It was shortly after midday on Sunday. I was on my quest to find the best steak in San Sebastian. I had gorged on over 2kg of Txuleton steak over the last two nights and binged on Sangria and beer for three nights in a row. Despite my intentions to control myself these darn Canadians insisted that I eat their steak. I found a glass of wine and reluctantly obliged.
The City of steak
San Sebastian is a stunning city in the north east corner of Spain. The beautiful architecture of the new and old cities are built around a golden beach that sweeps around a beautiful bay (Bahia de la Concha). The dozens of bars and restaurants serve up some of the best Pintxos (small portions of food usually served on bread) and, I would argue, the best steak in the world.
I decided to visit San Sebastian after eating Txuleton steak at a Hawksmoor evening hosted by Nieves Barragan Mohacho (formerly of Barrafina). It was one of the best steaks I had ever eaten. Every bite delivered a punch of intense beef savour. Now that I had experienced heaven and now I was hooked. I tried to find places in London that sold Txuleton beef and happened upon Turner and George near Angel. Oddly enough they immediately sold out of Txuleton after my visit.
It’s fair to say that I may have been little obsessed with this steak. This obsession led to a longing to travel and find the best steak in San Sebastian.
Txuleton Steak – the vintage of all steaks
The Basque area and it’s capital city San Sebastian are known for their famous Txuleton/Chutelon steak. This is steak served from old cows (up to the age of 18 years) usually from the Rubio Gallegia breed.
The steak in San Sebastian is known to be exceptionally tasty and beefy. If you’re curious to know more you can read the steak society guide on Txuleton and Basque Beef
The Candidates for best steak in San Sebastian
I had heard wonders about Asador Etxebarri, a Michelin star grill just outside of San Sebastian. I attempted to book 6 weeks in advance only to find it completely booked out to next year! So instead I focussed my attention inside the parameters of the old town in San Sebastian. These were: Gandarias Jatetxea, Bar Nestor, Casa Urola and Atari Gastroteka. I visited all four steakhouses/pintxos bars within a 48 hour period between Friday and Sunday night getting through over 3kg of steak in total.
Tasty and Tender Steak, but the company could’ve been better
This wasn’t my first visit to Gandarias. I had stopped by previously on brief stops in San Sebastian when travelling between France and Spain. I discovered Gandarias after searching for Steakhouses back in 2014 and was thrilled by a very reasonably priced and delicious-melt in the mouth steak. I’ve been wanting to go back ever since.
Gandarias is both a pintxos bar and a full restaurant. The pintxos bar serves mostly seafood pintxos while the restaurant has an extensive and very meat based menu. Upon arriving at Gandarias we squeezed through the throngs of pintxos eaters and made our way into the more spacious restaurant area. We were seated toward the back of the restaurant and were briefly entertained by an American tourists one loudly and ludicrously declaring the bottled water she ordered to be the best in the world, with another interrogating her waiter about the dietary contents of every single item on the menu. I’d forgotten how well Americans travel.
We ordered Octopus and a 1.1kg ‘Old aged T-Bone steak’, a delicious new take on surf and turf I suppose. I wanted to double check that I was getting Txuleton so I asked the waitress who looked confused whether the steak was definitely Txuleton. I had to spell the word on my phone and then she says “Oh, TXU-LETON, Si, yes it’s Txutelon”. The waitress asked how I wanted the steak, glanced at us (I look English) and asks medium-well? I asked for it to be as rare as possible and she laughed with relief. The Octopus arrived promptly and was carved in square chunks and covered in Paprika. It was tender and tasty, almost a cross between chicken and fish. An excellent appetizer for the steak.
The Steak arrived, perfectly rare and carved into slices. Despite being called a T-Bone steak, it was really just the Sirloin part of the T-Bone, making it actually a bone-in sirloin. The steak was unexpectedly tender as well as being quite beefy (but not as much as expected). The steak closest to the bone was also the most tasty. Given the cut of steak and the breed of cow there was copious amounts of fat. Combining some of the chunks of fat with the beef created an insanely pleasurable taste.
We paired the steak with the Trus Reserva 2012, a medium body Spanish red wine which worked brilliantly with the Txuleton. I tried to get additional details about the steak, but there was a mixture of lack of knowledge from the staff combined with my Spanish being limited to uno, dos or tres cervezas por favor.
The 1.1kg steak cost 40 Euros, while the rest of the food (Octopus, padron peppers, wine, water and dessert) cost a further 74 Euros for two people. At 114 Euros all in for two people, it was astoundingly good value.
Delicious steak in tight sourroundings
Atari was recommended by a friend who had just visited San Sebastian, the steak and octopus was apparently excellent so I had to check it out.
Atari has a very different vibe from Gandarias. The restaurant area is mixed with the Pintxos area which on most nights and on Saturday night especially, meant that the place was heaving with people. There was barely standing room. We struggled to make our way around the Pintxos area to find staff. When we did find them it turned out there was a mix up and our reservation was half an hour later, even though one of the tables had our time correctly recorded. Thirty minutes later we were seated at the same table.
Once we were seated the service was excellent and the wait staff were exceptional. It’s almost like they ‘switch off’ from the crowd of Pintxos people. I looked at the menu and saw the “Fore Rib of Beef”. The waiteress came over and I asked if this was Txuleton and again had a moment of confusion before I spelt it on my phone. It was indeed “old cow” and I was told how to pronounce it (which sounded the same way as I said it). I couldn’t get much more detail about the aging of the meat or the actual age of the cow, but at least it was Txuleton. We repeated the meal from the night before with octopus to start but also added a plate of Iberican ham.
The octopus was sensational, it came as two great big tentacles not sliced and it looked and tasted incredible. The ham was delicious, it melted in the mouth. The steak came shortly after and had fat hanging of it everywhere – a great sign for a Txuleton rib steak. It was very similar to the steak at Gandarias – quite tender and tasty especially when combined with the pricier bits. I concentrated on differences between the Gandarias steak and the Atrai steak, but other than the extra fat there was no noticeable difference.
The 1kg steak cost 42 Euros, while the rest of the food (Octopus, Jamon, Wine and dessert) was 70 euros. All in it was 112 euros which makes the cost difference between Gandarias and Atari marginal. Atari is, as outlined above, exceptional busy. If you are happy to be seated in a thronging crowd (which was busier at 10.30pm than at 8.30pm) then go for it, if you need something a bit quieter or with a bit more space then check out Gandarias or Casa Urola.
Bar Nestor is famous for its Tortilla, which is made twice a day (only once on Sunday) and has only 13 portions per tortilla. The only chance of getting the tortilla is if you wait outside the bar at 11.30am when it opens briefly for people to put their name down to secure a slice. The tortilla is served at 1pm sharp. I managed to put my name down for the third and fourth slices and returned later to a crowd of about 50 people.
As the shop opened the crowd crammed into the Bar which is about the size of a bedroom or a large bathroom. It was absolutely crammed. At 1pm the Tortilla came out and people started begging for slices. Nestor, the owner of Bar Nestor, with a great grey moustache seemed to take quiet delight in not only personally handing the tortilla to each person but declining the begs and appeals of people who were not on his list.
Once I secured my slice, I managed to find some space outside with a couple of Canadians and South Africans (including fellow blogger Sam the Food Fan). The tortilla was the most moist and delicious tortilla I’ve ever had (consists of potato and a caramelised egg sauce). I started talking about Steak to the Canadians and South Africans and then the steak they ordered from Bar Nestor arrived.
The presentation was impressive, the entire kilogram came out served almost blue on a sizzling hot plate covered in salt as if Bar Nestor was built on top of a Salt Mine. As we were outside people thronged around our group. A Japanese tourist came over, shocked stating “How much Steak did you order?” We told him 1kg to which he replied “Oh my God, I order [sic] 2 kilogram”.
This wasn’t my steak, it belonged to the Canadians. I was, however, jealously eyeing it up. One of the Canadians then generously insisted that I eat a big chunk of her steak. I feigned disinterest much like a pleading dog at a dinner table. I quickly requested a knife and fork, a decent vino and dug in. Again, it was strikingly similar to the steak at Gandarias and Atari and possibly again the same cut of meat. The variation was down to the environment in which it was eaten and the way it was presented (gorgeously but heavily salted).
The steak was about 40 euros for a kilo.
I’d now spent the early afternoon at Bar Nestor freeloading on someone else’s steak followed by three of four hours of stumbling around and intoxicating myself on the excellent tapas and wine in San Sebastian.Come 8pm and I had that dreaded problem when you’re about to eat a massive amount of steak: I wasn’t hungry. I tried walking around to make some space and then, as it often does in San Sebastian, the heavens opened and rain came bucketing down. We dashed into the restaurant.
Casa Urola, like Gandarias has a separate restaurant and Pintxos area. As the restaurant hadn’t open yet (earliest session is at 8pm) we had to wait in the Pintxos area. We used the time to drink more. Shortly after 8pm we made our way upstairs to the restaurant area. It was large and spacious unlike any of the other tapas bars or restaurants. I looked at the menu and tried to understand exactly what the steak on offer was. I eyed up the “1kg grilled Luismi Premium T-Bone steak” and double checked that it was Txuleton. Thus followed the same ordeal in Gandarias and Atari of being lost in translation until I bought out my phone. My pronunciation of Txuleton was then corrected with near identical pronunciation.
The steak was Txuleton and was sourced from the Lusimi butchers (local butchers specialising in Txuleton). I went for the Jamon and Tuna to start, the 1kg steak (rare) and a bottle of wine. The starters were exceptional. The Jamon just like at Atari melted in your mouth while the Tuna was excellent.
I shouldn’t have ordered starters as I was already pretty full. But then steak arrived and looked to be the most impressive steak yet. Like at Gandarias it was a rib on sirloin rather than a T-bone (as the fillet portion wasn’t served). I tried the steak, it was rare, juicy most tasty and delicious of any we had before. Every bite delivered a good hit of beefy goodness but I noticed the steak required chewing. It was not a tender a steak. It was as if the steak was extracting effort for providing deliciousness.
The price of the steak was 42 Euros, marginally more expensive than the others. We paid 137 euros all up for jamon and tuna, a bottle of red (Vina Izadi) and desserts.
The best steak in San Sebastian
All four steak experiences in exceptional. I ate so much steak that I actually gained 4.5 pounds. But it’s a worthy burden to shoulder.
So which was the best steak in San Sebastian? The cost and cut of the steak was the same or similar across the various restaurants. The key factor comes down to the difference between Casa Urola’s super tasty but not tender Txuleton and the others. This makes me conflicted: is having a very tender and tasty steak better than having an incredibly tasty steak that requires a bit of a chew? On balance, I think it’s the former for me.
On the basis of tender and tasty steaks and having a bit more room to eat, Gandarias has the best steak in San Sebastian.