A yummy reason to visit San Sebastian: Astelena Gastroteka
The temptation of exquisite food is something worth travelling for. New exciting flavours, new concepts to surprise your tastebuds. A different crowd that contributes to a particular atmosphere that is only available in the actual moment and place. And beyond everything - the ability to learn about a foreign culture through food, service, and the people around you. That is why, today, I will offer a closer look at the best restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. Hope my passion for culinary arts and dining translates into these lines, and you are transported to a different place, even if just for a moment! Let’s find out more about Restaurante Astelena then!
A short introduction
Restaurante Astelena was opened in 1997, and it still operates successfully to this day. That surely is a sign of consistency as well as excellent service, isn’t it? And don’t be fooled by the lack of information on their Facebook or Instagram pages - the best gems are usually the hidden ones! Similar to most other F&B establishments, it is on a slight hold after the Coronavirus crisis struck (until further notice). Just keep yourself updated to see when they reopen to try some of their delicious dishes!
What’s remarkable about Astelena 1997?
Surely, it would be smart of me to explain why this place is so remarkable to keep you interested in reading further, right? Well, here it goes. Many would say the most recognizable part of it would be the head chef - Ander González. Many Spaniards recognize him as a TV presenter and therefore would also consider the restaurant. But that type of recognizability would probably mean nothing much to you as a foreigner that knows nothing much about Spanish TV. For you, it is important to know that he has been the head of this kitchen since 1997! And currently, is also a professor at Basque Culinary Center. That gives some reassurance about his expertise, doesn’t it?
In the context of his presence, it is also important to acknowledge his understanding of the culinary world. He considers many modern-day chefs too carried away with fancy techniques, but they seem to forget the basic elements. That is, the classic techniques and flavours passed down by generations. It is why at Astelena 1997, they focus on the tradition and offer a slightly modernized take on traditional Basque cuisine. It will be a great place to introduce yourself to the traditional flavour combinations of the region if you happen to be travelling to San Sebastian!
Another interesting point for a tourist is the fact that San Sebastian is the starting point of the North Coast route of the great Camino de Santiago. If you also happen to be making this remarkable journey on foot and would like to treat yourself to a good local meal before going further, then look no further. Restaurante Astelena will be a nice place to do exactly that!
By the way, if you would like to hold a celebratory meal in this restaurant, they have a row of options for smaller and bigger groups - from a table for two to a table for twenty. They have up to 120 seats in the whole restaurant, which would be a great option for a bigger celebration too. A wedding, perhaps?
The location and the atmosphere
Restaurante Astelena is an island of modern basque food in the historic Old Town of San Sebastian. Located on the premises of a former banana factory, it welcomes people from all over the world to enjoy a modern take on unique flavour combinations of this region in Northern Spain. To add a name to what you might expect, it could be called a casual dining experience.
Nevertheless, the design promises the highest level of service. Entering through the door, the first thing you will notice is the subtle interior and the white, crisp tablecloths that match very well with the white elements in the interior. The stone walls emphasize the historic location, and decorations, like white tulips and roses, are there just to add a few accents. But there is an overall feeling it leaves you with: it is light and brightness. Seemingly, everything is carefully crafted around the main focus - the amazing food they serve. Even the big plates coming out of the kitchen are deliberately chosen white to bring your attention directly to the colours and textures presented on them.
The concept of the menu
Finally, we get to the point, right? I already mentioned the type of food you can expect to get to this restaurant. The menu features many very traditional dishes of Basque country or modernized dishes created with those traditional flavours in mind. I guess, to make more sense of it all I should tell a bit more about this type of cuisine. Basically, in the region, you can see a lot of meat and fish dishes. The proteins are often chargrilled or cooked in a stew alongside the wonderful seasonal vegetables. Tomato and hot red peppers are a common feature of these dishes.
Additionally, to these notes, the closeness to the Atlantic Ocean also plays a big role in the composition of this restaurant’s menu. To emphasize the “indigenous” flavours, Ander González goes above and beyond to feature the freshest local produce. Believe me that does make a great difference in the vibrancy of flavour! To give you a better impression of the overall menu, I will describe a few of the best dishes in different categories in the next paragraphs.
Must-try meals in Restaurante Astelena
To start off, I definitely have to say that your choice for the meal will definitely depend on your interests in the region. Is it to try something very Basque? Or get an insight into a great locally sourced seafood and other produce? Either way, many tastes will be satisfied during a visit to this restaurant! Nevertheless, here I will try to present some of the must-haves. And each of those got on the list for a different reason!
In the category of starters, I would suggest going for the Shoulder of acorn-fed Iberian ham. A classic that rarely seems to disappoint (that is if you like meat, of course). And there is no better place to try it than in the country of its origin - Spain. Just order it and before delighting your tastebuds, entice the other senses too. Smell the tender slice, put it to your warm lips to melt the delicious flavours encapsulated in that long cured piece of pork. And only then try the flavour. So worth it!
Another starter that is worth trying is Carpaccio of tiger prawns, pistachio, and red fruits. Why? There is nothing better than seafood at its best and freshest quality. Add a local flavour pairing with pistachio and red fruits to get an unusual, but authentic experience of this region. Et voila!
From the category of main dishes, I want to outline a somewhat less likely choice. That is, to a foreigner, maybe. If you are in San Sebastian, you should definitely try an ancient specialty - the tripe stew. In this restaurant, you will find it under the name “Iñaki tripe”. The dish is rather visually unappealing. It is a cow intestine, after all. But surely, the initial doubt will disappear in a second when your tongue meets this gelatinous and very delicious dish.
Let’s move to the best part of the menu - desserts. Baked cheesecake might sound like something you could have practically anywhere in the world. But don’t ditch this concept right away! In Astelena 1997, they offer a combination of this modern staple with an authentic twist. It is the baked cheesecake with (heavenly smooth) fresh cheese ice cream. Yum, yum, yum!
I know being in a new country faced with a new cuisine might be confusing at times, but this is why I will make a suggestion to get the best experience of this visit. If you want to try the best of all categories - choose their tasting menu. You will get 5 different signature dishes at a price of 50 EUR. No need to bust your head, no need to risk getting lost in translation! A guaranteed exquisite experience!
Pun intended! By this, I mean - a recap on the whole story. Restaurante Astelena is a great place if you love tradition, seek to experience the authentic Basque flavour, and want to do it in class. Either way - if your itinerary consists of visiting just San Sebastian or you are en route to the famous Santiago. A decision to visit Restaurante Astelena that has been around since 1997, is safe, but a very gratifying choice!
By the way! Especially nowadays, when travelling is somewhat restricted, we all crave that flavour of something different than we are used to. It might be hard reading about such nice places as Restaurante Astelena in countries you can’t actually currently reach. Still, it is good to be prepared for the exact moment when the travelling will be back to its usual shape. Definitely put this charming place on your list if you are considering going to San Sebastian in Spain after the crisis is over!
Ieva Miltina is an activist and entrepreneur of many sorts. By profession project manager of marketing and culture events, in her heart she is a passionate traveler and a cook, soon to become a pastry chef. Deeply rooted in non-formal education she has been involved in youth work since her teenage years and up till nowadays holds a deep interest in innovative approaches to learning and personal development, which she transfers to people from all Europe during various international trainings. Always looking for new discoveries and adventures she happily shares her positive view on the world and the neverending stories with the people who cross her path. While studying hospitality and tourism management she wrote a thesis on home-chefs, which ignited her dream of owning her cozy and heartwarming home restaurant, which will hopefully materialize very soon. Meanwhile writing articles and doing food photography she is working towards another dream of hers - becoming a published author someday.