San Sebastian, or Donostia to use the Basque name, is the best place on earth to dine. The backstreets are lined with pintxo bars, and a traditional bar crawl here stretches dinner across as many restaurants you can manage. It makes dining into an event, and with food so affordable it is one the locals seem to do every evening. It took less than a day in San Sebastian for me to start questioning whether life in the rat race in London is really worth it. Grafting your balls off for an Itsu or Pret to take home with you at the end of the day. In just three days I tried fifteen different restaurants and around fifty different dishes, not one of them hurting the pocket. It was such an inspiring gorge that it made me consider packing it all in and either moving there or opening up a restaurant of my own. The owners of Donostia in London had this same sentiment and took the leap and opened up their very own place. Housed on Seymour Place, which with Vinoteca, The Lockhart and the recent addition of Lurra (by the same owners) is as close as you can get to one of those San Sebastian foodie backstreets. Try a food crawl here though and you’ll soon be broke.
Donostia has a clean white decor with light wood which would verge on being cold if were not for the open kitchen that you can overlook whilst dining. It’s a more sophisticated restaurant than Barrafina which shares a similar layout, and attracts a less lively crowd, which no doubt is mainly down to it’s location wedged between Marleybone and Marble Arch, which lacks the natural buzz of Soho. This being London, prices sadly aren’t only a couple of quid a dish, and instead quickly move into double figures, something that’s always difficult to swallow no matter how good the tapas is. The menu is simple, with emphasis put on the ingredients, but it could have been more padded out on the meat and fish section.
Padron peppers (£4.90), pan con tomate (£3.60) and a plate of good Iberico ham (£19.80) were all safe crowd pleasers with high quality of ingredients, although the meagre portions (there were only 7 peppers!) left you wanting more.
Octopus in a Basque marinade ate like more of a bar snack than a dish on its own, but again was faultless in its simple execution and presentation.
A single courgette flower stuffed with goat’s cheese and a drizzle of honey left you wanting a full bouquet of the things to munch through. A classic tortilla was served cold and was a needed bit of stodge, although I do prefer when they are served piping hot with a gooey centre.
Iberico pork shoulder with romesco sauce (£14.20) was served pink and was an example of the confidence the chefs here have in letting the ingredients do all of the talking. Anything else added to this dish would have lessened its success. Still hungry we ordered a lovely dish of monkfish with black rice (£13.20) that left the teeth looking like you’d been guzzling oil.
There was no real fault in the food, and each dish was executed as it should be with minimum fuss. Although at over £50 a head is expensive, that’s now common ground for Spanish cooking in London. What perhaps tainted my experience was that I went expecting, or rather hoping, for the same experience as I had in San Sebastian. There were certain nods to the Basque spirit, such as the goblets of gin and tonic, but overall it lacked the warmth and buzz that I associate with great Spanish restaurants.
(Below are photos of food in San Sebastian)