As I was planning this post, I happened across Pueblo Girl’s recent post about Spanish food. After quite a few 9- or 10-euros menus del dia in local restaurants, I can really relate to a lot of what she says there. Until recently Spain was not a country that was renowned for its good food. If it is now, it’s for many-starred, bank account-busting “creative” restaurants like El Bulli (now closed down) or, closer to here, Arzak and Beresategui. But these are hardly representative. All too often, Spanish restaurant food is ensalata mixta, deep-fried everything, stodgy rice, or stringy, overcooked meat in a claggy sauce with a few mushy green beans.
However, as Pueblo Girl says, it’s not all bad. With persistence and much sampling, we have found a handful of reasonably priced restaurants in the area of Pamplona and San Sebastian that are well worth a visit, serving food that would be recognised as good in other countries, not just Spain. So here’s my list of recommendations: three country restaurants, and two city ones.
1. Dona Maria. The first time we ate here was two years ago; we were on a Spanish language holiday, and didn’t know the area at all. At the time we though it was OK, but nothing special. Since spending three months here though, we have realised that it is in fact exceptional. The charming, friendly team here serve carefully prepared, interesting and attractive food at a reasonable price. OK, it’s expensive by local standards and in fact we’ve seen few locals eating here; almost all the clients seem to be British!
The set menu changes frequently and is 25-30 euros for three or five courses, excluding wine — which is not expensive, ranging from 8 to around 30 euros a bottle. There are normally three or four choices for each course. We’ve now eaten there half a dozen times; the best meal we had was a special “all pig” menu. It started with a selection of salami, followed by fresh asparagus with melted cheese. Then some pork tenderloin with grilled peppers. Then what was for us the true pièce de résistance, gorgeous slow-roasted spare ribs served on a thin slick of mashed potato so creamy it was more like a sauce, with a dab of reduced balsamic vinegar on the side. Very simple, but the flavours complemented each other perfectly. Finally, a moist, coffee-flavoured cake served with the Basque national dessert, cuajada (fresh cream cheese made from sheep’s milk).
2. The Posada at Oitz. I’m sure this village bar/restaurant must have been inspired by Dona Maria; the food is in a very similar style, if slightly less refined and a little cheaper. I had some delicious bacalao here, and the platter of lightly stir-fried green vegetables with crisply fried jamon was memorable too; it’s really rare to get good veg in Spanish restaurants! The setting is less attractive than at Dona Maria, in a rather dark upstairs room. But the food is really lovely.
3. La Trastienda del Colmado in Pamplona. We have a tip for people searching for good restaurants in Pamplona. Get to know the nice lady who works in the Muga outdoor sport and bookshop. We made several visits there choosing and ordering a satnav for walking, and then sorting out various problems with it. Not only was she very helpful, but every time we went, we asked her to recommend a restaurant for lunch. Every one was excellent value. The best by far was La Trastienda del Colmado, which we’d never have found on our own.
We were slightly worried when we walked in at 2 o’clock on a weekday and the large, modern dining room — very stylish and obviously recently renovated — was completely empty. But lunch was superb. We started with little shot glasses of a divine asparagus cream that we’ve been trying unsuccessfully to recreate ever since. Then I had one of the best bowls of gazpacho ever, served with a scoop of celery sorbet instead of the usual chopped vegetable and crouton garnish. Perfectly cooked sea bass, home-made mint and lemon sorbet, and petits fours with coffee. I would certainly go there again. There’s a bar there too, and judging by the quality of the restaurant food, it would be a very good place to go for pintxos.
4. El Bodegón de Alejandro in San Sebastian. We’d have liked to visit Arzak or Beresategui, but the prices meant it was out of the question. 155 euros for a tasting menu? I think not. I believe the Bodegón is part of the Beresategui empire, and it was very good value. The setting, in the basement, is unpretentious, the staff friendly, the food very elegant. The 6-course tasting menu was 33 euros. All of it was lovely, except that we weren’t at all impressed with the beef cooked at low temperature; soggy and tasteless.
Our favourite parts were utterly perfect slices of roast merluza (hake) on crushed potato, with mussel juice poured over at the table, and the first dessert course of torrija (basically French toast/pain perdu) which had a lovely thin crispy caramel layer on top and was served with a scoop of cream cheese ice cream. Oh, and another perfect asparagus cream served as an amuse-bouche with incredibly wafer-thin slices of crisply fried bread. Out of these five restaurants I think the Bodegón and the Colmado tie for the top spot.
5. A late and surprising entry to this list is the Bar/Restaurant Ameztia in that gastronomic hub, Sant Esteban. We tried all the menus del dia in Sant Esteban in the first few weeks we were here, and quickly settled on this one as our “canteen”. Same price as all the others (10 euros for three courses, wine, and coffee), but showing just a touch of extra care in selection of ingredients and preparation. And the staff were friendly and patient with our halting Spanish.
In our last week, we decided to push the boat out and try their menu especial de la temporada at 25 euros, including a bottle of wine (which turned out to be our favourite Navarran red, Castillo de Eneriz). What a revelation! By virtue of our choice of menu we were seated in the “smart” half of the restaurant, with linen tablecloths and proper wineglasses (paper cloths and tumblers for the menu del dia). From here we could see the lone chef in the vast and otherwise deserted kitchen. He was preparing lunch for the 15 or so people having the menu del dia, and the seven people, including us, who’d chosen the menu especial, with no sign of hurry or stress. Service was a bit slower than usual, but that was absolutely fine by us. It just meant it was French speed instead of Spanish.
I started with roast vegetables with Romesco sauce. Beautifully cooked and presented, simple and delicious. Steve oohed and aahed over his warm salad with pan-fried foie gras. We’d both ordered roast sucking pig for the main course. This was amazing! Juicy and tender with perfect crackling that almost made us swoon, since pork crackling does not exist in France. Served with chips for Steve and a perfectly dressed green salad for me. Then sorbete de cuajada for Steve, and for me a lovely light cheesecake topped with a deep red berry sauce. We left a giant tip and an abrazo for the waitress, and waddled out feeling utterly replete and contented, in fact we were incapable of doing anything for the rest of the day. It really was remarkable that this unassuming “canteen” could turn out such high-quality food. It made us wonder what else we’d been missing by not eating à la carte very often. Hmm. A research project for our next trip.