San Sebastian

Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

We arrive early at Bar Nestor, two hours early at 11am, and yet we’re not the first in mass (this being Spain there is no such thing as a queue). That particular honour belongs to the silver haired German lady with whom we communicate via Google translate, and a newlywed Canadian couple for who such technology is not required. We are all here for one reason only; to secure one of the fabled sixteen slices of tortilla that Nestor cooks at 1pm, and then again at 6pm. We are soon joined by an elderly Spanish man, then, around 11.30am, the shutters rise to waist height and we follow the others in scooping underneath and into the bar. It looks, unsurprisingly, just like the photos I’ve seen; mahogany and small, with a bar running down the right side. To the left is a singular table and a couple of stools, whilst every panelled wall has sports memorabilia personally signed to this tiny spot in the old town. Nestor himself is late fifties, his black hair now worn only around the perimeters of his head, and the capillaries on his nose those of a man who enjoys a glass of wine or five. He has warm eyes and a mouth that speaks only the necessities. He looks straight to me, asking how many of the tortilla I want and my name. I request two, an order that will become so common he eventually knows my name without asking. He tells us to be back at 1pm sharp. We do as we are told.

The cutting of that tortilla is something that I will remember almost as long as the taste of it. Sixteen uneven blocks, served with a solitary piece of baguette, and then passed to those who gave there morning to its making. It is still warm, dribbling egg yolk out via its sides on to the plate. In my experience very few dishes in life live up to the hype. This does. Maybe its the terroir, or the anticipation, but this is one of the very best things I have ever eaten, a shock even to me given that this is essentially made up of just eggs, potato, and onion. It is luscious and decadent, comforting and humble. We would be back many times for this, lunch and at dinner. On the last evening, when I ask Nestor what the secret is, he smiles and puts his hand over his heart. Others have said that it is the gently caramelised onion which sets it apart. I like to think there is more truth in the explanation of the old man.

They do other stuff here too. Well, three dishes precisely. Padron peppers are blistered and salty, whilst tomatoes are dressed simply in peppery olive oil, a good amount of salt, and the tiniest lick of vinegar. The latter is another dish that we would return to on other occasions, elbows resting on the bar with a glass of txakoli. They are stunning; firmly fleshed with tinges of green across the flesh, the simple accompaniment there only to enhance their flavour and then be mopped up with more of that baguette.

And then there is the steak from an eleven year old dairy cow. They don’t have many of these but ask and they will parade two raw sharing sized pieces for you to choose from. They take about an hour to arrive, my guess being a rough split of cooking and resting time, with the team making room for you at the bar to eat this. It comes smothered in salt, with ribbons of fat the colour of butter. The meat is rare, with the chew of a working beast that results in the deepest of bovine flavours. This is not for those who order a fillet on account of little jaw work, though it is essential steak eating for anyone with a remote interest in beef. The final jewels lay flat against the bone, the strips of these requiring a steady hand and sharp knife to prise away. It will ruin every steak you eat after this but it is worth it.

A similar piece of dairy cattle in a London restaurant will cost around £90, which, once service is included, will buy you two full meals at Bar Nestor. The steak above was 32 euros, the tortilla 2 euros each and the local wine less than that for a glass. It’s easy to see why Bar Nestor has garnered the mythical reputation that it has; whilst the rest of San Sebastian are exploring the culinary boundaries of pinxtos, they stick to the simple things here: the pick of the best local ingredients cooked simply with love. And whilst I am not saying that Bar Nestor is reason enough to book that flight to Bilbao and board the coach to San Sebastian, it absolutely should be a priority once you get here. You should start 11am sharp by getting in place for that tortilla.

9/10

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