Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Lunch at Hotel Maria Cristina
Hotel Maria Cristina
A Luxury Collection Hotel
Paseo, República Argentina Kalea, 4,
20004 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain
+34 943 43 76 00
The city of San Sebastián has become famous for having more Michelin-starred restaurants in and around it than almost any other city in the world. The quality of meals in this city, in general, has been elevated to heights not imagined by diners in many other countries.
I have traveled to San Sebastián every year for the last 4 years to participate to the Gastronomika Conference, the annual meeting of the top Spanish chefs which brings in chefs and food journalists from around the world to discuss and demonstrate the direction creative Spanish cuisine is taking each year.
As I mentioned above, the food quality in the city is exceptional. Every year I try different venues around town, from tascas (tapas bars) to high end hotel restaurants and, to be honest, I have not been disappointed in food quality or diversity in any of these eateries.
During this year’s visit, I had lunch at the Hotel Maria Cristina, a 5* property at the center of town, a few yards from the Gastronomika conference venue.
The Hotel Maria Cristina is a historic property built by architect Charles Mewes, also responsible for the Ritz hotels in Madrid and Paris, and is designed in a Belle Époque architectural style. Since its opening in 1921, it has been closely linked to the history and cultural life of San Sebastián.
I had stayed in that hotel on my very first Gastronomika attendance in 2011.
This time Ned (Nectarios) Capeleris, the General Manager, a fellow Greek from the Austalian Greek Diaspora, invited me to taste the culinary creativity of Executive Chef Jesús Cabellero and Chef Francis Paniego who designed the dishes for Maria Cristina’s Summer Restaurant. The menu is titled “Ezcarey” and highlights chef Paniego’s culinary treasures collected during his life in La Rioja.
It started with an “omelette” i.e the chef’s version of Tortilla Española. Tortilla Española is an iconic dish of Spanish cookery served in every tasca and restaurant in the country; some make it spicy, others savory, but everyone makes their own version of egg and potato. In this case it was a small, crispy round made from mousse, onion and a soupçon of spice.
Following the “tortilla” was a couple of croquettes, based on a preparation the chef’s mother made in his youth. Both starters were delightful indeed!
A bottle of Raventós i Blanc Cava came to the table; a lively light cava produced from low altitude vineyards in Conca del Riu Anoia in Penedés that grow tiny grapes after very warm vintages and dry and warm growing seasons. Pepe Raventós knows his grapes. The cava is a classic blend of Viura, Xarel-lo and Parellada as well as a small trace of direct-press Monastrell found in this delicate, beautiful bottling. Exceptional pairing, full of aroma and nice acidity.
The next dish was an homage to Basque cuisine; a “Mamia” with egg yolk and salmon caviar. A rather salty appetizer soup with red fish roe, fennel and walnut sprouts. The creamy consistency comes from a dairy product made from curdled milk. A sweet version is usually served as dessert containing honey, walnuts and raisins.
The next item was a piece of driftwood that held fried Borage leaves in a light tempura batter, to be dipped in a sauce from Rioja. Crunchy and unusual; my complaint is there were too few leaves and I really wanted more!
Two different little plates of dumplings came to the table. One of my favorite dishes is Xiaolongbao a.k.a. soup dumplings. The dumplings served at Maria Cristina’s restaurant were just as tasty and delicious, so I’m adding them to my list of favorites.
The next wine appeared; a 2017 bottle of Muga, a white Rioja; I always like to keep a bottle of it in my cellar. The wine is 90% Macabeo (Viura) and 10% Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca – the actual percentage of these two last grapes varies with the vintage. A pale yellow wine with greenish highlights, silky texture, nicely aromatic with good acidity. I consider it one of the better white Riojas; it usually works very well with appetizers and savory dishes.
A salty fritter was delivered with a liquid heart of sauce romescu, a sauce that originates from Tarragona, Catalonia. Roasted red peppers, plum tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, parsley, salt, and a squeeze of lemon juice are the usual ingredients of romescu, but some cooks add smoked Spanish paprika as well. The sauce is usually put over fish, to brighten the fresh catch-of-the-day.
What followed were prawns in a pil-pil like sauce made from walnuts, topped with truffle slices! Absolutely delightful!
And the dish that followed, Roasted Hake over imitation charcoal made from smashed potatoes, garlic and vanilla was as delicious as the prawns. Hake is an emblematic fish used in Basque cooking, the same way cod fish is almost always present on Portuguese tables.
I had started getting full; even small plates, when there are numerous varieties, start adding up! But, I’m not complaining…
Another of my favorite wines was brought to the table. A 2014 Terruño Centenary Reserva from Viña Pomal was brought in to pair with the last dish; which was truffled pigeon over potato purée with red wine; not a red wine sauce -- this seemed to be very high quality red wine mixed with the roasting jus and pored over the meat and purée right before the dish was truffled and brought to the table. Viña Pomal is a Rioja Alta winery of Bodegas Bilbainas which belongs to the Codorníu Raventós group.
But we were not actually finished… a sweet wine was poured to pair with three deserts that would finish the lunch. The Xixaritto bottle had a whimsical label, but what was in the bottle, a Cream Sherry, involved some very serious winemaking indeed! This was the first time I had seen and tasted this product; and I liked the pairing very much.
I’m sorry to say that I did not keep notes on the desserts, so the description of the first two – whose images I’m looking at – are just what I think they might be. The first, a Selva with white chocolate cannelloni on top stuffed with minced apricot preserve, decorated with jasmine flowers and crumble.
The second, two chocolate (gelato?) ice cream spoonfuls with a chocolate covered fritter and crumble all around.
For the third, I have the chef’s description as: Lukewarm Idiazabal Toast with apple and sour milk ice cream. A thin filo layer creates the base upon which Idiazabal cheese and baked apple slices rest with a scoop of white ice cream on top, topped with a thin round of fresh green apple.
Many thanks Ned for introducing me to the creativity of Chef Francis Paniego. His dishes were as delectable and as beautifully presented as any of the dishes I’ve had in and around San Sebastián!
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