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.
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: txuleton, padrón 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.
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.
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.