop. Again, it was crowded on the Friday night we arrived, but it was third time lucky the next day.

Bar Nestor serves only five dishes: txuletonpadrón peppers, tomatoes, tortillas, twice daily, and cured meats. We walked past the restaurant at 11.30am and found Nestor cleaning up inside. Through this chance encounter we discovered the tortilla, reserved a piece, and returned at 1pm.

The tortilla, sold out within minutes, was unquestionably the best I’ve ever had. No longer can I countenance a dry, bland tortilla; Nestor’s tortilla oozed with eggy, potatoey, salty goodness, it’s a pity we couldn’t have more.

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Nestor’s tortilla

We followed the tortilla with an order of steak, tomatoes and peppers, accompanied by a fine Rioja and local beer. A waiter emerged with two brick-sized cuts of steak; we chose the larger. The tomatoes arrived first. They were fresh, doused in the finest olive oil and lots of salt, and served alongside fresh, crunchy bread. The peppers emerged, cooked to perfection, before the party piece arrived.

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Rarely do things live up to the hype, but old cows certainly do. The meat, cooked rare, was dark and rich; the fat is almost orange, and more flavoursome than normal beef. My mother’s first reaction was a fit of hysterics; good steak brings out the strangest reactions. But it really was the best steak I’ve had this side of the Atlantic, and, at around £30 per kilo, good value.

Bar Nestor has become very touristy, a victim of its own success. If visiting on a weekend night, there will be long waits, and it may not even be possible to get served. But it is definitely worth persevering, because, despite its simplicity, it serves some of the best food around.

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Escocesa Review

I arrived at Escocesa misinformed. My limited research led me to believe I was coming to a Spanish-Scottish fusion restaurant. The very name, meaning ‘Scottish’ in Spanish, seemed to suggest Stoke Newington’s hipsters had run out of ideas. What was I setting myself up for? Battered chorizo? Deep-fried manchego? Morcilla with neeps and tatties?

Fortunately, as we arrived on a Sunday evening it was clear I was wrong. The front room houses an open kitchen, complete with chefs trained at Michelin-starred restaurants and bar stools for casual dining. Behind lies the main dining room which thankfully takes bookings, unlike many similar outlets, such as The Barbary in Covent Garden. The restaurant was full of families celebrating Mother’s Day.

My preconceptions swiftly evaporated; this was no half-baked fusion, but a quality tapas restaurant, with a menu celebrating Spanish classics, from patatas bravas to platters of chorizo and jamón ibérico. Escocesa takes its name from a focus on Scottish ingredients, particularly seafood, which is among the best in the world. Much of it is sent to Spain, but owner Stephen Lironi, helped by an array of Spanish chefs, has brought the good stuff back to the UK.

We started with pádron peppers, a Galician classic of grilled small green peppers doused in olive oil and salt, which were remarkably moreish. A second helping was mistakenly offered to us; we happily accepted the orphaned peppers. Fellow starters came swiftly. Catalan pan con tomate, bruschetta-like bread with a garlicky tomato topping, were the best I’ve had outside Spain. The jamón croquettes were creamier, cheesier and tastier than the average London fare.

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Pan con tomate

The attentive and well-informed staff recommended three sharing plates each, but we ordered more as there were too many enticing items on the menu. The first larger plate to arrive was from the specials board, grilled squid on a bed of tomato and fried chorizo, and was beautifully executed. Grilled prawns in garlic and olive oil came next, and we made a highly satisfying mess of them.

The piece de resistance was a superb squid slider. Rings of lightly-battered squid and a heavy dollop of aioli engulfed by a magnificent squid ink brioche, a nice touch of creativity. The meal was accompanied by some excellent Rioja and a fine bottle of craft beer brewed in Barcelona. We ended our night with homemade ice cream, the highlight of which was the salted caramel.

The only hiccup, apart from a couple of long waits between dishes, was a greasy deep-fried aubergine. Perhaps the Scottish influence did creep in after all? But Escocesa has a laid-back, unpretentious decor, classic Caribbean tunes adding to the atmosphere, and is cheaper than many of its rivals. We focused on the seafood menu, leaving plenty of enticing meat options for next time.