Hits and misses: Basque
David Burton visits a little bit of Spain in a new Courtenay Place eatery.
8 Courtenay Place Phone: 802 5585
Open: Wednesday to Friday, noon till late; Saturday to Tuesday, 3pm till late
Price range of mains: $24-$32
Cost: $106 for two (excluding wine)
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY Baked Almond Flan with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
This Spanish version of creme caramel is much more deeply caramelised than usual, and among the best I've yet tasted.
What foodie wouldn't want to bask awhile among the Basques?
Whereas half of Wellington spends the lunch hour out jogging or cycling, during the siesta in San Sebastian you will most likely have to squeeze in sideways to enter the jam- packed little tapas bars of the Old Quarter, there to drink the tart, fruity local white (txakoli) while gobbling a gourmet tapa, known in the impenetrable Basque language as a pintxo ("pincho").
Such bars form the model for Basque, which recently took over from Zico in Courtenay Place.
Chromium panels of repro Edwardian-style pressed tin form the cladding for the indoor-outdoor bar, which also serves their handy smoker's porch out front, beneath a beautifully tiled frontage.
A trawl of the second-hand market has up-cycled a handsome, relatively unfaded print of Picasso's Guernica - appropriate, given that the gratuitously bombed and wrecked town of Guernika was Basque.
Unfortunately, there's also the obligatory retro kitsch: an awkwardly rendered bas relief of a charging bull from the sixties or seventies (hideous then, hideous still) and another of a sailing ship, also in such bad taste as to be an ironic joke. That may well be their point, but once you've done your tittering, you still have to dine alongside the lumpen things.
For most of our first hour beside the wounded bull, we sat twiddling our thumbs, initially engaged happily in family conversation over glasses of cava and tempranillo and some gratis olives. But once 50 minutes was up, I became concerned.
I'd been hoping that with us having ordered seven hot entree-sized "Raciones", both the kitchen and the front of house would realise it was best for everyone if these were brought out in succession, Ombra style, as each dish became ready. This gives the chefs time to cook and customers an opportunity to linger and savour.
But alas, just as I feared, on the hour our dear, gentle waiter appeared with all seven dishes: all were hot and steaming - and all were placed on the table at once.
Before two had been given full justice, the rest would have turned stone cold. Thus, I had to race around the table tasting each of the seven dishes before they cooled - a hasty gastronomic Tour de France that could easily have been avoided.
The best to be said about all seven dishes is that while not deeply inspiring, they were at least correct: patatas bravas was crisp at the edges, little steamed cockles were OK, a vegetable paella was competent (if ungenerously tiny for $24) and the squid had been correctly cross-hatched, sauteed and scrolled - albeit under-seasoned with the promised paprika.
I wish I'd inquired about the octopus, as the dish comprised half a dozen of the dreaded octopus foetuses. Thankfully, simple sauteeing had managed to coax a little flavour out of this normally bland baby octopus, a common fisheries by-catch.
White-wine-battered blue warehou bites were eagerly devoured until a bad egg was struck - a fishy, malodorous chunk which might have been left over from an earlier batch.
I found the churros much as I remembered from Spain, but my daughter, who cooked churros every evening for three months at El Matador, insisted they weren't light enough.
The entire menu and fit-out of this restaurant bar, she further ventured to suggest, pay homage to her former employer.
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