The best pintxos in San Sebastián

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San Sebastián has pretty much been done to death by food writers and bloggers, but with good reason. There is really nowhere comparable, and I have eaten my way around a lot of great European, North American and Australian food cities over the last decade. I have never found anywhere where every restaurant could provide at least one outstanding dish, as well as many excellent ones, for under a fiver. While eating at a bar counter with a stranger’s elbow lodged in your rib as you spill dish after dish down your front may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, even people on a budget can get to try cooking from  incredibly talented chefs. Pintxos start at around two euro, and a glass of txacoli is in the same range.

So with that in mind, here are my favourite dishes or pintxos bars from five days and nights of eating everything humanly possible in San Sebastián. We tried to hit most of the best known places, but missed out on trying the cheesecake in La Vina and the tortilla in Bar Nestor. We tried the anchovies in Txeptxa but since I really just don’t like anchovies, it didn’t make the cut but if you do like them, it’s definitely worth a visit.

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Ganbara – Grilled mushrooms with egg yolk

Ganbara is the grand dame of San Sebastián pinchos. It is pricier than the rest, with luxurious ingredients and a strong focus on pastry. Possibly the most Instagrammed dish in San Sebastián is the wild mushrooms grilled with egg yolk (hongos a la plancha). At close to €20 for a small racion, this is by far the most expensive dish that we tried, but it was utterly perfect. The mushrooms were delicate with a rich meaty texture, and the raw egg yolk brought the dish together. I am completely phobic about eggs but somehow I managed to both eat and adore this dish. Ganbara is always a popular spot with tourists and with foodie tours, but we managed to snag a rare corner bit of counter on a Wednesday lunchtime to try this.

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Anything meaty at La Cuchara de San Telmo

La Cuchara de San Telmo is legendary for its rich meaty dishes like foie gras and beef cheek. On our two visits, we managed to try both of these, plus the duck ravioli with mushrooms and jus (pictured above), the crispy pigs ear with romesco, and a racion of morcilla. With the exception of the morcilla racion, all of these were priced at around €4.00. La Cuchara de San Telmo is a sweaty and tense experience. Two men on either end of the counter take orders sporadically and you try to carve out a bit of space to wait. Food tends to come in waves, so you’ll see portions of foie gras fly out, followed a few minutes later by beef cheeks and so on. If you’re unlucky, you can be waiting ten minutes for each dish. It’s one of the few places that doesn’t have pintxos on the bar, and it’s full of other foodie tourists elbowing each other for counter space. The best move is to bring food onto the little square outside, away from the fray.

Braised Veal Cheek with Red Wine and Orzo Risotto with Idiazabal at Bora Berri

I didn’t manage to get a picture of these dishes, but being totally honest, they were not the most photogenic. Borda Berri has a similar vibe to La Cuchara de San Telmo, which makes sense since its chef came from there, with a list of small hot pintxos at about €3-4 euro a go and no pintxos on the counter. The creamy orzo risotto (risotto de puntalete) with local sheep’s milk cheese was a standout dish, as well as the veal cheek braised in red wine (carrilera de tenera al vino tinto) were standouts. I think these dishes are pretty similar to the ones at La Cuchara, but the space is slightly less hectic and sweaty, and I thought the veal cheeks were better seasoned here.

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Spicy tomato mussels, patatas bravas and squid bravas at La Mejillonera

La Mejillonera is essentially a Spanish version of a chip shop. It serves a few fried dishes instantly at a counter, and has a constant turnover of mainly local customers. There are photos displayed above the counter of the five mussel dishes, patatas bravas, and different squid dishes available. Uniformed men take your order, shout it down the counter with a dramatic emphasis and a minute later you are presented with your food. Mussels in a spicy tomato sauce (mejillones al tigre), deep fried squid with aioli and bravas sauce (calamares bravas), and fried potatoes with the same aioli and bravas sauce (patatas bravas) are essential to try here, and can be seen dotted up and down the counter. You can get a double portion of the bravas for €3.50, mussels for €3.80 and a half racion of calamares for around €5. This is the perfect place for a quick lunch break from the Concha beach, which is just a few minutes away.

Chorizo Croquetas at Bar Gure Txoco

Over the river in Gros, things are a little quieter. Bar Gure Txoco has a huge selection of croquetas to choose from, but our favourites were the chorizo ones, which managed to combine spiciness and sweetness with the creamy bechamel perfectly. They’re a little pricier than most croquetas in San Sebastián, at €2.50 for two, but totally worth it. This is a good spot if you want a break from the slightly relentless Old Town atmosphere.

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Kokotxas, and really anything at Zeruko

Zeruko is a modern, award-winning pintxo place with efficient staff, and often a bit more space than the others. The counter is groaning with excellent pintxos, and they also have a long list of hot pintxos to order from the kitchen. The standout dish was the kokotxas (part of a hake’s throat, I think) which come on a little skewer over a hot grill with some bread and a green sauce. You turn the kokotxas skewer yourself, ten seconds on each side, place it on the bread, and douse it in a sauce from a test tube. I was too busy timing and grilling to get an actual photo. We actually didn’t find this dish on the menu, so I’m not sure what its proper name is, but you will see it at every table so just point and ask for it. It costs €5.50, but is very much worth it, particularly as they have trimmed away a lot of the fat you normally get with kokotxas, leaving a lean and sweet skewer of fish without the weird gelatinous mouthfeel that other kokotxas dishes had. I also loved the goats cheese with foie gras and honey pintxo on the bar, and the sea urchin with avocado.

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Octopus with potato soup and bacon at Casa Urola

Like Ganbara and Borda Berri, Casa Urola is a stalwart of San Sebastián food tours, and we saw loads of groups during our evening there. With a decor that looks like a living room on Desperate Housewives, it does not look anything like what I’d expect from a cutting-edge pintxos bar, but everything we tried was glorious. It is one of the few places with proper tables and chairs in the bar (there is also a dining room upstairs offering similar food at a huge mark-up). If you hang around long enough, you can snag a seat and work your way through the whole tapas menu. The hot dishes are worth the wait, and the staff are great at wrestling through the crowds to give them to you. The food is elegantly presented like an amuse bouche in a Michelin restaurant, but at the same San Sebastian prices of less than €5 a pop.

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Mackobe with Txips at A Fuego Negro

A Fuego Negro is a more recent arrival on the San Sebastián pintxos scene, with an interior like a Nu-Metal band’s fast food franchise. The menu is displayed through a series of illustrated placards on the wall above the bar. The staff here are extremely efficient and manage to stay in a good mood despite the constant pressure. There are different small dishes at between €3 and €6, as well as larger portions of things like fried wild chicken for around €15 to €18. It may seem a bit unadventurous for San Sebastián, but there is a reason everyone around you is ordering the Mackobe, a miniature Kobe beef burger with banana chips.

 

 

 

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Pintxo-pote, San Sebastián

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Pintxo-pote is a Basque institution. A selection of bars offer a drink and a pintxo for a small fixed price, usually €2, one night each week. In San Sebastián, the main pintxo-pote scene is on Thursday nights in Gros.  The hub is around Plaza Cataluña, Bermingham Kalea, San Frantzisko Kalea and Zabaleta Kalea.It starts at 19:00 and goes on until around 23:00, or until the food runs out, whichever happens first.

Most bars have signs outside saying they offer pintxo-pote, and some have signs saying they very definitely do not. You can usually tell which is which anyway by the crowds and debris outside. These are not the high-end basque pintxos that tourists elbow each other for in the Old Town, but there are some pretty tasty things on offer. The pintxos are lined on the counter of the bar ready to go. The drink on offer is generally wine, beer or cider.

I have zero photos of our pintxo-pote crawl. Trying to take anything close to a half-decent photo holding a flimsy plastic plate and being jostled by surfers and students is tricky, but here is a round-up of our pintxo-pote experience.

The first thing to be aware of is that the wine on offer is usually pretty disgusting. Sadly, txacoli is rarely part of the deal. The cider and beer, on the other hand, were good everywhere we tried them. Basque cider is light, slightly effervescent and crisp. Sticking with beer and cider is also a smart idea if you’re planning to try a lot of places, and don’t like waking up the next day in a bush with croquette crumbs across your cheeks and grease-smeared hands.

We started in La Plata, just off Plaza Cataluña. The options here were pretty good, and we settled on a squid ink croquette, and some sort of delicious chewy pastry filled with melted cheese that looked a little like a doughnut. This was a stalwart of pintxo-pote spreads as it turned out. They tend towards the stodgier end of things, presumably to soak up all the alcohol. Next up was Bar Mendi on San Frantzisko Kalea which offered the standard bread pintxos, as well as small plates of paella, patatas bravas and ensaladilla rusa. We went for a plate of bravas, and a pintxo with ham, goats cheese and crispy onion. We then moved on to Bora Gerri, on Kalea Bermingham. This had a selection of deep fried things like croquettes and prawns on skewers, as well as some bread tapas, so we went for three prawns on a skewer, and some txistorra sausage on bread.

At this point we needed a break and a sit-down, because unlike most of the crowd, we are not in our twenties anymore. The streets had become a sea of discarded plastic plates and cups, the pavements filled with inebriated students smoking a seemingly endless amount of roll-ups. Fortunately, we spotted Essencia wine bar on Zabaleta Kallea, a glorious place with a giant list of wines by the glass, and, unusually for San Sebastian, a great sherry list too. We decided to go for one more pintxo-pote, which ended up being a fairly lacklustre empanadilla at Bar Labrit opposite, before calling it a night.

Pintxo-pote offerings do not match the kind of gourmet pintxos you get in the old town, but this is the Basque Country, so they are still way better than what you should be able to get for this price. San Sebastián can be a pricey place, but a night out and a meal for €10 is an offer that can’t be missed, and an experience you won’t get in other regions of Spain.

 

 

Guts & Glory, Amsterdam

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In the five months since I returned to once again live in Holland, I have had to do something I hate doing. I have had to acknowledge that I was wrong. The blow has been softened by the fact that I have been proved wrong in a very enjoyable way. Last year, I wrote about the shortage of good, casual restaurants in Amsterdam. I was so very wrong. Over the past few months, I have eaten some of the best meals I can remember, in different restaurants across Amsterdam. I have tried Australian small plates, Dutch tasting menus, Michelin-starred street food, Israeli seafood, and plenty of things besides. And it has all been wonderful.

Most recently, I visited Guts & Glory, on the dodgier end of Utrechtsetraat. Located on a strip of coffee shops, seedy bars, and hipster fast food, it’s an unlikely location for such glorious cooking. The restaurant works with a theme, changing every few months, and develops a set menu around it. The last theme was Japan, the current theme is Spain, and the next is rumoured to be Thailand. They have also created menus revolving entirely around one ingredient. Taking chefs out of their comfort zone, to create quintessential dishes from different countries is an interesting idea, and one that could go very wrong. Here, it just works.

 

IMG-20170809-WA0002I’m not an expert on Spanish food, but it was great to see so many classic dishes brought to life in new ways. We went for the pre-theatre four course menu, on a Monday night after a weekend of heavy eating. The sun was glimmering, so we braved the breeze for a table on the street. The meal started with a plate of pan con tomate. Light crispy bread rubbed with garlic, topped with chunks of tomato and drizzled in olive oil. It’s a simple dish, but one that requires excellent ingredients. Here the tomatoes were fresh and sweet, the bread was light, and the olive oil grassy. We moved on to an amuse (still not hitting our first actual course) of watermelon gazpacho, a miniature jamon croquette, and olive stuffed with jalapeno cream cheese and topped with crispy chorizo crumbs. My recreations of this gazpacho have since become a weekly event in my house.

Our first actual course was corvina marinated in sherry in an ajo blanco sauce with slices of fresh grape on top. Corvina is the fish of the moment in Amsterdam, and this was a beautiful way to serve it. The sherry slightly cured the white meat and gave bite, which was balanced by the creamy almond sauce, and the sweetness of the grapes. Sadly, I did not get a picture of this dish but it was lovely.

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The next course was a riff on paella, a simple tomato rice with chorizo oil, blow-torched at the last minute to crisp on top and served with three plump mussels. After that came a rump of Dorset lamb with romesco sauce and goats curd. I don’t eat meat regularly, and I sometimes think I could probably give it up entirely. This was the kind of lamb that shatters those illusions. Perfectly pink, soft and with just the right amount of fat to keep it juicy. We moved on to a pre-dessert of crema catalana flavoured with orange blossom and a truly incredible dessert of fresh churros coated in fennel seeds and sugar, chocolate sorbet and a liquorice caramel sauce.

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Guts & Glory also manages that rare combination of great food and excellent customer service. Our waitress let my dad try several wines when he couldn’t decide which he wanted from the list. She kept a good eye on everything that was happening on the terrace outside the restaurant throughout the evening. When the chef noticed that a man at a neighbouring table was not a fan of the fishy dishes that had been served, he offered to cook him something different and gave him some options.

 

Despite the intimidating name, there were no dishes here to frighten the horses. What we had was a menu of classic dishes that had small innovations, but focused mainly on flavour. Each dish was one that I had tried in one guise or another before on trips to Spain, but the best version I’d ever had. If they stuck with just this theme, and turned into a Spanish restaurant, I would happily keep coming back for these same dishes. But I’m also really excited to see what comes next.

Guts & Glory, Utrechtsestraat 6, Amsterdam

 

Getting a pizza at Pizzeria Da Michele, Naples

Da Michele is the Neapolitan institution. Year after year it tops the lists for best pizza in Naples. When I mentioned it to my boyfriend’s Neapolitan housemate, a wistful look of deep longing came over his face, as he explained that this was his favourite place. It was the place that gave the ‘Eat’ to ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and photos of Julia Roberts have pride of place throughout the restaurant. Founded in the 19th Century, they officially sell only two types of pizza; Marinara, with tomato sauce, garlic, oil and oregano, and Margherita, with tomato sauce, fior di latte mozzarella and fresh basil. There is in fact a secret third option, a pizza bianco with mozzarella and oregano, which we saw making the rounds with locals while we were there. The medium sized pizzas are ample, and set you back €4.50.

Every visitor to Naples knows that it is the home of pizza, which is probably why Neapolitans are the people the Mediterranean paradox forgot, but it is anything but a simple fast food. The real Neapolitan pizzerias are members of an organisation, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, which has a stringent set of rules 11 pages long which its members must abide by. This dictates the proportion of yeast in the dough, the type, the method of stretching and rising the dough, and the 90 second maximum a pizza can stay in the wood burning stove.

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Da Michele is an intimidating place to visit as a tourist, so here is the story with getting a pizza there. It will always be busy. The first time we passed it, by accident, on a side street between the train station and the Centro Storico, it was 2pm, prime lunchtime, and there was a crowd of 30 or 40 people standing outside. The next time, at 5pm, there were just three or four others. You go into the restaurant, and you will be given a numbered ticket by the project manager of the whole operation. This is not the number of your order, this is an indication of when they will start to think about your order. You go back swiftly to the crowd sprawled across the street outside. The project manager eventually calls your number in Italian and English, you go in, and either take a seat, or ask for a takeaway. You marvel at how cool the room is, despite the giant ball of fire in an open oven facing the door.

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There is a team assembling the pizzas, lifting ladles of sauce from buckets, ripping chunks of mozzarella by hand, and pulling basil leaves from a bunch larger than their heads on the counter. The pizzas are very quick to cook, just over a minute each in the wood fired oven, expertly turned and watched by an older man whose one job is to get them in and out of the oven. If he is feeling generous, he lets one of the other young men take a go, which he inevitably takes over halfway through. While he waits, he drinks espresso from plastic cups delivered from a nearby cafe by a teenage boy, and throws folded up pieces of paper at the pizza prep chefs. Occasionally he does a dance. Despite how quickly they cook, the restaurant is deceptively big, so unless you get a takeaway, you can be waiting about half an hour for your order. Even if, as the man beside us did, you sit, napkin tucked into your shirt, knife and fork in hand, shouting at the waiters as they go by, and muttering to yourself darkly when they ignore you. They sell beer,water and soft drinks at €2 a pop, and once your order is taken and your drink arrives, you will be left to your own devices. Try to order a second drink at your peril.

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Pick the Margherita, because pizza without cheese is just not right. Neapolitan pizzas are crisp and slightly charred on the edges, but completely soggy in the middle, where the oil, excess whey from the cheese, and liquid tomato pool. This is Trump’s spiritual home, each diner is provided with a knife and fork. I am not a pizza fan, so I was curious to see how good it can be. This was absolutely perfect. The crust is light and bubbly and ever so slightly sour, the tomato sauce fresh and mild, but the fior di latte mozzarella steals the show. It is rich, and creamy, and still tastes fresh and holds a bit of bite because of how briefly it is melted. There is an option to pay extra get double mozzarella on your pizza,but this seems to be a tourist tax, as the three doubles we saw all had the same as a regular pizza. As soon as you finish your pizza, go to the till by the door, pay and leave immediately, because you know how long the people outside have been waiting, and this is not a place where lingerers are likely to be treated kindly. Feel sad that pizza can’t always be like this as you wander away.

Hotel de Goudfazant, Amsterdam

imageI had almost given up on casual dining in Amsterdam. While its fine dining scene is as good as any, I have had many mediocre and overpriced meals in Amsterdam’s mid ranged spots. Despite being cutting edge for design and culture, it lacks behind a bit in the culinary scene. It’s currently reaching peak dirty burger, with doughnuts, fermentation and nose to tail likely to make landfall next year. To avoid disappointment, I tend to go back to old favourites like Worst Wijn Cafe and De Kas time and again. Now, Hotel de Goudfazant can be added to that select list.

imageI had heard lots of good things about it, but its location in an industrial estate in deepest darkest Amsterdam Noord, a ferry ride away from the main part of the city, was off-putting. I’ve read five or six travel articles screaming the virtues of Noord in as many months, so I finally summoned up the added energy to brave the five minute free ferry journey from behind Centraal Station (I know, I’m a trailblazer). Hotel de Goudfazant is located in an old car factory, on a quay facing the city, about 20 minutes walk through 1960s housing blocks and deserted industrial estates. It’s not actually a hotel, but is named after a line in a Jacques Brel song.  There is a lot going on in Noord at the moment, but Hotel De Goudfazant is still off the beaten track, a few kilometres in the opposite direction from the hubs at A’Dam tower and the NDSM Wharf. You’d never find it if you didn’t know it was there, but when we arrived late on a Friday night, it was heaving with people.

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On offer is very reasonably priced French inspired menus, with three courses coming in at 31.50. While nothing on the menu is going to come as a surprise, with starters such as terrine, a charuterie plate, and fish soup, each course we tried was perfectly executed and made with outstanding ingredients. I started with the classic beetroot and goats cheese starter, with whole roasted beetroot complimented with slices of candied beetroot, piped goats cheese, thin slices of crisped sourdough and a base sauce of caramelised onion and orange. Himself picked out a perfect chicken liver and pistachio terrine, which was chunky, slightly falling apart to the touch and served with relish and cornichons.

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Every single table around us had a roasted poussin on it, so I had my order set only to discover that it was sold out and instead, I panic ordered Angus beef with polenta dauphinoise. I have a pretty high standard for beef, coming from Ireland, and there was no price supplement for the order, so I did not expect anything outstanding. Fortunately, I was wrong.  The beef came in thick, tender, pink slabs with a rich jus. It had an incredible flavour, and was probably the best steak I have had in a restaurant. Polenta dauphinoise was in fact deep fried balls of cheesy polenta, and the dish was finished with a slice of braised chicory because somewhere in Amsterdam there has to be a rule that everything comes with chicory. The lamb with broad beans and and aubergine was an equally lovely cut of meat. We finished off with an orange blossom parfait, and an excellent cheese board of French cheeses, including a French gouda gris.

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I have no idea how they can afford to offer a menu like this at a price like this, but they are certainly not cutting costs on the quality or provenance of their ingredients. They also had a reasonably priced wine list, with some lovely natural wines. The staff are friendly, professional and knowledgable, happy to talk you through the wine list and the menu in English or Dutch. This is the best value dining I have found in Amsterdam, and combined with the great view and lively space, it is well worth the detour.

Hotel de Goudfazant, Aambeeldstraat 10H, 1021 KB, Amsterdam 

 

 

Heron and Grey, Dublin

imageHaving a view of a fortune tellers stall from your seat is not usually an auspicious start to an evening of fine dining. However, despite a visit from Michelin within a few months of opening, Heron and Grey is definitely not your average fine dining establishment. Following in the footsteps of Canteen and Fish Shop,they are located in Canteen’s old spot in Blackrock Market in deepest, darkest South Dublin . They serve a five course (really nine courses) explicitly seasonal set dinner menu for 48 euro a head, with a shorter two or three course lunch menu. What is particularly unusual is that they have managed to do this without, on the evening I visit, any meat, and with only one fish course. While this is business as usual for me, for my parents and brother, it’s a bit of a change. This innovative (for Irish palates) approach could be because head chef Damien Grey hails from Australia. Front of house is provided by Andrew Heron (hence the name), who does a great line in friendly banter combined with an encyclopaedic wine knowledge.

imageI had looked at the menu in advance, which follows the ever popular list three ingredients with no description format, and honestly, there was not a single thing on it which I would have picked out myself given the opportunity. So it was doubly impressive that this was one of the best meals I have had in years. One of the great things about Heron and Grey is the size. The kitchen was literally five feet from our table, so any query we had about the meal or how a dish was prepared was happily answered by the chefs as we worked our way through the meal. We started off with freshly cooked bread and whipped pine needle butter. I’m not sure pine needles and butter needed to be introduced, but it was certainly an interesting flavour. We then moved on to the first dish, burnt goats cheese with tempura courgette flower,  lemon gel, chipotle mayonnaise, and a black garlic puree. The overall effect was rich, but cut through with the lemon gel for balance. Impressively, the chipotle did not dominate the more subtle flavours of the goats cheese and courgette flower. It was my parents first introduction to chipotle, having been immune to the burrito wars of the past few years in Dublin, and it’s safe to say they were converts. Our next course was a tasty cauliflower cheese dish in a glass bowl, with pickled shallot, and blow torched on top to finish. This was the only one of the four cheese involving courses which my cheese fearing brother couldn’t manage, and we battled for his portion. image

Next up was a dish of black Russian tomatoes with salted cherries, wasabi creme fraiche, wasabi snow and a tomato consomme gel. Gels and snow feature heavily here. Following this was a delicate plate with fennel cured diced corvina with fish roe, yuzu curd, crisped skin and a squid ink rice cracker which was a particular favourite, even for a fish sceptic like myself. I had no idea Ireland even had corvina, a fish more typically found in Pacific waters, nor had I ever seen it on a menu here, but apparently it was freshly caught off the south coast. The strong marine flavours from the squid ink, roe and corvina were balanced perfectly with the creamy yuzu curd to make a light but satisfying dish. This was followed (I know, it really was 9 courses) with a palate cleansing puree of pear and liquorice with a chardonnay vinegar reduction to add a little bite. Our next course was a comforting portion of aged rice risotto with olive oil and parmesan, and a garnish of pickled enoki mushrooms and crisped quinoa, grains and fennel seeds. We were then provided with a cheese course consisting of a dab of soft Crozier Blue cheese on a homemade lavash bread with red currant.image

We switched from our Albarino and Syrah at this point to the impressive dessert wine list complete with Muscat, Sauternes, a red dessert wine, tawny port and Pedro Ximenez. Even with so many courses, and varying appetites in the group, we left comfortably full, which is an impressive achievement that many tasting menus cannot claim.  Our final two courses were a coconut creme with pineapple marinaded with rum and spices with a coconut snow, and a final secret dessert of chocolate mousse, praline crisp and a chocolate which we were told they had made once for a particular diner, and had been so popular they decided to serve every night. This sums up the whole experience really. Heron and Grey is a warm, generous kind of a place, without a hint of pretension despite all the gels, snows and Michelin worthy cooking.

Heron and Grey 

Blackrock Market, 19a Main Street, Blackrock, Co. Dublin.

Ph: 01 212 3676/ 087 608 3140

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A Brief Guide to Alsace, France

IMG_0632Alsace is an odd region. Tossed between France and Germany for a few hundred years, it’s a little bit of both and neither. It’s mainly known for its wine, choucroute, and as the spiritual home of the great Parisian brasseries, established by Alsatian refugees in the Nineteenth Century. Despite its traumatic history, the region has a chain of dozens of perfectly preserved medieval villages and towns, stretched at intervals of a few kilometres along the 180km Route Des Vins between Strasbourg and Colmar. We used Colmar as our base for exploring the biggest cluster of villages which ring around the city over three days. Alsace can be more than a little bit twee at times, but when you are walking around the empty streets of a perfectly preserved medieval village like Bergheim or sitting in a vineyard watching storks swoop among the vines, it feels like stepping back into another age. It’s also a dream come true for anyone who is really interested in wine.

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I have to say that Alsace was not the culinary destination I had hoped for.I have read a lot about the amazing Alsatian food culture but didn’t see much evidence of it. In Colmar, we struggled to find a restaurant that served anything other than overpriced choucroute and tarte flambé. There is only so much sauerkraut a person can take, and I had expected a mix of traditional and more innovative spots, but didn’t find them. A lot of our meals ended up being in our apartment and comprised of local Munster cheese, terrines and rilletes bought from local shops together with baguettes. This is pretty much my dream meal, and handy for the budget, but not what serious foodies might be looking for on holidays.

IMG_0659Colmar is not your typical city break kind of city, it is quiet with no cafe/bar culture of note. Despite both France and Germany being known for this, it seems to have bypassed Alsace. Except for a few dodgy looking clubs and Irish pubs, Colmar is deserted after dinnertime. There is a strange reluctance about local wine. Restaurants rarely tell you anything more about the wine they serve than the grape variety, and we found one wine bar in the whole city.

This is maybe because Alsace seems to have a very casual relationship to wine. In all my travelling in France, Italy and Spain, I have never seen a place where wine is so much a part of the fabric of the region. Everyone makes it. Really, truly everyone. We passed through villages where every second house was selling its own bottles of Riesling and Pinot Blanc. All of the land, from small gardens, to the hillsides and fields between villages, is covered in vines. Any notion you have of wine tasting as an elite activity will be put to rest pretty quickly when you taste a glass of cremant given to you by a man in mud covered wellies, which you enjoy with a view of his tractor. Wine making is very traditional here, with most winemakers being the same family operation that has been around for hundreds of years, and outsiders frowned upon. With all that in mind, here are a few of the things we picked up from our trip:

Food:

Restaurant Edel, Eguisheim

This was the meal of the trip. Foie gras tarte flambé. It was everything I never knew I wanted. The restaurant is attached to a butchers shop on one of the main squares in Eguisheim with a view of a church spire with nesting storks who periodically swoop over the square. There is a large terrace to sit and enjoy the food with a glass of local wine. Tarte flambé is an Alsatian pizza dish made with creme fraiche, onions and lardons of bacon that is served absolutely everywhere. Here it was served with chunks of pan fried foie gras, many many many pieces of foie gras, far more than should be possible for the price of 14 euros. It should have been too much, and for lesser mortals, it might be. But for me, it was perfection. Himself had an equally excellent pie of duck confit, foie gras and cepes (also 14 euros) which could also be bought to bring home from the butcher shop. We genuinely contemplated cycling out across the fields from Colmar to Eguisheim again that night to go again, before discovering it only opens during the day, and was closed the following two days.

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Wine Bar Un des Sens, Colmar

This was the one wine bar we found in Colmar, located up a dark windy cobbled road that was completely deserted. They have lots of Alsatian wines by the glass and bottle, and a selection of small plates for around 10 euro to go alongside. You have to order something small to eat to order wine, it seems to be a licensing requirement. We ordered a charcuterie plate and a vegetarian plate, and two glasses of white wine from Eguisheim. It’s a cosy, friendly kind of place to while away an evening and try some great local wines.

Le Comptoir de Georges

Another restaurant attached to a butchers shop, we almost didn’t go in due to the deeply tacky decor, as exemplified by the white glitter stag who presided over our meal from a window ledge. They serve a reasonably priced selection of local specialties with a few bistro classics thrown in to the mix. While my rabbit leg with mustard was fairly average, the steak tartare with frites that himself ordered was perfect. It was served as a generous helping of freshly chopped, grassy beef topped with an egg yolk, and surrounded by baby gem leaves filled with chopped cornichons, capers and shallots, so you could mix it up exactly how you wanted. There is a canal side terrace that was too cold when we visited, but would be perfect in summer if you want to escape the watchful gaze of the nine plaster of paris wild boar who adorn the main dining room.

Wine Tasting

Almost every village we went to had dozens of winemakers offering wine tasting. This can be literally in a shed next to someones house, or a proper bar. Usually you wander in to an empty room and wait for someone to realise you are there. With one notable exception in Eguisheim, you won’t be charged for tasting 2-3 types of wine, but etiquette dictates that you should buy a bottle at the end. The average price for a bottle of Riesling or Pinot Blanc is usually about 7 euro, with late harvest (Vendange Tardive) Riesling and Gewurtztraminer going up to the mid twenties and beyond. Edelzwicker, a random blend of leftover grapes usually used by Alsatians for cooking with, is best avoided.

The best wine tasting experience we had was at Achille Thirion, in the cave on the edge of Orschwiller (they also have a shop in the centre of Saint Hippolyte). We spent almost an hour there being guided through the entirety of their wine list by a lovely sommelier from Quebec, who gave us an amazing overview of how wine-making in Alsace works, the subtle differences between the grapes at different elevations and the harvests. We ended up leaving with about ten bottles to bring home with us. Another lovely one to visit is Bruno Sorg, a slightly pricier (although still very reasonable) cave in a sixteenth century courtyard in Equisheim, that had a wonderful Gewurtztraminer. Domaine Hueber et Fils, on the Rue de Colmar between Beblenheim and Riquewihr, offered some lovely pinot noir, to the soundtrack of some truly awful house music and a snoring Alsatian dog.

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Villages to visit

The villages are usually only two or three kilometres apart, and it can be  difficult to distinguish between them. Our favourites from the trip were largely the predictable tourist ones like Eguisheim, Kayserberg and Riquewihr. If you are in high season I imagine they are swarmed with other visitors, so quieter villages could be worth exploring. Bergheim is a  medieval walled town near Ribeauville with some interesting looking restaurants (they were all closed when we visited), and a ring of kitchen gardens below the walls. Mittelbergheim seemed more like a hilltop village in Provence, with a long street of peaches and cream coloured house. It also appeared to have the highest concentration of wine producers of any village. Barr had a lovely feel of faded grandeur, although it was a complete ghost town when we visited on a Saturday afternoon, with a single bakery providing the only sign of life while its restaurants and shops remained closed.

Cycling

The Route Des Vins has an accompanying cycle path with good signposting, that goes along smaller roads and lanes off the main route. Most of the villages are mainly at the  base of the foothills, so the cycle routes are quite easy for beginners to manage, with very gentle slopes and a lot of flat stretches. Cycling also means you can actually drink some of the wine you are tasting, without resorting to the inelegant spit bucket discretely placed on the side of the bar. Eguisheim is a completely flat 7km cycle from Colmar, but we also made it as far as Riquewihr, which was a little more challenging at 25 km with a steep final ascent. We rented city bikes from Velodocteurs at Colmar train station for €8 per day.

Things to avoid

Visiting between October-April – We went in March and it very much felt off season. We went through entire towns where every restaurant, cafe and shop was closed, on a Saturday afternoon. While it was evocative to walk through deserted villages, it was also annoying if you wanted to actually see and do anything in particular. The tourist towns like Kayserberg and Ribeauville were still busy but a lot of smaller villages were just completely closed down.While I think it probably gets very busy in summer, there would definitely be more to see and do in April/May or September/October than off season.

Sundays and Mondays – Everything but the most touristy of tourist shops shuts. Restaurants, shops, supermarkets, museums, towns. Everything. The only exception to this is specially designated tourist towns like Eguisheim and Ribeauville.

Obernai – I do not understand how this town is listed in all the guides, it was charmless and filled with tacky souvenir shops, with none of the beauty of places like Riquewihr or Eguisheim.

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Locks, Dublin

imageI’m a creature of habits when it comes to eating in Dublin. While I will happily try new places, there’s still a small list of restaurants I come back to time and time again. If I want a casual catch-up with a friend, it’s probably going to be Fish Shop, or the wine cellar in Fallon & Byrne. For a bit more of an occasion, it will be Etto, The Greenhouse or Forest Avenue. For cheap and cheerful, M&L Szechuan or Bunsen. I think I will now be adding Locks to this select list. I have been twice since the start of the year, and am already trying to figure out when my next visit will be.

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Locks strikes a great balance between serving the kind of cheffy food you couldn’t make yourself at home while having an informal, friendly atmosphere. You can tell it’s a restaurant run by enthusiastic chefs who know the business, namely Keelan Higgs (formerly of The Greenhouse and Chapter One), and Connor O’Dowd (formerly of Chapter One and Dax) together with Paul McNamara (Head Chef at Etto). All of the staff manage to be both genuinely friendly while also being incredibly efficient and they know the menu inside out. It’s a cosy place to spend an afternoon, with great people/swan watching from the canal outside. While I like the spare industrial look a lot of Dublin restaurants have these days, there is a lot to be said for a restaurant with comfy chairs and tables big enough to actually fit the food you order. I really enjoyed the music as well, with a playlist including Bob Dylan, John Martyn and Tom Waits. I’m glad to find a restaurant putting some thought into what kind of atmosphere they want to create through music, instead of lobbing on some miscellaneous mid-90s ambient dance and calling it a day.

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My most recent visit was for a lazy Saturday lunch with my parents to celebrate various things.We started off with three slices of freshly baked seeded rye-style bread presented with a homemade smoked trout butter while we waited for our starters.There was a special starter of beetroot, fennel, lardo and smoked yoghurt that day which came highly recommended it. I disregarded it, completely jaded as most people are at this point by the trope of beetroot starters that most Dublin restaurants offer. That was a mistake. While everything we had was fantastic, this was the standout dish. Chunks of roasted beetroot and mandolin thin slices were draped with cellophane thin sheets of lardo, and matched with large blobs of smoked yoghurt. The yoghurt was rich and creamy and tangy from the smoke, without the slight bitterness that yoghurt often has. I’d tried the excellent crispy pigs head starter on my last visit, so I opted for the salmon tartare with avocado and horseradish together with a glass of prosecco, because I am a South Dublin cliche. While it hit all the right notes, balancing richness with fresh flavours, the beetroot provoked the most serious food envy.

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For my main course, I went for hake with cauliflower, spiced mussels and caper brown butter, with a generous sampling of  my mum’s pick of guinea fowl with parsnip, pickled chanterelle and endive. The fish was melting and tasted like it had been plucked straight from the sea a few minutes before, with just the right amount of brown butter to compliment it without drowning out the delicate flavour. I had a crisp glass of Portuguese Arinto wine to go along with it. We ordered a portion of chips, and purple sprouting broccoli with lardo to round things out. The chips were among the best I’ve ever and despite all being quite full, resulted in the awkward “no, you have the last one” stand-off that is typical of Irish dining experiences. I  finished off with a glass of oloroso sherry and  a rhubarb and custard dessert which was pleasant, in a comforting nursery food way, if not earth shattering. My mum opted for a hefty cheese plate containing large wedges of Knockdrinna and Coolatin with home-made crackers which she kindly shared.

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The prices here for the set lunch and early bird menus are incredibly reasonable. €28 for three courses of this calibre of food at lunch is outrageously good value. Our entire bill, with plenty of wine, extras and coffee, came to €175 for three people. The wine list is extensive, with lots of glasses on offer from €6.50 and bottles starting from €27. As well as that, they offer sherry and some Irish craft beers.  They also serve a decent children’s menu, which is a great idea in a neighbourhood like this. While it’s only March, I think it’s going to be a challenge to find a better meal than this in 2016.
Locks, 1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello, (01) 416 3655

Tuscany Part Two: Chianti and San Gimignano

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Travelling Around Tuscany

One of the many reasons I picked Tuscany for a week long visit, was how easy it was to get around by public transport, at least from the major cities. We managed a week long round trip involving Florence, several Chianti towns, Certaldo, Siena and Lucca, all through buses and trains, and ended up spending around 60 euro on transport the whole week.

On our third day in Florence, following a tip from the Guardian we took a bus from central station for a few euro, and an hour later found ourselves in Panzano, in the heart of the Chianti countryside. The route took us through the most postcard perfect Tuscan landscape (after about 20 minutes going through some dreary Florentine suburbs) and brought us back through Greve, the epicenter of the Tuscan wine and food scene. It was the perfect day trip to allow us to actually get to try some of the wine, and not have to worry about spitting it out, or windy country roads.

Getting from town to town once outside the cities was tougher, and to get from our second base of Certaldo to San Gimignano by public transport would have taken over an hour and a half, involving two connections, despite being only 12km. So instead, we cycled. It was entirely uphill on the way out, and there were tears (mine), blood (mine) and a monstrous amount of sweat (both of us) involved, but now that I can blank out that bit, and the memory of shrieking every time I saw a dead snake on the road, it was one of the highlights of the trip.

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Panzano

Panzano is the tiniest of tiny villages, which can be entirely circumnavigated in about five minutes, which makes the amount of people at Dario Cecchini’s trio of restaurants, the target of our visit, even more impressive. Cecchini is a celebrity butcher (yes, there is such a thing) and a graduate from the Michael O’Leary school of PR. In the BSE crisis in 2001 he held a funeral for the Bistecca di Fiorentina, the region’s signature dish, and his butcher shop still displays its tombstone on the outer wall. He was holding court in the butchers shop when we arrived, to a soundtrack of 80s hair metal, with his staff handing out glasses of red wine and crostini topped with flavoured pork fat.

We made our way upstairs to his packed budget endeavour, Mac Dario (one of three meat themed restaurants he has on site). Getting a burger in Tuscany seems like a weird thing to do, but it’s raved about all over food websites and blogs so that was what we went for. The region around Florence prides itself on its beef, though it’s maybe harder to impress an Irish person on that front than most. €10 buys you sage roasted potatoes, a rosemary breadcrumb coated burger, and homemade mustard and ketchup, all of which were lovely, if not perhaps quite living up to the hype. There was a €20 set menu that looked more interesting, but way beyond our appetite. The budget restaurant is based exclusively outside on a terrace, with a slightly less than scenic view over a car park before the hills appeared in the distance. After ordering and devouring our food, we noticed plenty of more savvy customers ordering bits and pieces from the €20 menu, like plates of steak tartar, and Tuscany tuna (a raw pork dish). If I were to go back, this is definitely what I would do, or go to one of the more upscale restaurants on the site. At the end of the day, a burger is a burger, and Tuscany has a lot more to offer than that.

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Greve

Greve is the base camp for exploring Chianti, a small surprisingly modern town filled with wine shops, centered around the lovely and more authentic looking Piazza Matteoti. After a lap of the town we settled on Antica Macelleria Falorni, which claims to be the oldest butcher shop in Italy, and which is still run by its founding family. This was not the old fashioned wood-panelled butchers that you imagine every Tuscan village has, but rather a modern, well-oiled and very clearly tourist aimed machine. Set over three shop fronts in the square it featured a butchers shop, restaurant, cheese room, and wine tasting machines. To buy food you ordered from the counter and waited with a ticket for your meal, to buy wine you bought credit on a card, which could then be used to fill a glass from the different machines that allow you to try tastes, half or full glasses of local wines. There was an extensive butchers shop with lots of different cuts and pieces of cured meat, vacuum packed and ready to go in your suitcase. We ordered a plate of different local pecorino cheeses, and set about tasting the different wines. This was not what I pictured when I ventured into the countryside, and I’m sure the naked commercialism and tourist driven outlook of the place might put a few people off, but for me it was a lovely place to spend an afternoon sampling wine and local specialties.

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San Gimignano

San Gimignano is the most touristy of the touristy Tuscan hill towns, with crowd pullers such as not one, but two medieval torture museums. That being said, even on a sunny Saturday, after that vicious uphill cycle, it was impressive. It’s not a town for eating on a budget, and every restaurant was pretty crowded, so we wandered around before settling on a pretty average cheese and boar prosciutto sandwich from one of the many delis with a stuffed wild boar outside. A word to the wise, most bread in Tuscany is pretty bad, at least the standard bread that gets left on your table, or used to make most sandwiches. It is dry, sliced country loaf style bread, entirely devoid of salt and much flavour. Cordelia would never have said “I love you as much as meat loves salt” if she had tried this monstrous bread. To make up for this, for dessert, we managed to avoid the massive queue for Dondoli gelato on the Piazza Cisterna, the world champion gelateria for several recent years. There are a wealth of flavours on offer, and te staff move so quickly you don’t get to read them all before deciding, so we ended wildly gesturing at three different types to try. The guy in front of us ordered just vanilla gelato, and I am still disappointed in him two months on. We tried a combination of orange, mascarpone, amaretti biscuits and something else called Michele, and a mixture of marsella wine and nuts (I think, it’s been a while). While I have to go on record as saying it was not as good as Talento Gelato in Arbour Hill, it did make me understand the obsessive love of gelato that tourists in Italy espouse on their return.

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Tuscany Part One: Florence

imageAlthough I visited Florence a fair bit as a child and teenager, when our parents used to load us into the car and drive us from Dublin to Tuscany every few years, this was my first proper adult visit. Sadly, my favourite childhood restaurant, which used to serve a groaning table of antipasti to locals each day has become rubbish and touristy in recent years, but we still found a lot of great places to try.There is nothing new or dramatic in this list, they’re all well known spots. But since Florence is one of the most written about destinations on earth, we were unlikely to hit on a completely undiscovered gem in just three days.

L’Brindellone

When Yotam Ottolenghi instagrams a meal in Florence, and it’s in a dirt cheap trattoria that’s a three minute walk from your apartment, you have to go. Those are the food blogger rules. Although I didn’t see this place in guide books, it features heavily in blogs and reviews.  It’s a proper local place, with local prices and framed Fiorentina jerseys and a photo of Roberto Benigni as the only nods to interior design. The menu is short, with antipasti formed of a combination of crostini, cured meats and coccoli (deep fried pizza dough balls), three or four pastas, meat dishes, and grilled dishes. We were presented with a litre of the house Chianti when we sat down, in lieu of a wine list. That’s how I discovered red wine still gives me migraines, but no regrets. We started off with a plate of liver crostini, parma ham, coccoli and stracchino cheese, all utterly tasty. I followed with a truffle taglierini and fried zuccini flowers, while himself had a stewed beef dish and beans in a tomato sauce. My pasta was rich and delicate at the same time, the zucchini flowers perfectly crisp and not too heavily battered, but the beans were definitely the highlight. I have no clue how they got such depth of flavour into the sauce, but I suspect it involves copious amounts of pork fat. Every one around us was having the Florentine T-Bone steak, which didn’t appeal to me personally, but did look rather wonderful. The entire meal, which was definitely the culinary highlight of the trip, came to €50 in total, including wine, for the two of us. You need to book ahead by phone. We did it a week in advance, and amazed our hostess who had never had this success. That said, they serve quite late and we definitely saw people come in from the street around 9.30-10 and be seated right away.

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Signorvino

A little googling tells me this is a chain in Italy, as I could have surmised from the on-trend industrial decor and hipster waiter outfits. That said, it is a chain which allows you to sit on a balcony with the best view of the Ponte Vecchio, Uffizi and Medici corridor, and sip organic prosecco and munch on fat green olives for around €5. They don’t mark up the off-licence price of the wine (you can also buy it to go), which is pretty extraordinary in this location, in a city like Florence.

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Mercato Centrale and Casa Del Vino

The Mercato Centrale consists of two parts, the traditional downstairs where you can buy groceries, along with tripe sandwiches (we didn’t brave them), wine, coffee and a few different small restaurants which closes at 2pm, and the upstairs which hosts a relatively new food court serving different meals until 10pm. We loved wandering around the downstairs, picking up bites of foccacia and cannoli to nibble on, before buying ridiculously cheap dried porcini mushrooms to bring home, and marvelling at the many different types of offal on display in the butchers. The upstairs left me a little cold. There was lots on offer, but it all seemed about 20% more expensive than anywhere else, and conspicuously aimed at tourists.

imageSo instead of the food court, we wandered a few doors down the street, to Casa Del Vino, which felt more like the real thing. A wine bar that opens at 9:30am and closes at 3:30pm, this was crowded with actual Italians, from older men sharing bottles of wine around and having the chat, to business people in suits grabbing a sandwich and a quick glass. There is no formal menu inside (the one outside didn’t seem to reflect anything people were eating), but they have a good selection of wine, and you can order a sandwich made up on the spot from ingredients on the counter for a few euro, which everyone in there had in their hands as they drank. Pecorino and salsa verde laden with anchovy and garlic seemed to be a favourite. Two glasses of very good wine, and two sandwiches came to €15. As were about to leave, one of the older locals had to reach over our heads to pluck a bottle of the shelf to buy and share around, and gave us a glass as an apology. He was the terrifying image of Phil Leotardo from the Sopranos, and remonstrated with me for drinking white wine. He also may have said something pretty racist, but I’m hoping we just misheard it in all the noise.

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Le Volpi e L’Uve

This was a great little wine bar two minutes walk from the Ponte Vecchio in the Oltrano, with a small but delicious menu of crostini and other bites, and a very reasonably priced wine list (most glasses were €4). Best of all, it had an attentive and knowledgeable waitress, who kept an eye on tables, and made sure people who were standing longest got first dibs when one became free. It has a small area inside, and a bigger terrace outside on a quiet square, next to an empty restaurant which showed a livefeed of its very bored chef playing on his smartphone for about an hour. We ordered a plate of crostini with N’duja and pecorino, and were guided away from our wine choices by the waitress,who led us away from more expensive options when they didn’t suit the food, and tipped us off on some unusual regional wines, all of which I have now forgotten. Unusually and a little bit blasphemously for Florence, they also serve French wine.image

Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina

So, wine bars in Florence all close at ridiculously early hours (usually between about 4pm and 9pm), with this enoteca being the one exception. They have a little deck looking out over the Pitti Palace, which is not the most beautiful building, but still a pretty dramatic backdrop for a glass. I know very little about wine, but himself was in awe of the list, which included multiple Brunellos, as well as a number of different vintage Chiantis from the 70s and 80s for around the €10 per glass mark. Glasses of regular pleb wine for people who don’t really understand it started at around €6. If they don’t bring the bottle out to show you, you’re one of those people. Welcome to the club.

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Osteria Santo Spirito

It seems to me in Italian cities, there is always just one square where everyone drinks until the early hours each night, and nowhere else. In Venice, it’s Campo Santa Margherita, and in Florence it’s Santo Spirito. A tall, elegant and slightly shabby tree filled square in the Oltrarno, it’s lined with bars, none of which are spectacular. Each night we passed through it was overrun with gangs of people bringing their own wine and beer (there is a late night shop around the corner on Via Sant’Agostino), sitting on every conceivable surface and having the banter. In the corner, we had dinner at Osteria Santo Spirito, which serves huge portions of tasty pasta dishes for €10 (as well as all the usual second courses, antipasti etc). The highight was the gratin of gnocchi with truffle oil, which had more cream and cheese then a human should consume in a life time. It will haunt my dreams for some time to come. The fact that someone has written an entire Intelligent Life article in praise of the dish shows I’m clearly not the only one.image

 I Due Fratellini

A standard in every guide book, I have very little to say about it but that I agree with what everyone says, it’s great food at a great price. They serve €3 sandwiches and tiny glasses of €1 wine from a hole in the wall near the Piazza della Signoria, and everyone stands on the street wolfing both down. I had goats cheese with fennel salami, and highly recommend it.image