Chicken of the Corn

What do your chickens eat before you eat them?
Dead Cock (1650) by Gabriël Metsu, a weirdly gorgeous painting of a dead rooster hanging by one leg from a cord
Dead Cock (1650) by Gabriël Metsu, public domain

For decades I’d been hearing that San Sebastián has the best food in Spain, or maybe Europe, or maybe the world. So when I headed there in November to do some research for a book I’m co-authoring with chef Ryan Bartlow—though I’m well aware of the subjective limitations of such rhapsodies—I still believed my boyfriend and I were en route to something extraordinary.

Ryan is a Chicago native who makes Basque food in New York; he gave me an absurdly long list of places to try, and I made a bunch of reservations, plus leaving us time to forage in all his recommended pintxo bars. I hadn’t realized that mid-November to mid-December is considered “holiday break” in Basque country, and a whole lot of places were closed, including the restaurants Arzak and Elkano, and the pintxo bars Ganbara, Txepetxa, and Borda Berri.

dark, richly caramelized slices of red pepper on a pale grey oval stoneware plate, with other luscious tidbits and wineglasses in the background
carmelized piquillo peppers at Narru

Still, we found much to love: deeply caramelized piquillo peppers at Narru, meaty Cantabrian anchovies and tiny grilled clams at Kaia-Kaipe, and a full dinner at Bar Néstor: jamón Ibérico, potato tortilla, flash-fried Gernika peppers, and tomato salad, all of it redolent of Spanish olive oil, all of it eaten standing up in a room heavy with ambient smoke and beef fat. On either side of us at the bar, happy guests faced off against gigantic, richly fat-marbled txuletas: brawny, well-aged steaks, showered with coarse salt and seared to a voluptuous rareness.

It’s a paywall, but a small one

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