Monday, 23 May 2011

Northern Spain: New Discoveries Part 2

When we first planned this trip we thought we would take 5 days to do a mini-tour in Northern Spain. However, we changed our minds and only did a one day/one night stint in Pamplona.

I've always wanted to explore Pamplona. I wanted to see the setting for The Sun Also Rises and, while I don't really fancy the San Fermin festival I did want to wander the narrow streets and just imagine the thick crowds of people outrunning the bulls.

We went on a cool rainy day, leaving from San Sebastian. We took the Alsa bus which leaves from the bus station near the Euskotren station. The journey takes just over an hour and return tickets are only 14,14€.

I did a bit of preliminary research at the Todos Pintxos site and found Casa Otano. This place also has a restaurant and pintxos bar, and there were a large concentration of bars/restaurants in the area that would provide plenty of opportunity for exploration. The room was basic in all ways and cost 45€ per night.

Since we arrived just after lunch, most of the local bars were empty. Still, we managed to find Bar Baserri. I've been making one of their signature pintxos called 'Pintxo de la Foto' for some time now, having first discovered it in New Tapas by Fiona Dunlop. And i was thrilled to see that it was on display that day. It's quite a mouthful of flavours: marinated anchovy wrapped around smoked salmon, covered with piquillo pepper and doused in a sharp vinaigrette. It tasted just like mine (or is it mine taste just like theirs?)! Kelsie had a lovely smoked bacalao, topped with a tomato vinaigrette and drizzled with black olive oil.

We left Baserri and decided to have a wander around more of the Old Town and surrounding area. We found a lovely park with a sculpture garden.

After a mini-siesta in the room, we headed back out to the Old Town for some more food and drink. There were more than a few bars with gorgeous jamons hanging from the ceilings. This one particularly stood out for me.

We stopped at Bodegon Sarria where we had alachofa rellena de jamon y queso con salsa de piquillos.

Next was Mesón Pirineo where i tried pintxos with jamon fried quals egg piquillo and chistorra.

Our last stop was at La Mandarra de la Ramos where i finally gave in and ordered manitos de cerdo which, it seemed every bar/restaurant had on its menu. It was exactly what i expected, bony bits of porky foot with lots of gelatinous fat and meat. In retrospect it probably wasn't a great idea to try this last, but i'm glad i did and i probably would try it again. La Mandarra is a great bar with some nice decorative features, like the imprint of some San Fermin runners on the floor (see photo above).

Suitably stuffed, we headed back to our room, had a good sleep and headed back to San Sebastian the next morning. I enjoyed the contrast between Pamplona and San Sebastian. They each have their own specialities and fair share of award winning dishes and restaurants. Next time i hope we do the mini-trip we originally planned and discover even more!

Casa Otano
San Nicolas 5 . 31001 Pamplona

Bar Restaurante Baserri
San Nikolas Kalea 32 . 31001 Pamplona

Bodegon Sarria
C. Estafeta 50-52 . 31001 Pamplona

Meson Pirineo
c/ Estafeta, 41 . 31001 Pamplona

La Mandarra de la Ramos
San Nicolás 9 bajo . 31001 Pamplona

Monday, 9 May 2011

Northern Spain: New Discoveries Part 1

As you may know from here and here, we frequently travel to sw france to visit my parents. Inevitably we cross the border on the EuskoTren to visit our favourite haunts in San Sebastian. This trip was set to be more of the same but we had the advantage this time of a) having more holiday time (2 whole weeks thanks to very generous German holiday allowances!); b) finally figuring out how to make the most of the limited public transport options on offer in that part of France; and c) absolutely gobsmackingly gorgeous weather.

At the start we had intended to do a mini-tour of Northern Spain, making stops in Pamplona, Logrono, Santander, Laredo, Bilbao and finally San Sebastian. We got as far as Pamplona, which you'll read about in Part 2, before turning around and heading back to the sea.

Our first discovery was the town Hondarribia which lies just across the water/border from Hendaye in France. We've been there a couple of times before, but never really took the time to get to know if properly. Having done some research beforehand, we learned that more than a few bars there were taking top prizes in the annual pintxos competitions. My parents go there frequently and they also had some new discoveries to share.

To get to Hondarribia the scenic way, you catch a little navette at the marina in Hendaye. 1.60Euro gets you across in about 10 minutes or so. Once you step off on the Hondarribia side, it's a short 2 blocks to the main drag where most of the pintxos bars and restaurants are. Our first visit there was on a Friday and we had made plans to meet my parents' friends for lunch in their favourite restaurant, La Kupela. Beforehand we managed to convince them to first make a stop at award winning pintxos bar, El Gran Sol.

We lost no time in picking out 4 pintxos to try. It was still fairly early for lunch and we were able to sit at a table. As 2 pm approached it started filling with people and Kelsie and I made a mental note to come back another time to explore the menu. Lunch at La Kupela was a long, leisurely affair and we had wonderful, fresh, simply prepared seafood dishes. It's the kind of place my parents like: comfortable but a bit conservative.

To start, we shared a starter of a beautifully composed mixed salad, as well as confit of artichoke hearts with jamon.

The mains were: Txangurro (spider crab) soup,

Txiperones en su tinta (calamares in a squid ink sauce);

Merluza a la parilla (grilled hake)

; and brochettes of monkfish and prawns.

We finished with ice cteams for dessert.

The very next day we headed back with the sole aim of checking out as many different pintxos bars as we desired. When we got off the navette we decided to have a wander along the promenade towards the beach. The walkway is dotted here and there with cafes and restaurant, and by the time we reached the end of the walkway we were ready for our first snack. We had some excellent rabas (fried calamares) washed down with a beer.

By the time we got back to the main pintxo bar strip the entire street was hooching. Everyone and their grandchild, sister, unlce, great grandfather seemed to be out, with people spilling out from the bars into the street. We started off in a bar that had wide wooden tables and benches. The football was on and we had a simple pintxo of grilled chistorra on bread (plus another beer)

We poked our heads in El Gran Sol but it was at least 6 people thick to even get to the bar, so we decided to wander back later in the afternoon. Our next find was maritime themed, Txantxangorri. Compared to the bustling energy of the other pintxos bars we poked our heads into, Txantxangorri was a sea of calm.

We had a couple of glasses of chilled rosado and scanned the beautifully composed pintxos before settling on these spoons of smoked salmon and smoked cod(or halibut) simply garnished with a dollop of mayonnaise.

We had another two glasses of rosado and watched the effortless ballet of the three people behind the bar, move around each other to serve their customers.

Back outside we tried El Gran Sol again, and by now the crowd had thinned a bit inside. The main barman was in full form, using a microphone to call outside customers in to pick up their orders inside.

We tried two pintxos:

Rabo de buey con foie (oxtail with duck liver)

and a Confit of bacalao. Both were delicious and elegant.

Finishing up the afternoon of indulgence, we headed across the street to Vinacoteca Ardoka. There we had a lovely pintxo of salmorejo and another one of foie. By this time the crowds on the street had disperssed and thing were quieting down.

This wasn't to be our last visit to Hondarribia. We went a few days later with my parents for lunch at their new discovery, Arroka Berri, which is a bit on the outskirts of the main town. The restaurant is situated in a mostly residential area, and is in a traditional looking Basque building. Inside, the restaurant has a modern, light and airy design, with plenty of room for any size dining party. The tables are laid out nicely and there are picture windows all around the dining room. The wait staff, dressed in all black were attentive and friendly.

We were first presented with an amuse bouche which was a vegetable tempura ball and a puree of leek. The balls looked like lollipops in the special presentation plate.

We shared two starters, one of exquisite lobster ravioli and also of seasonal grilled vegetables.

For mains my parents shared a grilled monkfish, and i had grilled hake, garnished with clams. Kelsie went straight for the clams, which, when brought out were raw and served with wedges of lemon. She asked for them to be cooked which was done quickly and without any fuss.

Desserts were fanciful and fantastic. I had a passionfruit 'ecstacy', my father had a trio of chocolate puds, kelsie had gorgeous mini cheesecakse with raspberry and my mother had a citrus mango granita.

By the time the meal ended we were all in need of a siesta. We took our naps in the garden, on comfy sofas. Our waitress came out a few times to check in on us and ask if there was anything we needed. Really thoughtful service!

And on our final visit we went back to the upstairs restaurant at Txantxangorri for their lunch menu del dia, a bargain at 13euros for 3 courses. The highlight was a light almondy Pastel Vasco, basque cake.

So, if you're looking for something new that's a bit smaller than San Sebastian and has all the charm and excellent food you could wish for, think about visiting Hondarribia. They even have an annual Blues Fest which has an amazing lineup this year. I bet it's a great atmosphere and music and fully intend to try it out myself! There are connecting flights to Hondarribia airport from Madrid and Barcelona via Iberia, so easily reachable as well.

Bar Gran Sol
San Pedro 65 . 20280 hondarribia

La Kupela
Zuluoga 12 . 20280 hondarribia
Call for reservations: +34 943 644 025

Restaurant Txantxangorri
San Pedro 27 . 20280 hondarribia

Arroka Berri
higer bidea 6 . 20280 hondarribia
Call for reservations: +34 943 642 712