I remember the first time I saw a crumb-catcher. You know, one of those thin, metal implements waiters use in fine restaurants to sweep away the crumbs at the end of the entrees and before the desserts and coffee are served. I was so wowed that someone would think of that detail and even invent an instrument for that purpose and that purpose alone. It made me feel special, because I was a person who shouldn’t have crumbs on her table as she ate her dessert.
In a way, I’m much more cynical and jaded now. I only consider one or two meals as having been absolutely perfect, from the perfectly cooked food to the perfect service, where everything was like magic. I’ve been around the crumb-catcher block. But I am proud to say that I am a woman who can still enjoy an imperfect meal and with gusto.
After my gluttonous meal almost killed me on Monday, I set Tuesday aside for the three-course menu del día at the Restaurante Kursaal, housed in the modern, glassy building of the same name on Playa de Zurriola. The restaurant is owned and managed by Martín Berasategui, one of the giants of Spanish nueva cocina, though it's clearly not his crown jewel. But for 18 Euros or so, we mere peons get to choose from a broad menu of appetizers, entrees, and desserts.
I was excited when my first course arrived, the “arroz cremoso con mejillones” or risotto with mussels. Sadly, it was inedible. The rice was cooked to just the right consistency, maintaining integrity in each grain while being creamy, but, oh and such a big but, there was too much salt. And I like salt. A lot. I was pretty sad, actually. I don’t like to get disappointed by legends.
And then my second course arrived, "txangurro a la donostia," or spider crab in the style of San Sebastian. There was the requisite foam, which I actually quite enjoyed because it was interesting to taste the unique flavor of parsley in a different form. But more impressively, the txangurro! It had been shredded and then cooked in a tomato sauce that was both interesting and comforting, a difficult balance to be sure. I loved it. Honestly, just to have someone pick out the meat for you is worth a small fortune. According to Mark's Kurlansky, “A Basque History of the World,” the Basques are the only ones to eat this tiny crab with its sweet but challenging meat, and I thank them for having discovered how delicious it is.
The dessert was another surprise, a cross between a bread-pudding and a tres leches cake, super soft and sweet in the middle, the sweetness saved only by the very distinct and sure flavor of burned sugar. It was full-on burned sugar, too, not the caramely top of crème brulee or crema catalana. I was impressed how the two flavors worked together, not just balancing each other out but almost aggressively pushing against each other. Yummy. The lemon ice cream was wonderful too, so creamy it was more like crème fraiche than lemon.
All in all, I was quite happy. It wasn’t a perfect meal, but neither am I.
(A tip: if you want to have every culinary choice available to you in San Sebastian, do not visit in November. It seems like half the restaurants and tapas bars here have gone on vacation and in the European-style, for three weeks to a whole month. I am anxiously awaiting the reopening of Aloña Berri tomorrow, but I’ve had to tell myself, “próxima vez” to La Cuchara de San Telmo, El Fuego Negro, and other celebrated dining establishments.)