Spank's Edinburgh Diary, Saturday 27/08/2011
Simian Substitute Site For September 2011: StoopidMonkey's Channel

MOSTLY FILM: Astoria7 (and other stories)

Okay, this is going to get complicated, so bear with me. Yes, I’ve got another new thing on Mostly Film today, but it’s only a little one: a few paragraphs on the movie Dogs In Space, as part of a group post about Australian movies. Sadly, they’ve decided to call it Cult Australian Cinema, and ditched the much better working title of Oz Fest. (In a similar fashion, The Belated Birthday Girl wrote roughly the same amount there last week, talking about her favourite cinema in My Favourite Cinema.)

Do I have bonus material to back up my four hundred words on Dogs In Space? Not really, unless you count the trailer. What I do have here, though, is a backup feature on the piece I had published on Mostly Film last week, while I was churning out all the daily updates from Edinburgh. You might have seen it - it was about the San Sebastián cinema-turned-hotel Astoria7, where The Belated Birthday Girl and I went for our tenth anniversary back in June.

So, you're probably wondering, what else did we do when we weren't in this nice hotel? And the simple answer is, we ate and drank ourselves silly.

In the Basque country, they call them pintxos: little nibbly things, frequently impaled on sticks (hence the name), generally indistinguishable from what the rest of the world calls tapas. And pretty much every bar in San Sebastián has an arrangement whereby loads of pintxos are available at a relatively cheap price for anyone who comes in for a drink or two. So apart from the odd bit of sightseeing (see video above for summary), much of what we did during our three days there was hop from bar to bar trying them all for size. Here are our joint findings, listed in the order in which we visited them (which is relevant, I think).

Casa Bartolo Etxea, Calle de Fermín Calbetón 38
I kept reading the street this was on as 'Cableton', like the people who bought out NBC on 30 Rock. This was the first place we ventured into on our first lunchtime, and we quickly came to the conclusion that we'd hit a tourist joint. Big video screens with pictures of the food to lure people in, but no obvious locals eating there. And Bartolo did the thing we'd been warned about on a blog - giving you a gigantic plate as soon as you started looking at food, to subliminally encourage you to eat more. It wasn't too bad really - octopus, crab tart, ham roll, blue cheese and walnuts on bread, plus 2 Mahou beers for €15 - but probably the sort of basic experience we needed to find our way into the process.

Casa Gandarias, Calle 31 de Agosto 23
This seemed a bit more like it, possibly to the other extreme - it was so packed with locals it felt a little intimidating. But a nice atmosphere overall, and the food was a definite step up. Mushroom and prawn tart (with a surprise bit of bacon in it, which came as a nasty shock to The BBG), anchovies and red pepper on bread, salt cod croquette, and a red pepper and black pudding combo on bread which became a little less interesting when the black pudding fell off the bread and onto the floor. (There's a lot of dropped food around the bar in these places.) With a pair of glasses of mineral water (because we were just starting to realise how much boozing this could entail), the whole lot came to a measly €9, but that was more down to accidental undercharging on their part.

Astoria7 Hotel, Calle de Sagrada Familia 1
Yes, we did eat at the hotel too, as the bar at Astoria7 made for a rather useful starting point for an evening's wandering the streets. A nice range of stuff laid out on the bar, with friendly staff eager to help and practice their English: we ended up having a potato tortilla with ham & cheese, and salt cod with garlic sauce.  Two glasses of white wine brought it up to €9.20.

Alex, Calle de Larramendi 10
All the places we'd visited so far were bars, where the food was laid out on the counter for you to point at. Alex, on the other hand, was laid out more like a cafe, with tables to sit at and a menu to choose from. The surroundings were slightly dingier than we'd come to expect, but the food was surprisingly fancier. Some squid, a portion of duck ravioli, and two glasses of syrah came to €13.60.

Nerua, Avenida Abandoibarra 2, Bilbao
On our second day, we ventured out of town on a day trip, as Bilbao is only an hour or so away by bus. You don't need me to tell you what an awesome place the Guggenheim Bilbao is, both inside and out. (We were particularly impressed by Richard Serra's The Matter Of Time.) But there's an equally awesome restaurant just out the back, not to be confused with the perfectly adequate museum cafe. Lunch at Nerua was astonishing, and it's just a shame that the only record of what we ate is a bill full of incomprehensible Spanish abbreviations. After some nifty amuse-bouches of fried cod skin and black olive cookies (like savoury Oreos), we started properly with a parmesan infusion and some white asparagus. My main course was cod cheeks, while The BBG had what she can only recall as "fish in some green broth". The desserts were decadent as hell - Venezuelan chocolate with marzipan sand, and strawberries with a violet crisp, all washed down with a bottle of Guitian Godello. The whole thing came to €153.46, but it was our anniversary so we’re allowed.

Berton, Calle Jardines 11, Bilbao
We came back down to earth again with a friendly and unfussy chain bar, the sort of place that had people happily eating and drinking while ignoring Teletubbies on the TV in the corner. More salt cod, prawns, chicken & mini fried egg, salmon & mini fried egg, and two glasses of red came to €10.20. After our somewhat tentative start with the whole pintxos thing, I think this was the point where we started getting the hang of it.

A Fuego Negro, Calle 31 de Agosto 31
Back in San Sebastián for day three, and I'd had this one in my sights since seeing the website. It didn't disappoint: after all the brightly lit, traditional places we'd been to, this was a black-walled trendy bar with a funky and fun atmosphere, and some serious wit in their pintxos menu. A miniature burger made out of Kobe beef: a deconstructed anchovy kit including garlic and grilled cherry tomatoes: the inevitable salt cod, but done better than anywhere else we'd been: and a soup of small prawns that The BBG absolutely loved. We also got to try a couple of glasses of the local Txakoli Agerre (poured from a great height in the traditional style), and the bill came to €21.30. Probably my favourite out of all the bars we visited.

Mesón Martín, Calle de Elkano 7
For our final evening run, we took our inspiration from the excellent website Todo Pintxos, which has a whole series of suggested pintxos trails mapped out for you - we ended up mixing and matching a couple of them to come up with our own route. The first one was pretty standard, laying on a tortilla, a big cheeseball, and two more glasses of Txakoli for €7.20.

Hika Mika, Calle de Echaide 4
This was a bit more of a trendy bar, notable again for having nothing on the counter - you had to order at the bar, and they'd make it for you there and then. According to my notes, we ordered pastel de pescado, pimento relleno de bechamel de bacalao - you'll have to do your own translations, but rest assured there's some more salt cod in there - and two glasses of red wine for €8.80 total.

San Marcial, Calle de San Marcial 50
Our last stop of the holiday was The BBG's favourite, even though there were dozens of slabs of dead animal hanging from the ceiling. An incredibly friendly bunch on both sides of the bar, happy to make recommendations to a pair of passing tourists. We ended up with bacalao tortilla, chilli and anchovy on bread, ham cheese and mushroom croquette, a hunk of salami, and two glasses of rioja for €10.20. Be careful not to miss it - it's actually located off the street at the end of a small passageway, so you'll need to look out for the sign pointing you there.

I've included the prices for all of these to show you that as long as you avoid haute cuisine restaurants at the back of art galleries, pintxos can be a surprisingly economic way of grabbing a bite while in a Spanish city. As The BBG herself noted, it makes for a very civilised drinking culture: rather than staying in a bar for ages and then filling up with food at the end, you eat as you go. It's a brilliant idea, and I'm sure we'd like to do it again. We just need to make sure we know the Spanish for "is that bacon in there?" next time.


View San Sebastián pintxos (plus a couple of Bilbao places off to the left) in a larger map



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