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Hidden Gem – Kaia Kaipe

By Andy Hayler

The Basque country is arguably the most food-obsessed part of Spain. San Sebastian is one of the three regional capitals, and boasts a trio of three Michelin star restaurants. For a city of less than 200,000 people to host three of the eight three star restaurants in a country of 47 million gives you some idea of its culinary depth. However the joy of this region is that beyond these world-famous restaurants are many obscure yet delightful establishments that can reward a traveller in search of great food.

One such delight is Kaia Kaipe, in the sleepy fishing village of Getaria, 25km west of San Sebastian. Kaia Kaipe was established in 1962 and specialises in the seafood that is caught in the nets of the local fishermen. The restaurant has a spectacular setting perched on a cliff looking out over the harbour and the sea beyond. Consequently it is a particularly good spot for lunch or an early dinner (or what passes for this in Spain) on a mid-summer evening. On the beach below the restaurant are several large open-air charcoal grills, which are used to cook the speciality of the restaurant: turbot, the king of fish.

The turbot caught by the fishing boats offshore is of high quality, and is grilled whole over the charcoal before being served at your table moments later. Go in a large group if you can, since the larger the turbot that you buy, the better the flavour it will have. It is served very simply, but with such a fabulous ingredient you do not need distracting garnishes: the smoky flavour note from the grilling process is all that is needed to bring out the best in taste of the fish.

To supplement this speciality, the restaurant serves other seafood such as langoustines and lobsters. To ensure ultimate freshness these are actually kept live in large tanks in the side of the cliff, the specimens needed being plucked out of the tanks in nets when the diners place their orders. Kaia Kaipe has one more secret tucked away in these cliffs: a spectacular wine cellar of 40,000 bottles. The Rioja vintages in this cellar date back to the 1920s, and the coverage of the fine wines of Spain and France is impressive. As a further bonus these wines are priced almost absurdly cheaply: many are scarcely half the price that you would pay in a shop, if you could find them at all. You can try the local wine Txakolina but it is all too tempting to trade up and indulge in some serious bottles from this fabulous list.

Kaia Kaipe is the very definition of a hidden gem. It is not listed in most international guides and is known mainly to locals and to a few food enthusiasts. Yet if you come here on a sunny day for lunch you will combine a gorgeous view, stunning seafood and the opportunity to indulge in one of the best, and most kindly priced, wine lists on the planet.  (503 words)

Kaia Kaipe was founded in 1962, specialising in seafood dishes as befits its coastal location. It is located in Getaria, a little fishing port 25km west of San Sebastian. Indeed the name itself reflects the two-storey location: “kaia” means “port” and “kaipe” means “below the port”, the restaurant looking out over the harbour. Kaia Kaipe is, by two years, the older sister of nearby Elkano, The entrance is in a narrow, pedestrianised alley just below the main street of the town. It is noted for its turbot in particular, as indeed is Elkano. The large upstairs dining room was well lit, with a tiled floor and generously spaced tables. The large charcoal grills for the fish were in the open air down by the beach. Both restaurants are owned by Igor Arregi, the grandson of the founders of the restaurant.

Kaia Kape has a very extensive wine list, with no less than 40,000 bottles in total, and over 1,000 different labels. A private list aimed at regular customers and friends only lists a further 4,000 bottles with Riojas dating back to the 1920s. The wines are carefully cellared, with the main cellar a steady 15C (59F), and a separate cellar keeps white wine at 5C (41F). The wine list was not only huge in scale but was remarkably generous in its pricing. Vega Sicilia Alion 2008 was just €47, not bad for a wine that costs €69 in a shop. Unico 1999 was €199, way below its current market price of €345. Even the French wines were absurdly cheap: Batard Montrachet Drouhin 2007 was €189 compared to a retail price of €287, and so the list went on. This is a dream of a wine list.

A simple plate of cooked tuna in olive oil arrived as we read the menu, the fish having good flavour but for me was a bit overcooked; it would have been interesting to try it raw or lightly seared (12/20). Bread in the form of a baguette was apparently made in house, and had nice texture (14/20). Padron peppers were fine, though of course the kitchen had limited intervention here. Sweet red pepper filled with crab was very enjoyable, the crab clearly very fresh (14/20). The best of the starters was langoustine fried in a light batter, the shellfish palpably fresh and sweet (16/20). For the main course we shared a large whole turbot, which came just with a simple green salad. The turbot was superb, perfectly cooked with its flavour enhanced by a gentle smoky hint from the charcoal grill. It is tricky to score something as simple as this, but you would not find better turbot in a multi-starred Michelin restaurant (18/20). Desserts were back down to earth, with a pleasant but unexceptional apple pie (13/20). Coffee was quite good.

The bill came to just €86 (£68) per head, for three courses and coffee with superb wine (Alion, Mauro VS) and some old Pedro Ximines to finish. This is ridiculously good value. The service was charming, and ended the evening on a remarkable note. We went on a Sunday night, and when we called for a taxi it transpired that none were available for over an hour. The owner Igor Arregi then insisted on driving us all the way back to San Sebastián (15 miles) and refused any payment. I can’t see this sort of thing catching on at, say, Marcus Wareing. Kaia Kaipe may not have any Michelin stars, but the turbot here is a thing of beauty, and the wine list alone makes it worth the trip.