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Visiting San Sebastian in Northern Spain

Hugh Stewart

Photo: Hugh Stewart

I take her advice, sampling sublime smoked ham, sweet anchovies, and an extraordinary cod omelette at Bar La Cepa. Around me waiters are pouring txakoli, the gutsy local white wine, in the traditional manner—holding the bottle three feet above the glass. I move on to Casa Gandarias for shrimp ceviche, ultra-light fried squid, and the best potato salad I've had since my Aunt Fanny's decades ago in my Pennsylvania Dutch hometown. Virtually everyone eats standing up, but even in these noisy, smoky, raucous surroundings, there's something serene, almost Japanese, about the beautifully presented little dishes.

Although you could happily spend a week here dining on bar food, San Sebastián has some of the finest restaurants in Spain, many of which serve innovative Basque cuisine. Realizing that I am about to move into the kind of dangerously trendy territory I'd hoped to avoid, I nonetheless book a lunch table at San Sebastián's most renowned dining room, Arzak. I'm prepared to be dazzled (read: intimidated) by its three Michelin stars, but Arzak puts me at ease with its small—just 10 tables—and simple dining room. The staff of 12 works as seamlessly as a well-rehearsed corps de ballet. The meal is a nonstop exercise in self-indulgence.

I choose the tasting menu, which leaves me in the capable hands of the proprietor, Juan Mari Arzak. It begins with three amuse-bouches: a tiny potato crêpe, slivers of tender veal cheek wrapped in caramelized pineapple, and a few spoonfuls of lettuce soup with almond oil and a single clam (a classic Basque dish). Then come the appetizers: delicately fried crawfish in a pimiento and tomato purée, and squid with onion marmalade, sprinkled with toasted corn. My main dishes include smoked pompano, followed by squab with caramelized skin accompanied by a cluster of mini-asparagus. The cheese plate is a work of art, with slabs, dabs, and shavings of five local specialties. The selections become stronger as you move around the plate, the last so pungent that it burns my eyes. Dessert, if you're up for it (and you are), is a chocolate pudding with lemon sorbet on top and cassava paste on the bottom. Just when you think it's over, a tangy soup, made from a nutlike fruit called chufa, arrives with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

After the meal I chat with Arzak, whose family has owned the house that his restaurant occupies for more than a century. His grandparents ran a tavern here; his parents, a catering operation. Arzak opened his current restaurant in the 1970's, after stints with Paul Bocuse and Pierre Troisgros. His dishes are firmly rooted in Basque culture. "We're constantly experimenting, of course, but all the products, and often the recipes, are from this region. That onion marmalade takes five hours to prepare, just as it did when my grandmother made it."

Another of San Sebastián's major-league chefs is Mart’n Berasategui. His is not a small family business, however, since he currently oversees six restaurants in the area, as far afield as the café at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, an hour's drive away. Berasategui's most famous establishment is in Lasarte, where he can usually be found in the kitchen. It is some 15 minutes outside San Sebastián, in a suburban villa surrounded by gardens. But after my mind-boggling lunch at Arzak, I decide to cool it and have dinner at Berasategui's vast glass-walled dining room in San Sebastián's new Kursaal Center.

At Restaurante Kursaal Mart’n Berasategui, with its blond-wood floors and beige tablecloths, I'm afraid I've finally landed in the kind of cutting-edge place I've been trying to avoid. But the views of the wonderfully flamboyant Victoria Eugenia theater and the Kursaal Bridge—a Modernist monument whose iron-clad white pillars support gigantic Christmas-tree-ornament globes—quickly take me back to the San Sebastián I've been falling in love with. The food is also extraordinary: garlic stir-fried squid, warm lobster salad with asparagus "noodles," classic Basque hake (a white fish served in a parsley sauce). The dessert sampler is a delight: six tiny servings of such delicacies as apricot ice cream and piña colada soup.

IT'S THE FIRST NIGHT OF THE CITY'S annual jazz festival, so after dinner I wander around the Kursaal Center and find myself surrounded by gospel singers, a Basque Dixieland orchestra, and the Barcelona Big Latin Band. In addition to the music, I am struck by the Kursaal itself. Designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, it resembles two enormous Noguchi lantern lamps—especially at night, when the lights inside glow through its thick opaque-glass sheathing. San Sebastián's answer to the Frank Gehry—designed Guggenheim Bilbao, the two-year-old Kursaal has been wildly controversial. Many locals felt that their city did not need a dramatic new building to put it on the map, particularly one that jarred with its Belle Époque essence. But as the Barcelona Big Latin Band begins blasting a salsa number, I can find no fault with this fantastic structure by the sea. If this is as close as San Sebastián comes to really being on the cutting edge, I'm not complaining.

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