Bargain bottles in San Sebastián

Lourdes and Txomin Rekondo

When in this gastronomic capital, wine lovers should head straight to the restaurant run by Txomin Rekondo and his daughter Lourdes, pictured above.

Rekondo, high above the food-crazed city of San Sebastián (or Donostia as it is known in Basque) where the verdant hills meet the ocean, is everybody’s idea of the perfect restaurant for the wine lover.

Its wine list, a thick book filled with page upon page of closely typed entries, began in 1964 when Txomin Rekondo, a former matador who still lives close to the restaurant, decided to turn his passion for wine into a business.

Today, his principles – of buying the wine, of lovingly storing bottles of every size and from most wine-producing regions, and then reselling alongside some very good food – are carried on by his daughter Lourdes, ably assisted by sommelier Alejandro Hernández and a very engaging team of waiting staff.

Having enthused, I would add just a word of caution. Such is the range of wines in so many sizes, and so attractive are certain of the wine prices, that I would not recommend Rekondo for the single diner. The temptations are too great. The really famous names are not underpriced, but there are so many other bargains to be had and the inclination not to miss them could drive a lone diner to drink. (Sadie Family reds are just €60 each, for instance.)

A great deal has changed physically since we last visited. The tables outside were completely full as we walked in last Sunday night. We were escorted inside, past the kitchens on the right, through a narrow passageway and to a table in a large dining room that has been painted entirely white, looking much smarter than we remembered it.

And then, although we had been given a copy of their wine list, it seemed that nobody was prepared to take our order. Our smiling waitress said that our request for a couple of glasses of Equipo Navazos, La Bota de Fino 68 Macharnudo Alto (bottled in 2016 but still in fabulous shape despite the colour) would have to wait until one of her wine colleagues, all of whom wear a light blue shirt with a red and white tie tucked into the second button, was free. But nobody seemed interested.

The wait, however, at least proved inspirational. While waiting, we were handed menus in English and had time to read the list of recommended wines underneath the desserts. And there, along with Viña Tondonia Reserva 2010 and Marqués de Murrieta 1985 was the offer of a bottle of Remelluri Reserva 1980, and for the unbelievably low price of €55. Assured it was still in good condition, we ordered it. It was slightly dumb at first but then opened up and was still so fresh that it proved the perfect accompaniment to our essentially fish dinner.

Remelluri and sherry

By now, our table was beginning to fill up. There were two glasses of excellent sherry and two glasses of our rioja plus the bottle. These were joined by large glasses with a sample of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet 1986 and Château Haut-Brion 1961, kindly brought by Jonatan García Lima of Tenerife wine producer Suertes del Marqués who was dining at a nearby table.

Not every table was occupied by wine lovers. At the tables next to us were Americans, a Dutch couple and a British couple, none of whom were especially interested in Rekondo’s wine list. In fact, I could not help but notice that the British couple ordered nothing more ambitious than a glass of white and a beer all evening.

Rekondo’s menu could never be as exciting as its wine list but it has become more adventurous over time while eschewing the latest fads. The Rekondos seem happy to leave these to the younger chefs of San Sebastián.

We were unfortunately in San Sebastián for no more than 24 hours (for Jancis to collect an award at the 20th edition of the Gastronomika fair) so I felt I had to eat like a Basque. I promptly ordered a first course of grilled white shrimps and, as my main course, hake kokotxas (cheeks), a personal favourite. Jancis ordered red prawn carpaccio with guacamole and a pistachio vinaigrette followed by ravioli stuffed with local Ossau-Iraty ewe’s milk cheese and black pudding from Urt in French Basque country.

red prawn carpaccio

Both first courses were excellent. Jancis needed some of my lemon to add zest to her prawn carpaccio (above) but it went surprisingly well with our mature Rioja. The dozen prawns had been well grilled but above all the amount of salt that had been thrown on them afterwards had been expertly judged: just enough to coat my fingers but not to overpower the flesh of the prawns. The same care was evident in the cooking of my hake cheeks (below), thin pieces of extremely tasty flesh and a recipe that calls for them to be cooked for no more than three minutes in a sauce of white wine, garlic and one chilli pepper. The natural gelatin in the hake cheeks substitutes for flour. I am not sure how many times the kitchen at Rekondo has prepared this dish, which I saw being taken to several other tables, but it is a triumph: rich, comforting and full of the flavours of the sea.

hake cheeks

We finished with a slightly disappointing dessert of a crème caramel with caramel ice cream and a bill of €426 for the two of us. I made up for my disappointment with the caramel dessert by munching through a plate of tuile biscuits on offer that were as delicious as the perfectly fried ham and cheese croquetas at the start of our meal.

This total might appear excessive in view of the reasonableness of the price of the Remelluri wine and a couple of glasses of sherry (just €8 each) but such is the attraction of the Rekondo wine list that we couldn’t resist the temptation to order (not drain) a second bottle of wine. The wine list had stayed on the table – our voices were slightly raised when the waitress tried to take our copy away – and we both spent a great deal of time studying it. 

In 2005 we’d ordered a bottle of Ornellaia that was on the Rekondo list for all of €21. On this occasion, being fans of 2007 burgundies to drink now and knowing Michel Lafarge Volnays need quite a time to mature, we ordered Lafarge, Vendanges Sélectionnées 2007 Volnay at €140. It was delicious, much more youthful than most 2007 burgundies, and added significantly to our bill.

But then we could have plumped for one of their 15 vintages of DRC Montrachet (€13,000 for a magnum of the 2004) or the Sauzet 2012 Montrachet at €4,100, or a bottle of the 1880 Marqués de Riscal, available for an unspecified amount. But for lovers of Domaine Huet wines, the prices look extremely reasonable, as they do for the wines of J J Prüm and Gaja.

Rekondo cellar

As we got ready to leave, Hernández offered to give us a tour of the cellars and to shake the hand of Txomin Rekondo himself. A great deal of money has been spent on transforming the cellars which include a number of bottles belonging to private collectors but it is impressive in its range, in the number of larger bottles and in its depth. Below Hernández presents a Castillo Ygay white from the 1940s that Jancis half-wished she had spotted and ordered.

Old Castillo Ygay

Then it was upstairs for Jancis to be photographed alongside Txomin and Lourdes Rekondo who, as the service was beginning to die down, had plenty to smile about.

Rekondo Paseo de Igeldo, 57, 20008 Donostia – San Sebastián, Spain; tel: +34 943 212 907