Donostia, the Basque word for San Sebastián and a place that we have dreamed of going for the past five years. If the food at this Marylebone restaurant is anything to go by, we were completely validated in our dreaming and are now completely bereft at having never actually gone.
Still, we’ve found the little piece of San Sebastián that lives in London and I sincerely hope it will become one of our regular London haunts. We first read about Donostia in my Olive magazine and after some research we found a review from Marina O’Loughlin, who writes for the Guardian as well as Olive, where she calls San Sebastián “the foodie equivalent of sex tourism – a place to indulge unjudged.” Sounds like heaven.
On a rainy Saturday evening, we decided to go for a pinxto or two ahead of the birthday party we were in the city for. Arriving relatively early for dinner, around 6:30pm, we had our choice of seating. Whenever possible, we sit at the bar. This has to do with the fact that we often like to order tapas-style – i.e. one or two dishes at a time shared between us – even when not in a tapas restaurant. We’ve found that generally the restaurants we’ve been to are pretty accommodating and the trend for small plates is definitely aiding us in our mission to try as much as possible – and for one of us never to have more of a good thing than the other, obviously.
The inside of the restaurant is modern and minimal, with bar seats overlooking a small kitchen work area where, at least while we were there, several waiters and sous chefs were lingering waiting for the big rush. So even though the restaurant was almost empty when we arrived, there was still atmosphere and bustling about and by the time we left – about two hours later – all the tables upstairs were full and the room was alive with chatter and the clinking of cutlery.
We started with a couple of fish dishes to ease us into our evening – Olagarroa: Octopus in Basque marinade and a mussel special, for which I sadly can’t remember the Spanish. The mussels were cooked in the shell on a griddle pan and, as far as I could see − they were cooked right in front of us – very little, if any, liquid was used besides olive oil. It was a technique I hadn’t seen used before and the mussels were the softest, most melt-in-the-mouth tender little chunks of loveliness that I have ever had. I didn’t even know mussels could be that tender. They literally didn’t need to be chewed. The olive oil left in the bowl after the mussels had been hastily devoured was begging not to be wasted and, luckily, they had supplied some lovely soft bread when we got there which provided just the vehicle.
The octopus was served cold in thin-ish slices with a mixture of peppers and olive oil on the top, which must be the Basque marinade. Although we were a bit hesitant about it being cold, it was delicious and the octopus was cooked to tender perfection. With a cold glass of Agerre Txakoli 2011 – poured from a height which was both theatrical and practical! – this was almost enough to make the London mist lift.
After a few minutes of puppy eyes, I was allowed to order the foie gras with walnuts and PX vinegar. The foie gras was cooked beautifully and was just the right size. The Pedro Ximenez sherry vinegar was out of this world. It tasted like really intense raisins, in the best possible way, and it offset the richness of the foie gras while still complementing its delicate flavor. With a bit of crunch from some well placed walnuts and crisp yet soft bread, it was my idea of heaven. That is, until the next dish came along.
Pluma is described on the menu as “Succulent Ibérico pork shoulder with Romesco sauce”, but it is so much more than that. For those who don’t know, Ibérico pigs roam the oak groves of south western Spain and south eastern Portugal eating mostly roots and acorns giving them a distinct flavor. The waiter told us that the animal the meat for this dish came from would be a three or four-year-old sow who would have had a leisurely life roaming around eating acorns and, boy, could you tell. Most pork shoulder needs to be roasted or braised low and slow until the connective tissue dissolves and the meat tenderizes. This was cooked for six to seven minutes, was blushing in the middle and was as soft as butter. The romesco sauce was delicious and the chunks of almonds were still distinct enough to add texture to the dish. The price tag may be a bit high for this one, but it was oh so worth it.
Last − and definitely last because by this point we were on the verge of exploding − was pil-pil: cod cheeks in the legendary Basque sauce. Buttery, rich and soft enough to be cut with a spoon. In fact, you could eat this even if you had no teeth. The sauce was uber buttery with a great depth of flavor. Having never had cod cheeks before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect texture-wise. Marina O’Loughlin mentioned that the ones at Donostia weren’t as “gelatinous” as they can be, and thank goodness. They were on the edge for me. The sauce was thick and rich − and delicious, I can’t fault the flavor one iota − but the combination of the sauce and fish was almost a bit on the slimy side. Don’t get me wrong, we ate them all. I’ll just say, they probably weren’t the best choice after two hours of eating and drinking.
We loved our evening at Donostia. Everything was delicious, the staff were friendly and knowledgeable and the stools were comfortable − even after two hours. The portion sizes are good for nibbling while you drink, how they were meant to be enjoyed, but the bill can quickly get out of hand if you’re trying to make them into a full meal. Next time, and there will be a next time, I definitely want to try the Basque cider and there will definitely be more Ibérico pork!
Top two photos from pjpink via Flickr