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Tasty Spain

San Sebastian a food lover's paradise

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San Sebastian could very well be the most food-obsessed city in the world.

Population 180,000, the little seaside jewel in Spain has 15 notches on its belt -- that is 15 Michelin stars.

Compare that to London, which has a total of 34 stars but about 40 times the population and a gazillion times the visitors. In San Sebastian, men aren't sports fanatics. Their idea of a sporting good time is to cook. They form cooking clubs (women not welcome), called Le Sociedades Gastronomicas in Basque areas.

"That city is a revered destination for food enthusiasts eager to eat delicately constructed, technologically complex dishes that challenge every notion of what food could be," the New York Times reported last year.

It's said you can't get a bad meal anywhere in San Sebastian because standards are high and the locals won't abide a bad meal. I went on a few tapas crawls while visiting the city recently, joining the throngs pouring through the old town in a nightly tradition.

Tapas bars (pintxos in the Basque language) might be the Spaniard's fast-food joints, but you won't find processed, industrialized anything at these places. It's all real food and conviviality.

Jefferson Alvarez, the chef at Fraiche restaurant in West Vancouver, is so smitten with San Sebastian that for the past five years he's spent his vacations cooking (without pay) at Mugaritz, a two-Michelin star restaurant.

The restaurant is part of the Spanish food revolution started by Ferran Adria, who transformed restaurant cooking at his El Bulli restaurant, which he decided to close this summer to focus on other projects. El Bulli threw all the rules out the window and instilled that notion not only in Spain but internationally.

Mugaritz chef Adoni Aduriz, a disciple of Adria, is so obsessed with perfection, he went to Spain's leading liver research hospital over a couple of years to fully grasp the science of livers. Why? To utterly nail his foie gras cookery.

Mugaritz has been rated third in San Pellegrino's World's 50 Best Restaurant list and Alvarez doesn't even bother to travel outside the city because everything he loves about food is there.

Pride, Alvarez says, drives the food in San Sebastian. "You can see it when you go to the market -- and everybody does. People want to sell you the best of the best. They won't sell you anything that's not 1,000 per cent."

If you want to really see what matters and what's valued, you follow the money. In San Sebastian, as in other parts of Spain, the economy has hit the ditch, but no one's giving up the pleasures of the table.

"The economy was one of the worst in the world, still every restaurant is full," Alvarez says. "Restaurants are making money. Every day, people go out. When you see the amount of food that comes out of every little restaurant, it's insane. People eat a lot there and it's not that expensive. It's all local and all handmade."

Even at Mugaritz, where the food is painstakingly created, staff take three hours off, from 2 to 5 p.m. for lunch. Lunches are multi-coursed, Alvarez says, and everybody goes "tapas jumping" in the evening.

Drink a little, eat a little, catch up with friends at a bar, then move to another, hang out on the street for a bit, hit another bar. That's the drill. (Tapas means "lid" or "top" and at one time, ham or cheese or bread placed atop the wine or sherry kept out dust and flies.)

Relatively quiet during the day, San Sebastian's old quarter explodes with life at night and rivers of people flow through the old section of the city.

A Quebec native, running a maple syrup crepe shop in the midst of tapas frenzy, corrected our modus operandi. We had avoided some places without food displayed on the counter. No, he said, a foodless counter is a good sign. It means they make it fresh and it hasn't been sitting. Duh!

We dashed across the street to a place called Borda Berri with its counter, bare of food. The chef was one of the first to get really creative with his dishes. I asked the server to bring us their four best dishes, so much easier than speaking like Spanish toddlers and in sign language. The dishes were all delicious, especially a braised oxtail dish. I found I was pretty good at boring my way through a sea of humanity to the counter, too.

We learned to pay our tab right away rather than recite what we'd eaten in idiotic Spanish afterwards (as if we could have named them!). The honour system really ought not work in such chaos, but it does.

As the evening progresses, a Vancouverite like me expects mass inebriation and brawls to break out, given the hours of drinking and eating. There's gaiety in the bars and on the street but that's about it. I've seen way more public intoxication in polite Tokyo. The Spaniards abhor public drunkenness. What better to way to keep civility than taking some food with the drink!

El Bulli closed its doors this year but its legacy has been as profound as Picasso and Antoni. In Barcelona, El Bulli disciples are everywhere. Chef Carles Abellan is one of them and I went to two of his restaurants.

At his Tapac24, you sit at a bar and order, so much more calm than standing and shouting. Then we upped our budget and went to the one-Michelin star Comerc 24, his high-end restaurant, and dropped $280 for lunch. The food came out, tapas style, the service was rather stuffy (really? salad tongs to pick up and change my napkin when I went to the washroom?), there were unexpected costs (the bread and olive oil, to our dismay, was $22 on the bill) but the food was haute. It wasn't as avant garde or El Bulli-ish as I'd anticipated.

At another popular spot, Cal Pep, we avoided the mosh-pit scene, too. It's first-come, first-served for the first arrivals. Those who don't get seats stood in a tidy line along the wall behind us, quietly salivating as we ate dish after dish. With our backs to them, we were spared their accusative eyes wishing us to speed it up.

The mosh-pit scene was lively and fun, but I have to say I was partial to the snooty, party-pooper, sit-down style of tapas.

As for the San Sebastian reputation for never serving bad food? Sorry to be the spoiler, but we did have a bad meal when three (!) tapas bars we'd intended to try were closed one evening. Unlike Spaniards, by 9:30 we were barking mad, drooling dogs of hunger and lunged into the nearest tapas bar.

Did we beat the odds and hit the only greasy-spoon tapas bar in town? It was bad.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2012 D5

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