Restaurant review: Bodegón Alejandro

After getting through a frantic week of opera rehearsals and performances in Burgos (blog post coming soon), I rewarded myself with a trip to San Sebastian. This resort city on the northern coast of Spain is famous not only for its beautiful beaches but also for its excellent food at all levels, from pintxos (Basque tapas) to Michelin-starred restaurants. I splurged last night by getting the tasting menu at Bodegón Alejandro, a place I’d seen recommended in both the Michelin guide and the New York Times when I was planning this trip. It was definitely worth it.

The restaurant lies underground, down an unobtrusive staircase on a busy street of San Sebastian’s Old Town. It doesn’t look like much, with bare wood tables, plain decor, and a rather kitschy city view mural on the wall. But any doubts about my restaurant choice disappeared with the amuse-bouche—a shot of cold asparagus soup with paper-thin slices of crispy bread. The salty creaminess of the soup went perfectly with the crunchy, fire-blackened toast.

The first course of the tasting was also a definite hit. For this odd take on lasagna, cold marinated anchovies formed the pasta and vegetable ratatouille served as the filling. I love anchovies, and these were the freshest and tastiest I’ve had. The wine for the course, an organic local Txakoli Bengoetxe, was a new variety to me. It was smooth with a little tang, reminiscent of my favorite white (Greco di Tufo) and a good match for the dish.

Not all of the wine pairings were as successful. The Aliaga Doscarlos of the second course was tasty on its own, but it couldn’t stand up to the bacon in the dish. The dish itself—egg with bacon and an Emmental broth—was hardly an original or daring flavor combination but was also as delicious as it sounds. The bacon was thin-cut and cooked to optimal crispiness, and the broth was delightfully salty and cheesy.

Fish is a centerpiece of Basque cuisine, so I was most disappointed in the third course, grilled hake with citrus vinagrette. The vinagrette was so strong it completely overwhelmed the flavors of the fish, which should have been the star. The fish also contained some surprise stray bones, which are unpleasant to find in a dish that tastes like orange soup. I’d drunk so much white wine at this point that I was starting to lose my taste for it, but I remember this going with a top-quality Sauvigon Blanc that had too much harshness for such a delicate fish (or for citrus soup).

(A further note on the wines: I arrived for dinner pretty early, so the waitress had to open new bottles for me. While all were good, I really should have been offered the cork and a splash to test each time before she poured my glass.)

I’m usually a pescatarian out of a distaste for meat, so it means a lot when I say that the meat course was flawless. Small pieces of steak were cooked until they were still tender enough to cut with a dinner knife but didn’t look unappetizingly bloody. Paired with strongly flavorful garlic cream and chip-like potato souffle, this was the best possible take on meat and potatoes. The restaurant’s private-label Rioja from Ysios was a superb match, strong and complex but still easily drinkable.

Of course, the best part of every meal is dessert. The first dessert course, caramelised French toast with cheese ice cream, melted in my mouth. The ice cream was too cold—it contrasted too much with the warm toast, and it was actually hard to taste that it was cheese-flavored rather than just vanilla. But caramelized French toast is a brilliant invention that balances sweet and savory and crispy and soft. This is worth attempting to replicate at home. The homemade orange wine that joined this course mostly just tasted like orange juice, so it rounded out the breakfast-like dessert nicely.

Next up: strawberries with mascarpone cream, licquorice biscuit crumbs, and a lemon-and-thyme ice cream. Everything else was fabulous, but the strawberries themselves disappointed, having the slightly flat flavor that indicates they weren’t at peak ripeness. But the restaurant made up for it with the post-dessert dessert, a collection of tiny biscuits—soft sugar cookies, crumbly chocolate buttons, and merengue-like caramel poofs. Eaten together, they reminded me of a (fresher and more texturally interesting) candy bar. Their presentation in little drawers carved out of a log was also whimsical and fun.

I left pleasantly full but not bursting and pleasantly tipsy but not (too) drunk. Despite a few missed notes and a lack of unexpected flavor combinations, I was very satisfied with this excellent sampling of (modern takes on) Basque cuisine and regional wines.

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