Chef ANDREW LAWLOR‘s visits to SAN SEBASTIAN – DONOSTIA inspired his own restaurant …
San Sebastian – Donostia is a very special place for my fiancée, Eimear, and myself. We discovered it in 2010 at the end of a trip that started in Lisbon and took us through Madrid, Vigo, A Caruna, Bilbao finishing in San Sebastian. I will never forget my first morning walking along La Concha beach and then through the old town, sampling pastries and coffees. We crossed the Urumea river along the Maria Christina bridge, fascinated with all the fish in the river and the crystal-clear waters. We also explored Zurriola beach to watch the surfers. I had an immediate sense of belonging – I hadn’t had this feeling since I was in St Kilda in Melbourne, where I was excited to explore all the restaurants and bars. I took a chef’s gap year in Australia and spent time working in Perth at the Houses of Parliament, cooking for people like the Sultan of Brunei and Prime Minister of New Zealand, as well as in gastro-bars in Melbourne. The indigenous cuisine and ingredients in Australia are second to none and I was fortunate to gain an insight into so many cuisines – Lebanese, Greek, Italian and Iranian – while I was there. In Ireland I think we are just rediscovering our food heritage and going back to how our grandparents ate. The restaurant scene has changed so much in the last 40 years; from being mainly hotel-based to the wealth of choice on offer now.
For a special night out in San Sebastian, you can’t get much better than the world-famous Arzak restaurant (be sure to book well in advance) where you’ll discover some of the most creative and flavoursome food you will ever have the pleasure of eating. While I’ve worked at many similar “fine dining” establishments and counted The Green Hen and The Box Tree as former haunts, it’s not normally my type of food. I much prefer simplicity and casual dining; the restaurant version of an old-fashioned pub where you stand at the bar and hear everyone’s story. My favourite little place therefore is Bar Nestor and it deserves more than one visit if you are in the area. The côte de boeuf, served with amazing local wines and sherry is a standout taste memory. The Rioja wine valley is a worthwhile trip when you are in the area.
It was over dinner at Bar Nestor, that Eimear and I came up with the concept of our restaurant Le Plancha. The name has proved to be a talking point for linguistic purists, who have often pointed out that we’ve called it an ironing board. However, what we wanted was to combine the Spanish idea of cooking on a hot plate (plancha) with French ingredients hence “le”. San Sebastian is located so close to France and this wonderful fusion of influences has always inspired me.
Now that I am a chef-patron I find it difficult to separate the two roles, but I’ve learned a lot in the last six years. I’ve now reached a happy medium – cooking with my heart and doing business with my head. I always look forward to our trips to San Sebastian and we make a trip each year. The people, food and wine are first class – what more can you ask for?
Bar Nestor; Pescaderia 11, San Sebastian-Donostia, Spain; www.leplancha.ie; 1A Monkstown Crescent, Monkstown, Co Dublin.
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