Where to Find the Best Food in San Sebastián, Spain
Here, we spotlight American expats around the globe and get their insider tips on the best places to eat and drink in their adopted cities.
The Expat: Former F&W staffer Kevin Patricio, who decamped to San Sebastián three years ago. Today, the Baltimore native is the chef at La Madame, whose worldly menu items stand out among the traditional pintxos (small bites) and cerebrally avant-garde creations that abound in this city overrun with outstanding food. Patricio also makes microbrews through the Basqueland Brewing Project, and in July, he launched a pop-up taco stand at La Concha beach. He and his wife, Basque native Maite Montenegro, live with their two young sons in an apartment overlooking the sea.
What’s the menu at La Madame like?
We have only one goal, which is to make fresh, bright, balanced, flavorful food. We source locally but put no limitations on the ideas. One thing almost everyone who eats here tries is the foie gras nigiri. It’s a small slice of foie cooked a la plancha (grilled on a metal plate) and then basted with kabayaki—the sauce used to make barbecued eel in Japan. It’s served on a nigiri of traditional sushi rice. Sometimes we try to make a perfect classic, for instance, steak frites with locally raised hanger steak with oven-roasted piquillos and fries.
How about your special Monday night prix fixe meals?
San Sebastián is one of the world’s great food cities. Once you move here from a place like New York City though, you start to crave things that you just can’t get. No Thai. No Vietnamese. No ramen. No Mexican. No Lebanese. No fried chicken. No pizza. The list goes on. So Mondays started as a way to satisfy my cravings. We would do different themes like Thai street food, with dishes like Pad Kee Mao, which was one of my favorites in New York. Sometimes I’ll focus on one type of barbecue, sometimes St. Louis–style ribs or Texas-style brisket, or I’ll do dishes from my childhood, like chicken adobo with lumpia (Filipino spring rolls). A lot of restaurants are closed on Monday nights, so the menu never gets old for the industry crew that comes by. It’s pretty much become our test kitchen.
What’s the most exciting restaurant in San Sebastián right now?
I love Restaurante Elkano. I staged there several years ago and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s perfectly classic Basque and utterly exciting. I always end with the whole turbot, which is grilled over charcoal and then basted with a lemon, olive oil, butter and a secret garlic sauce made by Pedro Arregui, who recently passed away. It may be the best fish on earth.
If someone has only one day in San Sebastián, where would you recommend they eat and drink?
Elkano. Although I also love Rekondo. The wine list is hundreds of pages long, with deep vintages and great prices. The wines are primarily from Spain, but they also have crazy Bordeaux and Burgundy. I would also recommend Ganbara for their grilled mushrooms with egg yolk or fried anchovies; La Cuchara de San Telmo for pig’s ear; and A Fuego Negro for its modern and whimsical take on Spanish mackerel.
If someone has three days? A week?
Of course, you should go to Arzak and Mugaritz. They are both so different. Arzak is whimsical and Mugaritz is intellectual and emotional. I love the bonito belly and the crab rock at Arzak. The menu at Mugaritz changes every year, but when I was there last I was moved by their vegetable carpaccio made from frozen and roasted watermelon. You should also drive to Saint-Jean-de-Luz in France on Tuesdays or Fridays for the farmers’ market and have a picnic on the way back along the coast. And go to Casa Julian for one of the best steaks I’ve ever had. Asador Etxebarri is another great spot. The Palamós prawns are the best. There’s so much head juice. I always do the tasting menu there. Everything is at peak freshness and cooked over wood embers. It’s the best use of technique and restraint I’ve ever experienced.
What one food or drink item would you miss the most if/when you leave San Sebastián?
I think it’s the quality of the anchovies all over the city. You don’t find anchovies like this anywhere. So I’d miss anchovies—and all seafood, really. And gin tonics. The Basque gin tonic is legendary. There seems to be more care taken. They use these huge goblets so your hand doesn’t heat up the glass, and tonic made with real sugar instead of corn syrup.
Ratha Tep is a former Food & Wine editor who lives in Zurich.