A feast awaits in Spain's Basque country

We broke our vows at lunchtime.

The three of us walked into the Gandarias restaurant in the heart of San Sebastian's old city. We signaled our outsider status in many ways, but primarily because we entered at 12:30 p.m., an hour or two before locals eat.

But we were ravenous, so we asked the barman for plates and loaded up on pintxos: lamb brochettes, slices of tortilla, Iberian ham on baguettes with skewers of mushrooms, fried prawns, spider crab pie, wild mushroom croquettes, olives, goat cheese with bacon.

Just as we were preparing to leave, the restaurant began to fill with happy — no, make that boisterous — patrons. They were communing with friends, drinking, smoking, and probably paying, like us, about $15 to $20 apiece

Madeline and I walked Steve back to the hotel and then returned to the streets to explore a handful of pastry and chocolate shops. Eventually, we settled on Oiartzun, which showcased rack after rack of confections such as lemon and fruit tarts, chocolate truffles, sponge cake and eclairs. We assured ourselves that our purchases were not for immediate consumption, but for emergency hunger pangs.

There was some truth to that, although the lemon tart didn't last long.

About 8 p.m., we began the hunt for food again. The Arzak reservation had been made weeks in advance, but on this night we wanted to walk until we encountered some minimalist fare. We couldn't plow our way through another tasting menu. At least, that's what we told ourselves until we encountered A Fuego Negro.

It's a small space, with exposed pipes, a few tables and room for a clutch of customers at the bar. If Arzak is elegance, Fuego Negro is funk. The walls are covered with posters celebrating African American culture and graphics that announce: "A Fuego Negro: Klassics Never Die" and "Black Brooklyn Basques."

The mood was upbeat, largely because of a table of rowdy Irishmen and our pixie-like waitress, who encouraged us to go big or go home. (That was our interpretation.) So we agreed to a menu-less tasting menu, pledging our faith in the potential of surprise.

Among our courses: "chestnuts" made from pureed turnips and celery, pickled pork with tomato mole ice cream, octopus salad with spinach, black and white quinoa on a bed of greens, a burger with a ketchup-infused bun and plantain chips, and long, slender "peppers" made of white chocolate.

Spectacular.

The next morning, we drove back to Bilbao and wandered the Casco Viejo, or Old Quarter, a part of the city that is not jammed with out-of-towners. We had an opportunity to inspect St. James Cathedral, whose origins date to the 14th century, and the Basque Museum, and to observe the clutches of old men in berets and a series of ETA flags — symbols of the Basque separatist movement — draped on balconies.

At 2:30 p.m., we surrendered to hunger and stepped into the nearest restaurant: Hatari Urban Kitchen & Bar. The pinxtos were fine, but Steve ordered a hamburguesa de Dijon that stopped us in our tracks, a tower of food with greens and cooked peppers, fried goat cheese, duck ham, a patty of ground meat and a slab of bread used as a base, a final reminder of how artistry can elevate the commonplace.

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