Do you ever just have that feeling where you are like, 'I need a break from all these pintxos, and honestly, I just want some emulsified fish fat and a value bottle of Rioja' ?
Oh, that's not normal? Oops.
Well, if that feeling should ever strike you, then Juanito Kojua is a great place to head. This is an Old Town classic in San Sebastián, the kind of place that always comes up in discussions about where to sit down and dine in the old part. From the decor of the dining room, the kind of stuff hipster garage sale dreams are made of, to the honest, parsley-driven sauces on each dish, this place is authentic. I give you example A, our off-the-menu and off-the-chain dish of hongos.
I had never been to Juanito Kojua, a gaping hole in my culinary knowledge of San Sebastián, until my brother (look for his upcoming memoir, How To Live in a Van) came for a visit. We were wandering the streets of the Old Part, during this unseasonably warm fall, looking for a dinner place.
On a Tuesday. And unless you are a drrrty rapper with a BFF named Drake, nothing much gets cooked on a Tuesday. We were stuck between Juanito and Gandarias, another standard, albeit one I knew too well. Juanito it was.
The beauty of this place is, essentially, that it follows the rules. I love light, molecular, or Frenchified touches as much as the next person. Give me a well-made vinaigrette with thyme and shallots, give me foam, give me spices. But if you are in town to find out how the real game of Basque cuisine is played, the name of the game is Juanito.
The cook at the helm, Juan Iturralde, is an examplary Donostiarra who took over the restaurant in the 1950s and made it a lunch spot focusing on fresh, seasonal produce and honest cooking. And, may I point out perhaps the most glaringly real fact here? You don't stay open for 70 years in San Sebastián, through winters and summers, if locals don't frequent your restaurant.
We ordered the cogote de merluza, or fish head, and it was incredibly moist and perfect, served in its sofrito of garlic. Our waitress dutifully reminded us, eyeing her two foreign diners with suspicion, that this was a HEAD of a FISH. Yep, we know, bring it on.
We finished the meal of with some lamb chops, checking the box off for a spot that I had heard so much about. You pay for quality, and the best way to go is with some idea of what the specialties are. In this case, I would keep my eye out for anything off-the-menu, as well as the kokotxas and the cogote. At which point, I would sit back and revel in the sheer Basque-ness.
la espiga:::la delicia (anchovies, hard-boiled egg, mayo, parsley-onion-garlic vinaigrette)
San Martzial Kalea, 48::Donostia-San Sebastián
This is not just any pintxo. This is a classic among locals of Donosti, and all the more interesting because its fame is in no way expressed on any menu or any blog. Except the yearlong exploration of Spain's best food cities, 365, by the same kind friends who took me to try it for the first time.
My life is a mess, and sometimes beautiful things come out of it.
One of my favorite 'initiatives' that I've been involved with in San Sebastián has been The International Society for the Preservation and Enjoyment of Vermut. Why? Because it was born out of real passion, a passion for a sweet, bitter, forgotten beverage. Because I started it with one of my best friends in my home away from home. Because it brings happiness to a ton of people, and in a different spot with different vibes and surprises every month.
It's a vermuteke, and behind-the-scenes, it is a lot of work. Coordinating with some incredible artisans, from the Rioja to Cataluña to Galicia, crafting looks and coming up with never-done-before ideas, and all to celebrate something that I just really like. We shop, we prep, we promote, and we sweat, all up to the last moment when we slip on our slightly coordinated dresses and put on our hostess faces.
That is absolutely the moment when a sip of vermouth tastes best.
Here is a video of September's vermuteke...I hope it inspires you to attend, or at the very least, to pour a vermouth.
The classy poster I drew up:
bar narrika:::patatas bravas (fried potatoes with spicy sauce )
Calle de Narrica, 16 ::Donostia-San Sebastián
I have friends who swear that these are the second-best patatas in town (after this spot). And they are pretty dang good, for those times when you can't be bothered to displace yourself from the old part.
Wow, my English is getting pretty special. Displace yourself. Wow.