Saturday, October 25, 2008

October 19 – SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN – Pintxos Paradise

I discovered that there’s an opera singer staying in the room above me – either that, or that is one talented housekeeping staff member. I think she’s practicing arpeggios while taking a shower (I can hear the water rushing above my head). So far these European hotel walls have not been the thickest… I heard a knock at one of the doors upstairs. I think somebody complained, because the singing mysteriously stopped…
Our next show is in San Sebastian so we had to fly out of Milan (Lugano’s airport is small). Our non-English speaking driver was 20 minutes late, but we figured we had allotted enough time to get checked in. On the way he stopped at McDonald’s and wasted another 10 minutes (we didn’t see him get any food, so we have no idea what he was doing). We arrived in Milan with about an hour to get on our plane. There was a lot of staff checking people in, so the line fortunately moved quickly. After we negotiated with our worker (we gave her a CD, which Adrian autographed), we had to go to another line to pay our overweight bill. Our flight was already boarding as we took the escalator down to security check in. We groaned as we saw the line of about 100 people waiting to pass through the detectors. But it got worse really quickly – we realized this when we tried to find the END of it. We turned a corner and saw that it snaked around and around, like a human intestinal system. Were we going to make it? Luckily it took us 5 minutes to make pretty good ground – there were a lot of detectors. Then we couldn’t believe our eyes: the queue actually extended into yet another area, the same size as the first! Or flight was scheduled to take off at 2:30; it was 2:15. It was 2:20 when we (somehow) finally made it to the front of the line. With just under 8 minutes, we had to now find our gate. Eric and I ran ahead to explain at the gate that two more were coming. We scampered though the seemingly endless mall that was placed conveniently after security. My bass bobbed about and Eric’s cymbals dragged on the waxy floor that produced squeaks beneath our sneakers. Two floors down, we could see our gate through squinted eyes, all the way at the end of the freakin’ terminal. Success! We pointed back to the stairs, panting, “Two more coming – soon!” Hey, we’re musicians, not athletes. Best yet – the plane wasn’t even there (it was too small) – so we had to taxi over to it. We wheezed and coughed, thanking our lucky stars that we made it. So what if there was a mall, we did not want to spend all day in the airport, waiting for another plane to go to San Sebastian.
Upon boarding, I looked apologetically at the other passengers. Surely we had delayed the flight – sluggish Americans.
I have wanted to visit San Sebastian ever since I started getting into food, as I’ve heard it’s one of the culinary capitals of the world, boasting top chefs and Michelin-rated restaurants. I’ve read about pintxos (Basque-style tapas) ever since I began to receive my Bon Appetit and Gourmet subscriptions, and enjoyed them since Jose Garces opened up his famously awesome small plates restaurants. I’m nervous, though, being here on tour, that I won’t get to sample any. Being a foodie here and NOT getting pintxos (or any good meal, for that matter) is like going to Maine and not getting lobster; France without drinking wine; or Philly sans cheesesteaks while running up the Art Museum steps (ok that would probably get messy). Enough with the analogies – you get the picture. Yeah, yeah there’s a gorgeous Spanish beach and the rooms are fabulous… but I want pintxos dammit!

I discovered right off the bat that people in Spain eat late – restaurants don’t even open for dinner until 8:30, 9. And many places are closed on Sundays. Great. Sure, you can drink wine and eat pintxos, but I knew the rest of the group would want to wait. Sigh. The minutes passed like hours, and we finally met downstairs at 8 to figure out dinner plans. We were at the mercy of the hotel – I couldn’t figure out where to eat, as the Internet connection was slow. We were recommended a place called Bernardo’s in the historic part of town. Armed with a map and taxi, we were off.
The Old City is inaccessible by car so we had to decipher our directions and street names to locate our dining destination. We wandered, and wandered, completely confused. We passed bars that buzzed with laughing, gorgeous Spanish people who were eating pintxos and drinking wine from over-sized glasses. I was tempted to wander away from the group and swipe a piece of cheese from an oblivious diner’s plate. A stray dog wandered in front of us and relieved himself atop the cobbled alley – great – icing on the cake. Finally we decided to ask for directions – but we had to figure out the best place to go – we didn’t want to offend the workers of another eatery. We found two police officers in the nick of time, who showed us the way. “Grazie-ass… I mean, Gracias. Where are we again?” I stuttered. No matter, we looked at the menu, found two vegetarian plates, and headed inside. The bar was topped with small plates – bocarones, manchego, flatbreads, camarones… but were they free? No price tags adorned them… maybe I should just snag one… I was salivating over a platter of gargantuan olives when I realized that we were getting seated. My stomach rumbled when I noticed the rustic rolls at each place setting, waiting to be promptly consumed. I tried to wait for olive oil – but I just couldn’t. I was so hungry I could barely fix my eyes on the menu – then I realized it was in Spanish. Our server realized that we were miserable at understanding the language, so she brought us the English version. I turned to the wine list – being that it was a couple of pages long, I couldn’t figure out if the prices were for a bottle or glass (if so, then they had a lot of open bottles!). Nervous, I ordered the cheapest red they had (because it was still 11 euros). Adrian wanted to order a bottle of white for he and Eric to share – I suggested Albariño, a crisp, and cirtusy Spanish wine – he took my word for it. I was proud – they swooned when they tasted it.

Adrian zoned in on the asparagus with salsa crude and battered Hake, Eric on the only veg options (besides the asparagus): Insalate Mixta and a sautéed vegetable plate. I selected grilled Turbot and prayed that it would be enough food for me (there was no description beyond the method of preparation). Oh well, I’m sure my fork would find it’s way onto my unsuspecting cohorts’ plates. It was as if the karma police were reading my thoughts, because pretty much as soon as I thought that, another server came over to our table with a menu. She pointed to the Turbot, “Dis one – fini.” Dammit, now I had to make another decision! Sole… squid… sole… squid. I played it safe (or so I thought): grilled sole. At least that one said it came with potatoes.
The appetizers arrived soon after I made my second decision. My eyes widened when I saw Adrian’s asparagus set down on the table – thick white stalks drizzled with deeply green olive oil, served with a side of mayonnaise and a light tomato vinaigrette. Now I’m not a huge asparagus fan – I find it overpowering and hate the whole smelly pee effect – but the white variety is sweet, mild, and praised by top chefs worldwide. “Julie would you like some?” Adrian asked, as if he saw me licking my lips, eyeing up his plate. I didn’t even wait to acknowledge his question with an affirmative – my tines reached across the table. Oh heavens – so simple, but so good. Quality ingredients really do matter.

Eric’s vegetarian salad was loaded with artichokes, beets, olives, eggs, tomatoes, asparagus and topped with a nice hunk of preserved tuna (so much for sin pesche). Oh well, guess I had to take that off of his hands. It was the best fully cooked tuna I’ve ever eaten – dense and rich, not fishy at all. It immediately gave me a protein-packed, Omega-3 head rush. The grumbling in my belly subsided.

The second courses arrived shortly after: Adrian’s Hake was predictably tender and crunchy, served with a lemon wedge and a sprig of parsley. How dietetic.

Eric’s veggie plate arrived – more artichokes, fava beans, cauliflower, carrots, string beans all covered in fried jamón. He shook his head as it was placed in front of him – “Sin carne. There’s carne.” “Si, señor sin carne,” the server retorted. He pointed to his plate “There’s jamón. Jamón is carne.” She looked confused as she took the dish back, “Next time, you say sin carne, sin jamón.” Luckily, it came back jamon free within minutes.

I forgot that Sole is a tender, flaky white fish – so of course they couldn’t grill a fillet. The whole whopper, head and tail still attached, with a small side of sliced potatoes was set down front of me. Oh well, if I’m going to eat fish I guess I should acknowledge that it has a face. Fortunately it was already de-boned so I didn’t have to even use my knife – the fish was moist and delightful, covered in a nice sea salt-infused clarified butter. It was gone in about 3 minutes.

“See that little tooth there?” Adrian pointed into the mouth of my meal with his knife. My stomach turned. The waitress came by just in time to clear our table. “Dessert?” she asked? Oh hell no.
We left the restaurant shocked – it was a veritable ghost town.

We ended it up at a German bar, where the waiter proceeded to pour a whole bottle of whiskey in Adrian and Eric’s Jack and (splash of) Cokes.

I had an oversized red wine, and helped them with their cocktails. We grabbed a taxi, and with that our evening came to a close.

No comments: