Laying a ghost in San Sebastian


This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

I accepted the invitation to speak at the recent Gastronomika in San Sebastian, an hour east of Bilbao, northern Spain, for several reasons.

Firstly, the audience I was asked to address about the future of restaurant service was an array of young, passionate and enthusiastic chefs. This invitation also obviously brought with it the opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the city's tapas bars, many of which are conveniently located in the narrow, cobbled streets of the charming old town. Then there was the added bonus of being asked to be a judge in their annual gin and tonic competition, which involved tasting 18 gin and tonics before 1 pm. Finally, there was the chance to lay a professional ghost.

This had arisen on our last visit here exactly a year ago on New Year's Eve 2011 when, for the first time in my life, I had been asked to leave a bar. And to add insult to injury we were in bed, sober and hungry, at 11.15 pm.

After a great fish lunch at Elkano in Getaria, a small fishing village 15 kilometres further west, we decided to visit a few tapas bars to see in the New Year. Our first and, it was to prove, our only stop was the Dickens bar, where we enjoyed one of their renowned gin and tonics. This was about 10.15 pm and the bar was strangely quiet. A few minutes later, the barman asked us, very politely, to leave because, it transpired, he was going to see out the old year at home with his family.

So too were virtually all the owners of the city's many tapas bars and restaurants (and 35 are listed on a map of the old town alone) and the very few that remained open were, not surprisingly, packed. We walked around rather desultorily before heading back to the Hotel Niza. Here for the first time in many years we even contemplated raiding the minibar, but didn't.

On this visit I was saved a repetition of such professional embarrassment by the intervention of two Englishmen.

The first was Tim Warrillow, a fellow judge in the gin and tonic competition, which he had sponsored as he is one of the two founders of the Fever-Tree drinks company. These innovative mixers are not just making this once-standard British drink so much more appetising, but are also inducing barmen around the world to be so much more inventive with their cocktails.

The second was Jon Warren. After David Rios, barman at Café Kobuk in Bilbao, had received his gin and tonic winner's cheque for 3,000 euros, I headed for the exit in dire need of a few tapas and a glass of sherry, only to find my route blocked by Warren, notebook and pen in hand.

Warren had come to San Sebastian to work as a waiter. Here he discovered that he so enjoyed giving wine and food recommendations to the city's many visitors that he would turn this into a profession and founded San Sebastian Food as the manifestation of his insider knowledge.

I decided to put Warren to the test immediately as the conference was taking place in Gros, a part of the city I know less well, although the attractions for surfers of its nearby beach were obvious.

We struck gold within 200 metres without spending a cent. Bodega Donostiarra comprises a wine shop and adjacent bar but it is the unchanged interior of the former that immediately charmed me. Wine was stored everywhere on dark wooden shelves. Two men were behind an old counter chatting and putting the world to rights. This, I realised, was how wine was bought pre-supermarkets and the internet.

Next door a great many glasses of good wine were being enjoyed over raciones of ham, several of which were hanging from the rafters, alongside plates of two of this bar's other specialities, bonito tuna and fresh anchovies.

I would have lingered but that would have been not only unprofessional but also not in keeping with the wandering spirit of San Sebastian, so we walked round the corner to what was, at that time, the much less crowded Hidalgo 56, the tapas bar of chef Juan Mari Humada.

In fact this tapas bar was busier behind the counter than in front of it as the two barmen were making space on the counter for the plates of food their two colleagues were bringing up from the kitchen below. This bar is renowned for its anchoa ahumada, smoked fresh anchovy, and I will always remember it as my introduction to morros rebozados, beer-coated slivers of beef cheeks served with a tangy caper sauce.

Equally memorable was Warren's recommendation for the following evening, dinner at Gandarias (pictured above, courtesy of Markel Redondo), located at the corner of two cobbled streets in the old town.

Here our biggest challenge was to find somewhere to leave our glasses and plates before walking through from the crowded tapas bar and into the restaurant. Once seated in a simply decorated dining room with a grill in one corner and a large, wooden meat fridge in the opposite one, a team of waitresses, led by Ane, made everyone feel better. Ceps with garlic and parsley; a grilled rib of beef; and a 2007 Bierzo Valtuille ensured that none of us went to bed hungry that night.

Hidalgo 56, Paseo Colón 15, Tel: 943279654

Bodegas Donostiarra,

San Sebastian Food,