When friends told me about San Sebastian and I read the lonely planet description of it being the ‘food capital of the world’ I thought, what better place to have a holiday devoted solely to eating good food and drinking good wine. So, I booked the trip, somewhat blindly, not thinking about the perils of being a vegetarian in Spain (it took me back to a trip to Seville, where me and 2 probation officer friends attempted to run from a restaurant after being given such a dire meal of over-cooked flavourless chickpeas and spinach, but that’s a story for another time!). So in my normal ad-hoc kind of way of doing things, after booking my trip, I decided to do my research on the best places to get vegetarian food in San Sebastian. I was laughed at by my Spanish colleague when I asked what San Sebastian was like for vegetarians and was told I’d be eating patatas bravas and tortilla all week and that the Spanish simply do not comprehend that Jamon is not vegetarian. Well whilst I wouldn’t mind an excuse to eat fried spicy potatoes all week, I was looking forward to the challenge of seeing what else the Pinxtos bars of San Sebastian had to offer a food loving vegetarian. Here are some of the best I came across:
Borda Berri: This was my favourite, and oddly the first place we came across.. A very unassuming, unpretentious bar that you could quite easily miss. Bright yellow walls, people spilling out onto the street… Vegetarian dishes on the menu were: Grilled goats cheese in plum sauce – seriously divine. Salmorejo with Idizabal. Soon learnt that this was a regular feature on most menus and my overall favourite dish (see my recipe below). A basque version of gazpacho (chilled tomato soup), very rich creamy, with a smokey garlic taste, sprinkled with grated egg and black sesame seeds. 3 euros a plate. Glass of decent wine 1.3 euros.
Ni Neu: A rather upmarket restaurant which offered a mini tasting menu for 12.50. euros When I quizzed the staff about which dishes were vegetarian, I was somewhat surprised when they presented me with an English chef who helpfully agreed to adapt some of the dishes for me to make them vegetarian friendly. These included lettuce hearts with garlic oil, blue cheese and bourbon and tomato and watermelon gazpacho (mine was served without the Bonito). The star of the show was the caramelized French toast. The best way of describing it is French toast covered in crème brûlée.
Zeruko: This place had a pretty good selection to choose from (either made to order or taken from the bar), including tempura de verduras, hongo plancha. I went for the grilled goats cheese on toast with apple and a balsamic honey glaze.
A fuego negro: A rather trendy bar, with fairly imaginative pinxtos. Slightly more expensive than the other places, but not nearly on a par with a trendy bar you’d find in the UK. They rang a bell to indicate it was last food orders (you should be picking up by now, that the focus is far more on the food in this city than the wine!). I sampled the Arroz Idiazabal con ali olive, which was a cheese risotto with garlic oil icecream (very ‘Heston Blumenthal’). First mouthful was a delight to my taste-buds – something I’d never experienced before, but by the third I wasn’t quite feeling it!
Munto: Some classic Pinxtos dishes. Here I went for Trompeta Muerte Infierno – basically a plate of truffle mushrooms and the classic pimientos – green peppers fried in oil and salt. You get supposedly the odd hot chilli in every order, but I came across only 1, over the whole trip. Some very good rioja in this bar, which came to a whooping 2.50 euros – our wallets took a bit of a hit that evening in comparison to our usual 1.30 euro glass
Kokotxa – Michelin star restaurant. Admittedly not a pinxtos bar, but I had to get in here This was possibly one of my least inspiring meals. 3 courses of soup: a free salmarejo appetizer (admittedly one of the best Salamarejos of the trip) served with a cheese foam. Egg in truffle oil soup, followed by a bean soup – this was disappointing – not a vegetable in sight, and frankly, I’d feel a little embarrassed if I served this to my customers at home! However I think my meat eating friend was more impressed. Sadly we didn’t have time for dessert, so my friend asked for a take out as we had to run for the last bus back to San Sebasitan (has this ever been done before in a Michelin star restaurant?!). The chef had given us instructions as to what time we should eat this (something about it needing to be the right temperature). Unfortunately this didn’t quite work out, and our white chocolate ravioli had sadly melted by the time we got back to the apartment!
And here are my general tips on getting the most from your food experience in San Sebastian. Lunchtime/breakfast (who knows what this is… they start late here!) you can get yourself a 3 course meal and bottle of wine to share for about 10 euros. Goats cheese salad tended to be the most common vegetarian option.
If I was to do this trip again, I would either go from Wednesday to Saturday (included) or do some serious planning, as many of the bars were closed on either Sunday, Monday or Tuesdays. We would trawl half-way across town in search of a particular recommended place only to find that it was closed. Also, the evenings tend to be very busy, and so if you want a more laid back/relaxed experience, it would be a good idea to hit the bars at lunchtime and go to the fancy restaurants for dinner… I love the ‘honour policy’ in this city, which involves you keeping track of what you have ordered and telling them at the end. I can’t see this working in the UK, partly because we’d probably end up too drunk to remember what we’d eaten! If you can put off the instant gratification, I would recommend ordering the dishes which are made to order, rather than the ones that may have been hanging around at the bar all day (what do they say about avoiding peanuts on bars… not sure if same rule applies here?!). San Sebastian for vegans I’m afraid vegans may struggle in San Sebastian.. Most of the vegetarian options seemed to feature some kind of cheese and even the salmarejo would have greated egg on top (although I could imagine you could request to have this without it. There are always the pimientos and truffle mushrooms, though not sure whether you could make a meal from these! We did come across a couple of vegan/vegetarian restaurants in San Sebastian but they didn’t seem to be serving traditional basque fare..
My favourite all round dish was the Salmarejo, which although varied in taste, was consistently delicious wherever we went.
Here is my recipe that was well received on my customers when I got home:
San Sebastian inspired Salmarejo recipe:
- 6 ripe tomatoes (preferably decent ones such as plum)
- Half a green chilli deseeded (this can be left out)
- 2 slices of decent bread roughly torn into pieces (such as ciabatta/sour dough)
- 100 ml olive oil
- Half a tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 2 – 3 roughly chopped garlic cloves
For garnish (you can opt for just one of these, but in this recipe I’ve gone all out and done a combination of my favourite!):
- Black sesame seeds
- Grated hard boiled egg
- Parsley olive oil (2 tablespoons of parsley blended with 100 ml of olive oil)
Roughly chop the tomatoes and put in a blender alonside their juice, Add the garlic and chilli. Put the bread on top and allow to soak in the juices for a minute or 2 before blending.. Add half the olive oil and blend. Add the rest of the olive oil, smoked paprika and salt and pepper and blend again. The mixture should now be thick and creamy. Add the white wine vinegar and blend again. Check the seasoning and add more smoked paprika and salt and pepper if needed. Chill in the fridge for a couple of hours until cold. Serve in tumblers or small bowls (this is a rich soup so unusually for me I’d recommend smallish portions) and garnish with sprinkling of sesame seeds, grated egg and drizzle of pesto oil.