This summer we finally got around to visiting one of the top destinations on our gastronomic bucket-list, San Sebastian. I wouldn’t say it’s been ticked off though, far from it!
The city’s reputation as the foodie capital of Europe (if not the world) is now firmly established. It’s home to two of the world’s ten best restaurants, Mugaritz (#4) and Arzak (#8). All in all, three of Spain’s five 3-Michelin starred restaurants are here and there are sixteen with at least one star situated in and around this city of just 186,000 people.
If you’re not in the mood for fine dining, there are a huge number of pinxto bars and small eateries to choose from. Either way, if you have a passion for food, you’re in the right place.
When us piggies are let loose in a place such as this, it could only mean one thing, we simply had to try Michelin starred dining Donostia style. I know how that sounds, oh what first world problems we have!
We decided to avoid anything too extravagant, so three-starred dining was out. If you want to try the tasting menus at Mugaritz or Arzak, you won’t get much change out of €180 per person and that’s just for the food. Right at the end of our trip, that didn’t seem like such a great option.
I’d done lots of research prior to our arrival and found that many of the top restaurants are actually a few miles out of the city so we looked for something within easy reach. Eventually, I made my decision and booked a table at Kokotxa, a one-starred restaurant situated handily in the old town.
Our first challenge was actually finding it. For some reason, the street signs didn’t seem to match the address on their website. Perhaps the signs were in Basque (most are dual language)? Anyway, Google maps came to our rescue and we got there just in time for our 8:30 reservation. This was the earliest time available, it’s the equivalent of a 6pm booking back home.
Kokotxa is fairly intimate inside, seating only around fifty diners. When we were shown through to our table, we were relieved to find that the staff spoke English so there was no need for us to break into Spanglish.
I assume that the majority of diners go for the seven-course tasting menu and we were no exception. It was good value at just €78 per person plus 10% tax, a similar price tag to many one-starred restaurants in London.
No sooner had we ordered than we were presented with a very intriguing looking appetiser. It consisted of an olive biscuit alongside a glass of chilled cheese and tomato cappuccino. It was a clever way to start the menu as the biscuit resembled an Oreo cookie and together with the ‘capuccino,’ it looked very much like a dessert.
As you might imagine at a restaurant only a few hundred metres away from bay, there was more than a hint of seafood one the menu. The first course was tuna carpaccio, served with vegetable ice cream and squid ink. The ice cream was tangy and fresh and really cleaned the palate. The tuna was obviously straight out of the sea and the squid ink was much more than just a black streak painted on the plate.
Next came shellfish from the Rias Baixas (Galician coast), lemongrass, fennel and white water of the sea. It tasted just like that, the sea. Even the foam didn’t annoy us (much). I might sound like a killjoy but I honestly don’t mind foams, gels and erm spheres, as long as they add to the dish and aren’t just gimmicks.
Another outstanding course was the crab, cube of garlic soup and zurrukutuna of its coral. The ‘garlic soup’ was very unusual as it was set in a block. It wasn’t overpowering by any means but all the same, there was very little chance of a vampire attack on our way home. Alongside it on the plate was a pile of fantastically fresh, well seasoned crab meat. Both were swimming in a the zurrukutuna, a thin but very flavoursome soup that tasted like a really good crab bisque.
By this point we were craving some meat and it soon arrived in the shape of Pigeon of Bresse. It wasn’t the most appetising looking dish, mainly due to the presence of a slightly scary looking, almost black sauce but any fears were unfounded. Everything on the plate worked brilliantly together. The pigeon was lovely and pink, just as we like it and the sauce was rich and meaty. I only wish that there had been more of it.
Our dessert was Mi cuit chocolate with banana ice cream. Literally meaning ‘half baked chocolate’ it’s basically a rich, gooey-centred chocolate fondant and it really hit the spot for us alongside the wonderfully creamy ice cream.
There was a final sweet treat in the shape of two small pots of lovely vanilla cream and chocolate crumb. My dining partner the Hog felt a little cheated by the fact that his pot was only half as full as mine. Oh well, you win some, you lose some!
In the run up to the meal, we’d read lots about how San Sebastian’s Michelin starred restaurants are pushing boundaries and taking food in ever new directions. Although most of what we ate was very enjoyable, at the time I thought that Kokotxa was pretty conventional.
However, I may have been doing them a disservice. From olive flavoured ‘Oreo’ cookies to beetroot gnocci, vegetable ice cream, edible earth, solid soup and a foam that makes you feel as though you’re sat on the beach, the menu was actually very imaginative.
This was an enjoyable evening but I’d still only put Kokotxa on a par with many of the better one starred restaurants that I’ve tried in the UK.
There were some real high points to the meal but none of it absolutely blew us away. It is gastronomically progressive and I’d definitely recommend it as a reasonably priced fine dining option in San Sebastian. Just remember that they don’t have three stars and it’s not fair to judge them as though they do and you’ll be fine.
Meal for two including drinks and a bottle of wine: €217.80 (£185)
Address: Restaurante Kokotxa, Campanario 11 – 20003 Donostia San Sebastián
Phone: 943 42 19 04
Find them on Facebook: facebook.com/RestauranteKokotxa