San Sebastián is a beautiful city in its own right and perfect as a holiday destination. For the gastronome, a trip to San Sebastián is considered a necessary Hajj. The obligatory pintxos crawl around the old town’s fabled grid-like streets, a visit to the Bretxa market, and a meal in at least one of its many high-end restaurants all have to be ticked off the foodie bucket list.
Kokotxa falls into the latter category of restaurant and is located on the periphery of the main pintxos district. It has been around for 15 years or so – Michelin starred for about 8 – but mercifully it doesn’t have any of the fussiness so often be associated with its brethren. It is laid-back, minimalist and carpet-free. Tablecloths are the only nod to formality.
they have mastered an efficient and friendly front of house experience
This is the domain of Dani López – a chef whose mantelpiece is creaking with awards – and maître d’ Estela Velasco. Together they have mastered an efficient and friendly front of house experience, with food based on Basque tradition that is contemporary and exciting.
Within seconds of sitting down at my table I was sipping on a glass of Cava (don’t judge me – the staff didn’t either). As I cantered through the wine list I was struck by its reasonableness.
And then began the lunchtime extravaganza, starting rather gingerly with pea mousse and salmon. There was nothing particularly remarkable about this amuse bouche but it was delicious nonetheless.
This was then replaced by a “mushroom omelette.” Something was possibly lost in translation here as this was more of a mousse, but it was incredibly light, anchored by the essence of mushroom with the surprise of a confit egg yolk in the middle. A voluptuous dish with heady, luxurious flavours. I marvelled at the technique.
Next up, squid served in its own ink. Squid served this way doesn’t normally make me go weak at the knees – the impenetrably black jus reminds me of a dilated pupil, a toner cartridge or a xenomorph – but this dish was very delicately cooked and attractively presented. It’s the sign of a good chef when they challenge your preconceptions and make you like a dish you think you will hate.
We then moved onto the restaurant’s namesake, “kokotxa” – this is the fleshy underpart of a cod’s jaw and a local delicacy. Eating an unfamiliar body part may be an unattractive concept for some but this had a pleasing flavour and textural sensation, served in a parsley broth and pil-pil sauce which gave it a little heat and garlicky edge.
This was followed by a beautifully cooked piece of hake with oyster mushroom and spring onion. There was an interesting move towards Asian fusion here and I loved every bit of it. The flavours danced in my mouth.
the black jus reminds me of a dilated pupil, a toner cartridge or a xenomorph
By the fourth (or fifth?) course, Lopez’s love affair with mushrooms was becoming both clear and a little tiresome. This time the fungi accompanied a meat dish (the first of the meal so far): a small cuboid of ox, cooked medium rare and coated in charcoal. It was a little on the chewy side and, I daresay, the one low point of the meal.
A pre-dessert of lychee foam with pink grapefruit marinated in Campari made the perfect segue into the sweet stage, foreshadowing the sugary hit that was about to come whilst retaining some of that characteristic bitterness. And who doesn’t want Campari in a dessert? This was an inspired little dish.
Finally, the dessert proper arrived: a mono-textural dish comprising pumpkin puree, yogurt and a quenelle of sesame seed ice cream, all served on a black disc. The ice cream’s slate grey colour was possibly a call-back to the squid ink earlier but the dish tasted better than it looked. Perhaps some variety in texture – some nuts, maybe a tuile – could have elevated this even further.
Overall, it was an exciting, if occasionally challenging meal, but one that was served deftly, artfully and without pretension. And great value too: 6 courses, 3 glasses of wine, a coffee, water and service all came to just under 80 quid, which is rather astounding. Having budgeted a hundred or so, I spent the spare change on a boat ride around the harbour, as any bon vivant should. Life is too frigging short.
Calle Campanario 11
20003 Donostia-San Sebastián
by J A Smith