Jon and I are on a long-weekend trip to Basque country (aka the part of Spain that’s near the border with France). We landed in Biarritz (France) yesterday, where it was pouring rain and gray outside. Not ideal when you are planning your weekend on the coast.
At some point during our 40-minute drive from Biarritz to San Sebastien, we passed the French-Spanish border, but you’d never know it because I don’t remember stopping at any checkpoint. I think I’ll start keeping a list of porous international borders, in case a terrorist ever finds it handy.
At around 7:30 pm, we finally arrived at the Hotel Niza in the Spanish beach town of San Sebastian – a town which allegedly has the most Michelin stars per capita in the world – can you guess why we’re here? The hotel staff were neither friendly nor helpful. Three people lounged at the front desk while Jon and I struggled to move our luggage through two sets of manual doors in the rain. Jon almost got a 300 euro ticket for his illegal parking job (done in order to facilitate said struggle with the luggage). But luckily, Jon pleaded and the nice meter maid let him go.
From the tall ceilings and crown mouldings, you can tell the Hotel Niza used to be a stylish, bustling beach hotel a hundred years ago when it was built. The wrought-iron, wooden elevator is beautiful, but the common spaces have seen better days.
Our room is on fifth floor (it’s a six-floor building) and overlooks the Concha Bay. Because the hotel is on the beach, when you open the room’s balcony door, you hear the waves crash and you’re right on top of the fancy tiled boardwalk. It’s lovely – the view and location is the reason to be here.
The room is large and clean, and the bathroom looks brand new. Throw in the free wifi, and thumbs up to the Hotel Niza, especially at the off-season rate of 110 euros per night. Just don’t expect anything from the Front Desk.
At around 9 p.m., we set out in the chilly rain to find some tapas before dinner (because only the truly lame-ass would eat before even 10 pm, and even 10 pm would be pushing it). We first tried a really traditional-looking place called Gandarias Jatetxea and although it was busy and packed with Spanish speakers, it was a really old-school crowd judging from the clothes and hair color. We each had a glass of rioja which was so-so, and the tapas ranged widely from stale and flavorless to pretty good. The pretty good ones included a roasted pepper and anchovy topping, as well as a tuna-and-potato-and-cheese in a puff pastry.
Given our lack of Spanish skills, we just pointed to whatever tapas we wanted to try (it’s all arrayed on plates displayed on the bar). Tapas were about 1.50 euro a piece.
We moved on to the nearby A Fuego Negro, which was as modern-looking as the Gandarias was old-fashioned-looking. The problem (if it can be called that) with modern décor is that you could be anywhere in the world. But that sort of concern disappeared when we walked in and saw groups of young and old Spanish friends clustered around the bar with beers and wines. All items were listed on a blackboard, which helped Jon and me decipher and order tapas. We especially enjoyed a spinach-and-feta salad which surprised us when the sesame oil dressing really “worked” (espinaca acelga roja y quesa feta, vinegrata sesamo). Plus, it came served with bread, so if you want to, you’re able to make own tapas by smearing the feta and shredded red onion on the bread.
Our glasses of Finca Valpiedra were very good and astounding value at 2.80 euros a glass. We will definitely revisit Fuego Negro before leaving town.
To get to dinner, we walked through clean, tidy, stone-paved and store-lined streets that reminded me of Oaxaca, if Oaxaca hadn’t fallen into obscurity over the years. I guess a more accurate sentence, historically, is to say Oaxaca looks like San Sebastian, except that I went to Oaxaca first.
Dinner was a seafood restaurant that our guidebook and the New York Times recommended: Restaurant Asador Beti-Jai (Fermin Calbeton, 22). The place’s decor screams “high end in the 1970s,” and that is not a compliment. We went because it was rainy and Jon was craving fish soup as a result. But when we first walked down to the below-ground dining room, I felt sure we should run away. The room was painted salmon pink, fake plants everywhere, and all the cognac was displayed in specially-built glass cases in the walls. Still, the prospect of wandering around in the rain at 10 pm to find another restaurant was unappealing, so we stayed put.
The fish soup (sopa de pescado) was hot and tasted intensely seafoody (good broth), though we both wished there had been chunks of something in there (even a cheap fish meat) for texture, and it definitely needed salt. The bread was surprisingly good, so we happily dunked our bread in the soup, and that made it all better.
My gambas al ajillo was fresh, buttery and garlicky, but the otherwise quality shrimp had been overcooked to slight toughness. Not worth the 15 euros, especially when you consider this dish must be served in 90% of restaurants found in Spain for a lot less money.
Jon’s bacalao vizcaina (oh yes, welcome back to the world of salted cod) was good if you like bacalao, which I don’t, really.I’d say the highlights of the meal were the friendly waitresses dressed in diner-style uniforms (totally weird for a restaurant charging relatively fancy prices) and the really inexpensive wine list comprised of a lot of Spanish wines we’d never heard of.
Dinner was 60 euros before tip, which keeps me from complaining too much. We got what we wanted – fresh, hot fish soup. Done.
18 November 2007 Update: Exactly one year after our trip, the NYT publishes this 36 Hours in San Sebastian article.
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- San Sebastian: pintxos and Elkano in Geteria (posted 23 November 2006)
- Mayor de Migueloa and Marques de Riscal, Laguardia, Spain (posted 1 March 2009)
- Visiting Vineyards in the Ribera del Duero (posted 12 March 2009)
- Back from (Eating in) Barcelona (posted 5 May 2009)