We came to San Sebastien in pursuit of the perfect food dream, and we found it. Pays Basque grilling is fundamentally different to the way it is done elsewhere, and so is their meat. The techniques used herein Basque country are well defined by quick, slow and steady cooking depending on what you consider quick or slow, but the end result is perfection.
Driving to Casa Nicolas we had a chance to see the spectacular landscapes of the Spanish countryside, arriving at Tolosa it is a quaint town, not much going yet it is very picturesque. The outside the restaurant is discrete and the signage is simple and to the point, just what we expected.
Arriving 30 minutes before our reservation we had a chance to get ready for lunch at Casa Nicolas. And more importantly, my wife who is definitely not a carnivore decided she would try their beef, a good approach to eating in the Basque countryside, and vegetarians stay away there is very little salad to eat here.
We entered and the owner Pedro was having his mid-morning coffee, he signaled to us to wait, communication isn’t as easy as you like, the chef spoke very little English as many local cooks do, but that doesn’t stop him from letting you know who is boss. Within minutes his son Xavier showed up said, “Mohamed told me you were coming and I am ready” offering a warm Basque smile. Casa Nicolas is a small restaurant traditional and Pedro is a master griller if you can call him that? And yes you can, he is a champion, clearly an expert, to say the least, as he makes it look easy, and it is not.
The grilling area is homemade from bricks, no pit, no wood used and a simple grill angled so the fat doesn’t drip onto the fire and create any uncontrolled flash of fire. This grilling area is the way its been for several generations and here charcoal is the preferred method for cooking, not wood. For many grilling experts, there would be a debate about how to achieve the best flavors, and many would argue its the meat drippings that help add flavours as the grease from the meat hits the embers and vaporizes.
The meat is sensational, and the cows are old milk cows and finally laid to rest. The beef is glistening and the marbling and consistency looked amazing as he points to my steak. The beef is aged and there are no signs of any rot, no rancid taste something we encountered days before. The steaks are thick, more than 5cm and they are well trimmed and look perfect with nicely dispersed marbling. I was permitted to smell the meat, it smelled perfect, sweet and long. The cows here have had a good life and it shows, not any obvious signs of abuse.
The final moment comes for steak number one, and the chef is at our table to cut our meat, the right way to serve clients the steak is hand-cut, divided into two parts we shared our first bite of Spain’s greatest steak.
Xabier Pedro’s son knows I am after some rare wines and I leave it to him to decide, I am no expert on old Spanish wines, and we are here to learn. These wines, what can you say except “holly shit” they are great but Xabier had me worried when he said “no fruit”. It all made sense in thinking about it afterwards because most new Spanish wines have huge fruit and are concentrated but these are classics and reflect style, elegance and finesse. I find myself following Xavier and my wife and into the cellars under the restaurant, crouching and almost crawling watching old bottles – wow.
I am in awe and I cannot believe my eyes when I see the moment of truth, old vintages in perfect condition, it’s sublime, I feel privileged to have such a chance. The cellar has a perfect climate, and the bottles are well stored the way they should be.
The bread, the wines, asparagus, carpaccio, and a trip there without the famed Cantabrica anchovies renowned worldwide for their meatiness, smooth texture, and intense flavors and the hot bread with the perfect crust.
And the cheesecake at the end is a cheese flan and it was excellent but don’t be surprised because in this region cheesecake is part of everyday life and the milk is dense and rich in taste. This cake was light and not overalt sweet, a good finish to a superb lunch, and thank you to Pedro and Xavier who are top professionals, passionate and hard working, dedicated to their work and clients. /Bravo/