"The Basque have been coming out of the woodwork," said Jorge de Yarza, who along with his partner Marissa Miller is the proprietor at Donostia, a slice of Basque Country in the East Village. "We never knew so many Basque were in New York!" Open in the morning for Café Con Leche and Tortillas, with a wide list of sherry, Txakoli and Pintxos available throughout the day and night, Donostia has quickly become a destination for the homesick from Basque who fill the narrow space alongside locals from the neighborhood.
With a father from Basque Country, Jorge travelled for 4 1/2 months with Marissa throughout the whole Iberian peninsula (with a side trip to Marche in Italy), visiting with family, touring wineries and local neighborhood haunts. "When we got back," he said, "we did our business plan in eight hours, from 10PM to 6 AM." When they found their current space, they were drawn to its narrow dimensions. "There's something about that," he added and laughed. "For a while, we went to all of our favorite bars measuring."
Like any plant worth its weight in pruning, the space needed some gutting before they could begin. Removing 42 tons of debris, they took out the concrete floor, the original walls, the ceiling and a huge oil tank from the basement. "We discovered an old air shaft and made a sky light out of it," he said. And they exposed the old original columns. "We wanted it to look like it'd been here for 100 years. We brought in elements of the north, some from the south and from old New York City."
With a marble countertop, nautical star tiling, maps from the motherland that date back to the 1700's, and Sunday evening European soccer leagues on the flatscreen, "it really feels like Spain," said Jorge. After acquiring permission to use the antique maps of Basque Country and San Sebastian that line the north wall, they had a friend "take the maps and make wallpaper, but at the time of making the wallpaper, we had no walls," said Marissa and laughed.
"We've [since] had three people point out their buildings on the city grid," added Jorge. "They freak out!"
Marissa Miller & Jorge de Yarza
For the menu, they began with the 1,000 recipes that they'd collected on their trip. Wanting to stay true to the regions of Basque and Cataluna, they devoted a majority of the menu to conservas, or small plates made from "preserved" items. "The places that we modeled ourselves after, there is no menu," said Jorge. "The food's all on the bar. You point and choose." And while one cannot point to every offering at Donostia, which means San Sebastian in Basque, there are 70 items on the menu, a few of which offer a variety of incarnations. "In the beginning, people kept returning to try what they hadn't tried," he said. "And with many items priced at two, three or five dollars, you're not burning a hole in your pocket."
After dining there a month ago, André Tamers of De Maison Selections said, "I was really surprised by their incredible thoroughness in the product they are presenting to New York. From the canned goods to the conos and of course the tortillas de double capas, everything I tried was amazing. They are pushing Spain to the next level with this incredible neighborhood bar one could find in any neighborhood in San Sebastian."
We ordered a bunch of small plates when we went, including a few Montaditos, like the Bonito tuna salad, the Brandada de Bacalao and the Esparragos Blancos; and a few Conservas, such as Boquerones and Mejillones en Escabeche. We loved the delightful samplings that quickly added up to a full meal. The savory bites spoke of the region and screamed for Txakoli or Sherry. Gutierrez Colosia, La Cigarrera, El Maestro Sierra, César Florido…there were plenty on the list from which to choose.
"André was very inspiring," said Jorge. "We studied him and the way he imports. He's focused. Uncompromising. We can open the place and the selections are just there. Without the Andrés of the world, we wouldn't be here. We have the best of Spain. When Spanish locals come here, they're amazed because they don't get these offerings at home.
"I still can't believe the place is here," he added. "I still feel Marissa and I are in the cab on the way to the airport."