Product, craft and location are the three elements that set Asador Etxebarri apart and make it what it is – a restaurant that crafts and serves some of the most delicious and special food on the planet. Nestled in the little sheep-herding hamlet of Axpe in the mountains between Donostia/San Sebastien and Bilbao, Etxebarri is not the easiest place to get to, but the rewards both on the plate and to the eyes make the trip worthwhile.
I went with my son, Andrew, as part of a post-Barcelona culinary foray into el Pais Vasco, or as it is known in the native Basque language, Euskadi. Haven given ourselves extra time, we arrived on-time for our 1:30PM lunch reservation. This was no mean feat, however, as our GPS, an otherwise reliable Garmin Nuvi, failed to locate the restaurant’s address. It did get us close enough, however, that armed with the restaurant’s own directions (by all means use them if you go), we managed to find the restaurant.
Once we were seated, we were given an a la carte menu as well as a degustation menu. Given some of the delicacies on the degustation, it proved impossible to not order it. I did see one additional item on the a la carte menu that I absolutely wanted to try, so I added an order of nekora, or crab, (equivalent to the blue crab), to the tasting menu to be split between the two of us. At 120 Euros per person plus an additional 24 Euros for the crab plus wine, this would not be an inexpensive lunch, especially with the value of the dollar tanked.
To temper the cost a bit I used a new iPhone app developed by my friend Andy Hayler called Wine Search to seek out a good value from the list. With this, I found a reasonable deal on a 2006 Roda Reserva from the Rioja at 35 Euros. Moderately high in alcohol at 14% and built in the global style, I wasn’t sure how it would go with the meal, but when also independently recommended by our waitress, I chose it. I expected the wine to pair well with the end of the degustation, but I was surprised at how well this rich red wine, laden with cherries, red berries, a bit of oak and nuances of anise went with the entire meal. Perhaps it was the hints of smoke found throughout the food that meshed well with the wine’s own smoky notes, but I was pleasantly surprised at how wonderfully the wine paired with dishes such as the oyster, percebes and angullas.
We were quickly brought bread and had a choice of two different kinds, a rustic loaf or a ciabatta like bread. I chose the rustic loaf, which had a nice, crisp crust and a dense, lush and flavorful crumb. Andrew took the ciabatta. Although we both knew that we would be eating a lot of food, it was difficult to keep our hands off this addictive bread. I did, however, with some difficulty, limit myself to the one large piece that was placed upon my bread plate. When asked about water, we opted for sparkling. I was a bit surprised that with all the excellent Spanish options available, that we were served San Pellegrino, but then maybe that was in honor of Etxebarri finding a spot in the most recent San Pellegrino World’s Fifty Best Restaurant list.
We were served an amuse of a single fresh white asparagus each. I was surprised to discover only a very faint touch of smoke from the grill kissing this pristine vegetable. It was not soft and mushy like canned asparagus. Rather, it was crisp, though not raw. Exquisite and subtle, this was a fun introduction of what was to come.
I was expecting the goat butter to come with the bread. It did – sort of. It wasn’t served to accompany the bread that we had already been brought, which was good since we hadn’t waited for it. That bread was wonderful on its own. The goat butter, which also had experienced the light kiss of the grill, was presented as a slab upon some toast. Accompanying the butter were spring “St. George’s” mushrooms and volcanic salt. The butter was creamy, slightly smokey and just amazing, reminding me more of bone marrow than basic butter. The mushrooms added a light touch along with the salt. This dish was as much about its wonderful texture as it was about the amazing flavor of the butter. I had never actually been served butter as the backbone of a course before, but the butter deserved its billing.
The oysters that were brought to us for the next course were, in and of themselves, works of art. Brought on plates that highlighted the colors and striations of the oysters’ shells, they resembled beautiful sculptures more than food. The lids had been replaced back on top of the lightly grilled bivalves. Within were exquisite oysters in a preparation reminiscent of Oysters Rockefeller secondary to their construction and appearance. That is where the similarity ended. The oysters lay underneath a light foam made from its own juices and sat on a bed of smoked seaweed. The oyster was sublime.
Percebes or goose barnacles are a down and dirty dish. There is no graceful or elegant way to eat them. When they are as good as the lightly grilled ones served at Etxebarri, it just doesn’t matter. If I was in formal wear, they would still have been worth digging into, even if I got the formal wear all messy. I loved the novel grilling and serving cylinder they came in as well. As far as the mess, nothing a few moist towels provided by our waitress couldn’t handle.
The crab was split evenly between us. The grilling smoke was more pronounced here than anywhere else in the meal so far, but it complemented the inherent sweetness of the crab beautifully. This was another down and dirty dish, but once again, the wet cloth took care of our messy hands quite nicely.
Porcinis are very tasty mushrooms, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever had them so deliciously prepared as the deceptively simple ones we had at Etxebarri. The purity, depth and balance of flavor was extraordinary. In addition to the mushrooms, the dish offered grilled eggplant. The eggplant mimicked the texture of the mushrooms, while adding a flavor nuance to the dish. The hongos were clearly the stars of this show, however, they were supported admirably by the superb eggplant.
Mushrooms played an important role in the next dish as well, though it was more of a supporting role. The egg yolk had top billing and with good reason. It was bright, silky and totally luxurious as it coated the razor thin slices of raw St. George’s mushrooms and potato puree. This was a dish of pure finesse and elegance.
Perfect, tiny spring peas with a touch of jamon, a broth, butter and a pea flower gave us a taste of the pure essence of spring. Peas don’t get better than they are in Spain and Spanish peas, in my experience don’t get better than these.
Pasta-like baby eels – aka angullas – were the one element of this meal that I felt somewhat guilty eating, as they have become scarce and are considered by some to be endangered. With this dish, the first time I had ever actually eaten angullas, I had an understanding of why they are so prized and why they have become so expensive and rare. They were totally decadent. With a slightly al dente texture, a little bit of crunch on the finish and a buttery flavor that brought to mind the smoked goat’s butter from earlier in the meal, they were simply and utterly delicious, even if they made me feel curiously like Saturn in the famous painting by Goya, eating his own children. Unfortunately, this was – for me, at least – a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience. As much as I would love to eat them again (and will if their numbers allow), I don’t expect that will ever happen again.
A single, pristine, grilled anchovy with a bit of arugula salad – how could it be so wonderful? I can’t say how it was so superior to just about any other anchovy I had ever eaten, but it was. Clean and luscious, perfectly fresh, I was totally in awe of Arguinzoniz’ product and his technique.
There are steaks and there are steaks. This was a STEAK! Grilled to a wonderful char, full of amazing maillard flavors on the outside and rare in the center, I have never experienced a more satisfying steak than this. Packed with flavor, tender and beautiful, this is what beef really is all about. I would return to Etxebarri just for the steak, it was that good.
The steak was served with a side of peppers. These were lovely, but not really necessary. Nevertheless, we didn’t leave any on the plate.
Even more welcome than the peppers was a side of simple salad served along with the beef. This worked nicely to cut through the richness of the meat. Perhaps the simplest dish we had been served – lettuce, a little grilled onion and a light vinaigrette- it was fully appreciated as an end to the savory portion of the meal.
I might have thought that desserts might have been an afterthought at a restaurant renowned for its prowess with the grill. I would have thought wrong – very wrong. While the pastries, like the savories, may not have been dressed in particularly fancy clothes, they were incredibly delicious. The smoked milk ice cream was brilliant. Nothing extraordinary to look at, it was nevertheless marvelous to eat with the lovely, creamy mouthfeel of the best ice cream, enough smoke to make it interesting, a brilliant milk flavor and enough sweetness from the berry infusion to make it a dessert. It was not “too” anything, nor was it lacking in anything. As with the rest of the meal, the result relied on impeccable product and outstanding execution. This could have easily been pedestrian or imbalanced, but it wasn’t.
The second dessert and final one on the menu, the cheese flan, was somehow even more delicious than its predecessor though every bit as ordinary in appearance. It was light and eggy, once again not overly sweet, and with an amazing depth of flavor. This was comfort food to ease one into a state of blissful sleep eliciting only the most wonderful and contented dreams. This was pure deliciousness.
After our meal, Andrew and I were invited down to the kitchen to meet Chef Arguinzoniz and view the kitchen. While there, we also met two of the five stagieres, one from New York and the other from Rome. The set up of the kitchen is absolutely ingenious. Designed by Chef Arguinzoniz, the grilling operation relies on the transfer of wood coals and ashes from an oven onto a long grill. At the grill there are multiple grilling surfaces that can be raised and lowered from the coals to achieve just the right level of heat and smoke. In addition, Arguinzoniz designed specific grilling tools and baskets with which to impart the wonders of the fire to varying foods, both intuitive and counterintuitive in terms of one’s expectations for their grilling potentials.
After our visit to the kitchen, Chef Arguinzoniz invited us back to the dining room and treated us to digestifs of gin and tonics as well as an additional dessert of traditional torrijas made with milk from the sheep grazing essentially right out the door of the restaurant. It was a grand way to finish an extraordinary meal.
Upon reluctantly leaving the restaurant, we needed a bit of a stroll. Etxebarri is located in about as idyllic a setting as there is. Andrew and I took a walk up the hill past some donkeys and horses and past a flock of sheep. On our way back down the hill, walking back to our car, we became immersed within the flock as the shepherd gathered them to bring them back through Axpe to bed them down for the evening. It was a magical end to a magical afternoon.
I am enthralled with the question of food as art. Bittor Arguinzoniz is clearly the consummate, perhaps even ultimate culinary craftsman. Primarily self-taught, he has elevated the craft of grilling to heights I have neither previously encountered nor imagined. His food is sublime. Attractively presented, it nevertheless does not try to be anything other than what it is – food, supremely delicious food. I don’t believe that Bittor Arguinzoniz aspires to be an artist or would consider his food to be art. Nevertheless, it is food of such incredible skill and quality, food that is so good, it elicits distinct and deep emotional reactions just from its sheer gustatory beauty, that I’m not sure his food couldn’t and shouldn’t be considered as art. He may not be looking to tell a story, but he certainly knows how to inspire them.