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Travel 2 minutes 20 October 2018

Where Chefs Go: San Sebastián, Spain

Explore the source of inspiration for pintxos bars like New York City-based Huertas.

Spanish cuisine Where Chefs Go

Huertas in New York City focuses on the Basque region of Spain. Its chef/owner Jonah Miller was among the youngest to break into the city’s food scene at age 14 (chopping onions at Chanterelle), and among the few to leap straight from sous chef at Danny Meyer’s Maialino to executive chef of his own place in Manhattan’s East Village.

Miller opened Huertas in 2014 and celebrated its fourth year of business this spring, a feat he can trace back to his semester abroad while studying at NYU, during which Miller first explored the Basque region’s endless list of pintxos—small plates that ultimately formed the basis of Huertas’s menu years later.

“The pintxo emerged as a way to eat social, fast and fun in bars and restaurants,” says chef Oscar Cabezas of Telefèric Barcelona, a Catalonian pintxo bar in Walnut Creek, California. “I believe a good pintxo, no matter where it comes from, has duende—or, soul, magic.”

Pulpo, or octopus, is a popular pinxto at Huertas in New York City. (Photo courtesy of Huertas Facebook page.)
Pulpo, or octopus, is a popular pinxto at Huertas in New York City. (Photo courtesy of Huertas Facebook page.)

The Basque Region’s San Sebastián (also known as Donostia, which is, incidentally, the name of another Michelin-recognized Basque restaurant, also in New York) is a coastal city home to a bevy of internationally-renowned restaurants ranging from three-starred Arzak and Akelarre to one-starred Kokotxa and Mirador de Ulía and the famed Nerua in the Guggenheim Bilbao.

In the last few years, greater interest in this culinary capital has grown around such recognized restaurants as these. To flesh out the picture further, Miller leads us to two neighborhoods: the Old City and Gros, and to his favorite pintxo bars in each.

At the foot of Mount Urgull, with the Bay of Biscay on one side and the River Urumea on the other, lies San Sebastián’s Old Town, the second oldest neighborhood in the city after Antiguo. For a night of eating in Old Town, Miller recommends visiting Gandarias, “known for [its] sirloin pintxo,” and Ganbara, which offers “lots of items in puff pastry” form. “I liked the mini croissant with head cheese, anchovy and cornichon,” says Miller. He also recommends the “iconic pintxo bar” La Cepa, and mentions its “cool ‘Jamón’ beer tap” (literally, shaped like a ham) and “good food.”

Skewer of sirloin and green peppers at La Cepa. (Photo courtesy of La Cepa.)
Skewer of sirloin and green peppers at La Cepa. (Photo courtesy of La Cepa.)

In Miller’s opinion, not to be missed in the Old City is La Cuchara de San Telmo, “a more high-end pintxo place [where] dishes are more composed.” Miller recommends ordering foie gras (the restaurant is known for it) and the cod cheeks, a.k.a. kokotxas. While in the Old City, also visit Bar Tamboril and order mushroom toast, then stop by the anchovy bar, Bar Txepetxa, and order white anchovy with trout roe. “Tasty stuff, if not amazing,” says Miller.

Between Kursaal Palace and Monte Ulia in San Sebastián is Gros, a youthful, surfing neighborhood known for its gorgeous beaches like Kursaal and Zurriola, and plentiful bars and restaurants for after sunset. When in Gros, Miller recommends visiting Bergara, for its take on a “little bit more [of a] modern pintxo bar” and Senra, where he recommends ordering “the clam and salsa verde croquette.”

Miller recommends having lunch at Taberna Gran Sol in Hondarribia. (Photo courtesy of Taberna Gran Sol.)
Miller recommends having lunch at Taberna Gran Sol in Hondarribia. (Photo courtesy of Taberna Gran Sol.)

For taking a day trip out of San Sebastián, Miller recommends heading toward France by car. “We stopped and walked around a stunningly beautiful little town called Pasajes [de San Juan], then a place called Jaizkibel, which is up on a mountain,” says Miller, also adding a city called Hondarribia, where he recommends lunch at Taberna Gran Sol. “They had an awesome dish, huevo mollette con migas—a poached egg over a savory chicken stock bread pudding with crispy shoestring fries over the top.”

Another adventure Miller recommends is “to go the other direction and make Bilbao part of a day trip.” Stop in Getaria for lunch at Elkano, he recommends, “then go to Bilbao, [an industrial port city surrounded by green mountains and the Basque Region’s de facto capital], to hit the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in the afternoon.”

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