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.