Gros district, in San Sebastián, is undergoing a major transformation, and this has pushed the opening of many places with an innovative spirit, the whole neighborhood becoming, with regard to going out for pintxos, an inviting alternative to the traditional hegemony of the Historical Quarter, the Olympus of pintxos.
One of those places to visit is Xarma Cook & Culture, a step away from the beach of La Zurriola. Located in a large space previously occupied by a cannabis club, once you go inside you realize that you are in a space full of personality and good taste, something that is becoming less common overall, with much and so many restaurants that have been so similar.
But Xarma Cook & Culture does not come out of nowhere. Aizpea Oihaneder and Xabier Díez achieved to convert the old Xarma, that they managed for a decade in the Antiguo district, a benchmark for San Sebastian’s signature cuisine. But looking for broad their horizons, they closed that one, and opened a year and a half ago this new Xarma with the addition of “Cook & Culture” to its name. We spoke with Xabier about this leap of location, but above all, of concept and seating.
- How do you rate this new stage?
- Total madness. We came from a small business, making author kitchen or haute cuisine, and here we have jumped in the deep end: we have the bar upstairs, restaurants menu is more extensive, customers have trebled, and right now we are still defining our concept.
- This new Xarma has cope with the times, offering a more complete experience: what does that mean?
- What we intend to do in Xarma is help people to find their place, that many different kinds of people can find their way here. We like, for instance, to have people tasting a very elaborate menu, and other ones in the adjoining table dining a “txuleta”, the traditional chop. Ditto for our type of customers: we are open to couples, group of friends, business people…all in the same space, with a wide range of gastronomic proposals, and room for everyone.
- You have an open kitchen, exposed to the prying eyes of all diners. Don’t you have nothing to hide?
- There is nothing to hide, and it allows us to have direct contact with customers. When you are in a closed kitchen, you do not know what is happening in the dining room, you only know what the room team tells you. Here we see the faces of all diners, how they react, what kind of clientele we have … It is a more direct contact in all senses.
- As you see customers, they also see you! I mean, you have to control yourself and make good figure all the time, yes?
- Clearly. Indeed, since we are here, I have trouble sleeping, and get home with a lot pressure, because here you have to control yourself and put a happy face. It demands more, but we do not regret this commitment.
- How important is the workforce in your project?
- Absolute. We spent many hours together, with very challenging and stressful moments, which can only be supported by a good team, a good family and lots of closer ties between us. Now that Aizpea and me are 45 and 46 years old, it comes young people that brings new blood, a fresh approach, and help us to progress. If you don’t have a good work team, you fail.
- Is Zurriola beach vicinity the ideal setting for a restaurant like Xarma?
- Definitely. By location, by everything. In fact, our customers have told us for this year and a half. Some of them miss the old Xarma, but other really love the new offer. Therefore, we are looking for balance, because we cannot afford to do certain type of cooking for the huge volume of people that this venue allows. At this point, we are thinking about reducing the seating capacity, to be able to do the cooking that come from our souls. This space allow us to receive all kind of people, but they have to be relaxed, no etiquettes or bullshit like that.I do not want to impose an experience: the experience is given by your couple, your friends, the producer you speak with…Our food must only be the perfect excuse to live you own experience in the best way possible.
- – You have 2 pintxos (Solomillo Euskaltxerri and Piquillo parrillero) on our list of the 99 best pintxos in Donostia / San Sebastián. What has this recognition meant for you?
- There are people that come solely and exclusively to taste those pintxos, and by the way they try others, because we have a wide range for cooking pintxos. It goes from the chatka pintxos, that all bars have, but prepared our own way, to grilled piquillo peppers or a tataki pintxo, that are much more sofisticated works. We really have felt that push, people that want to know the restaurant and our pintxos.
- Beyond these two pintxos on the list, what other pintxos would you highlight from your offer?
- We have a changing offer. When we think something for a weekend, we don’t need to think twice, we do it and put in on the counter. Tradition and vanguard live there together, with no frills attached. Let things taste as they have to. For instance, chatka. Everybody says: fucking surimi chatka… we have given importance to this product, we cook it with good shrimps, put a good crafish oil emulsion…ultimately, we have given the prominence it deserves, and today is the pintxo most often sold.
- What is the secret of a good pintxo?
- It must be tasty, easy to eat, if possible one or two bites must be enough to do it, better with no cutlery. The secret of a good pintxo is to take care of the food.
- And how important is the quality of that product?
- Quality of the ingredients is always important, and simplicity of a pintxo does not always come together with the number of ingredients it carries. You can find pintxos with few ingredients but much more cooking work that other with more ingredients.
- Is it hard to find a good product?
- No. Moreover, it is becoming easier for the producer to come to your home. You just have to be willing to work it, but that means that, if you want a good product, it has a price, and your margin will be lower. But good product exists, and is available to everyone. Same as the bad one.
- How often do you renew your pintxos offer?
- It depends a lot on the season: there are seasons that are less generous than others. And it also depends on the inspiration that we have that moment. If I have time and mind something, I do it and we put it on the counter. Sometimes it works, but if not, I eat it myself (laughs).
- Since you are in Gros District, is there some pintxo that has already become an essential?
- The Piquillo parrillero, practically from the beginning, as well as the Iberian Sirloin Tataki, and now the Puturru de Foie. And Bestsellers are chatka, and longfinned tuna with chilli peppers small roll.
- What percentage would you give to tradition and innovation in Xarma’s proposal?
- It could be 60/40, although more than talking about innovation, we speak of sophistication. But the objective, rather than seeking that balance, is to come closer to the type of cook we made in the old Xarma, the signature cooking, inspired by tradition.That is what we want to achieve, but we have to find ourselves, adapt the venue to our kitchen, and not our kitchen to the venue.
- This year your partner Aizpea Oihaneder was in charge of cutting the new Idiazabal cheese in the “Artzai eguna”, the sheperd´s day held annually in Ordizia. What did this mean for Xarma?
- It was a very important recognition for us, and even more so for Aizpea, who has been attending the “Artzai eguna” for many years. The Idiazabal has always been present in our menu, and it is a product with which we work a lot.
- Do you like going out for pintxos?
- I love it. In fact, I like it more than sit down at a restaurant. I like walk from bar to bar eating pintxos, as also sit down in a bar terrace. I find it much more dynamic, more varied, more casual, and I enjoy it more.
- What pintxo of the 99 best list of some other bar you would like to create?
- The lobster spoon from Casa Urola, for example, blows my mind. From Bodega Donostiarra, I remember from my childhood the Completo, a sandwich of Spanish white tuna in oil with peppers. I also would eat any of bar Zazpi. In Bar Bergara, I still ask for the Chopito, another one I remember from my childhood, and enjoy the tomato and Tuna tartar. I would walk to each bar to taste one, and also the rest!
Xarma Cook & Culture
Miguel Imaz Kalea 1
20009 Donostia-San Sebastián
Tel. (+34) 943 142 267