San Se­bas­tian: where din­ing is sport and art

‘Ta­pas jump­ing’ a way of life in this food-lov­ing city

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Travel - Satur­day, Jan­uary 7, 2012 MIA STAINSBY

San Se­bas­tian could very well be the most food-ob­sessed city in the world. Pop­u­la­tion 180,000, the lit­tle sea­side jewel in Spain has 15 notches on its belt — that is, 15 Michelin stars.

Com­pare that to Lon­don, which has a to­tal of 34 stars but about 40 times the pop­u­la­tion and a gazil­lion times the vis­i­tors. In San Se­bas­tian, men aren’t sports fa­nat­ics. Their idea of a sport­ing good time is to cook. They form cook­ing clubs (women not wel­come) called Le So­ciedades Gas­tro­nom­i­cas in Basque ar­eas.

“That city is a revered desti­na­tion for food en­thu­si­asts ea­ger to eat del­i­cately con­structed, tech­no­log­i­cally com­plex dishes that chal­lenge ev­ery no­tion of what food could be,” the New York Times re­ported last year.

It’s said you can’t get a bad meal any­where in San Se­bas­tian be­cause stan­dards are high and the lo­cals won’t abide a bad meal. I went on a few ta­pas crawls while vis­it­ing the city re­cently, join­ing the throngs pour­ing through the old town in a nightly tra­di­tion.

Ta­pas bars (pin­txos in the Basque lan­guage) might be the Spa­niards’ fast food joints, but you won’t find pro­cessed, in­dus­tri­al­ized any­thing at these places. It’s all real food and con­vivi­al­ity.

Jef­fer­son Al­varez, the chef at Fraiche restau­rant in West Vancouver, is so smit­ten with San Se­bas­tian that for the past five years, he’s spent his va­ca­tions cook­ing (with­out pay) at Mu­garitz, a twoMiche­lin star restau­rant. The restau­rant is part of the Span­ish food rev­o­lu­tion started by Fer­ran Adria, who trans­formed restau­rant cook­ing at his El Bulli restau­rant, which he de­cided to close this sum­mer to fo­cus on other projects.

Mu­garitz chef Adoni Aduriz, a dis­ci­ple of Adria, is so ob­sessed with per­fec­tion, he went to Spain’s lead­ing liver re­search hos­pi­tal over a cou­ple of years to fully grasp the sci­ence of liv­ers. Why? To ut­terly nail his foie gras cook­ery. Mu­garitz has been rated third in San Pel­le­grino’s World’s 50 Best Restau­rant list and Al­varez doesn’t even bother to travel out­side the city be­cause every­thing he loves about food is there.

Pride, Al­varez says, drives the food in San Se­bas­tian. “You can see it when you go to the mar­ket — and ev­ery­body does. Peo­ple want to sell you the best of the best.”

If you want to re­ally see what mat­ters and what’s val­ued, you fol­low the money. In San Se­bas­tian, as in other parts of Spain, the econ­omy has tanked, but no one’s giv­ing up the plea­sures of the ta­ble.

“The econ­omy was one of the worst in the world — still, ev­ery restau­rant is full,” Al­varez says. “Restau­rants are mak­ing money. Ev­ery day, peo­ple go out. When you see the amount of food that comes out of ev­ery lit­tle restau­rant, it’s in­sane. Peo­ple eat a lot there and it’s not that ex­pen­sive.”

Even at Mu­garitz, where the food is painstak­ingly cre­ated, staff take three hours off, from 2 to 5 p.m. for lunch. Lunches are mul­ti­coursed, Al­varez says.

Ev­ery­body goes “ta­pas jump­ing” in the evening, he says. Drink a lit­tle, eat a lit­tle, catch up with friends at a bar, then move to an­other, hang out on the street for a bit, hit an­other bar. That’s the drill. (Ta­pas means “lid” or “top” and at one time, ham or cheese or bread placed atop the wine or sherry kept out dust and flies.)

Rel­a­tively quiet dur­ing the day, San Se­bas­tian’s old quar­ter ex­plodes with life at night and rivers of peo­ple flow through the old sec­tion of the city. A Que­bec na­tive, run­ning a maple syrup crepe shop in the midst of ta­pas frenzy, cor­rected our modus operandi. We had avoided some places with­out food dis­played on the counter. No, he said, a food­less counter is a good sign. It means they make it fresh and it hasn’t been sit­ting. Duh! We dashed across the street to a place called Borda Berri with its counter bare of food. The chef was one of the first to get creative with his dishes. I asked the server to bring us their four best dishes, eas­ier than speak­ing like Span­ish tod­dlers and in sign lan­guage. The dishes were all de­li­cious, es­pe­cially a braised ox­tail dish.

As the evening pro­gresses, a Van­cou­verite like me ex­pects mass ine­bri­a­tion and brawls to break out, given the hours of drink­ing and eat­ing. There’s gai­ety in the bars and on the street, but that’s about it. I’ve seen way more pub­lic in­tox­i­ca­tion in po­lite Tokyo.

At an­other pop­u­lar spot, Cal Pep, we avoided the mosh pit scene, too. It’s first come, first served for the first ar­rivals. Those who don’t get seats stood in a tidy line along the wall be­hind us, qui­etly sali­vat­ing as we ate dish af­ter dish. With our backs to them, we were spared their ac­cu­sa­tive eyes wish­ing us to speed it up.

The mosh pit scene was lively and fun, but I have to say, I was par­tial to the snooty, party-pooper, sit-down style of ta­pas.

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