When it comes to food – culture, production and crafting – is there a better place on Earth than the Basque Country of northern Spain? Blessed with a bounty from both land and sea and the know-how to use it all, Euskadi or Spain’s Pais Vasco is a culinary wonderland. The problem, if it can be considered as such, is that there are simply way too many choices. The breadth and depth of quality is so much that having to choose amongst the myriad of possibilities is daunting. The best part, though, is that it is very difficult to make a poor choice. Thus, Gerry Dawes and I had to make a few tough decisions when we planned the itinerary for just a few short days in the Basque Country. It turned out that some of our choices were guided by timing and made for us. It was timing that kept us away from places like Azurmundi and Elkano, the former because its opening hours did not work with our schedule and the latter because they were closed for vacation while we were in the area. When it came to choosing a Michelin Three Star restaurant in San Sebastian, we selected one of the two I had not previously been to. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for more.
We arrived in Bilbao well after dark. Our hotel was well situated and comfortable, though, of all the hotels we stayed at during the trip, it was most in need of a bit of freshening up.We had done a lot of eating and traveling during the day and we were all a bit tired and not terribly hungry. Anticipating that likelihood, we scheduled a restaurant that would not challenge our endurance. The food would be relatively simple, but of high quality and delicious.
Sidreria Asador La Gabarra, located within walking distance of the hotel, fit the bill. The food was not necessarily light, but it was of outstanding quality and delicious enough to obviate any lack of hunger issues. The bottom line is that La Gabarra is a steakhouse, so steak was certainly in order.
Steak was not the only thing that we would have and enjoy, though. It would be an evening of simple Spanish standards starting with these superb white asparagus (cojonudos) served with a basic, but excellent mayonnaise that complemented the soft stalks with its silkiness.
Tortilla of eggs, potatoes and onions is as basic as it gets in Spain and good ones are not rare. This one, which included salt cod, was very good and hit the spot while adding an element representative of the area.
Croquetas are another item ubiquitous throughout Spain and serious comfort food. These were perfectly satisfactory without being exceptional examples of the ouvre.
Since we were in Basque Country, it was only fitting that we would have our first Txacoli and since we were in the province of Vizcaya, it would be a local one, a Bizkaiko Txacolina, as it is called in Basque. The Vizcayan Txacolis are a bit more wine like than those from Getaria, which are generally the ones found in the pintxos restaurants of San Sebastian. The latter remind me more of a sidra than wine, but all of them have crisp acidity, a bit of effervescence and strong minerality. Those from Getaria are the ones that one sees being poured from on high like an Asturian sidra. This one was quite refreshing and delicious.
The main event at La Gabarra is steak cooked over a wood fire. The chuletons from older cows are hefty.
Grilling over wood is an age old art in Spain, especially in the north of the country, where beef is quite prominent and as flavorful as anywhere in the world. At La Gabarra, the chuleton is taken off the grill, sliced and placed on a very hot ceramic plate for finishing.
The result was one of the most delicious steaks that I’ve ever had. We may not have been hungry when we started, but this, served simply, abetted by a bit of salt alone, certainly piqued our appetites.
The next morning gave us time to visit the Guggenheim Museum before leaving Bilbao. The museum is probably most well known for its architecture by Frank Gehry. It is an impressive and rather fanciful design, perhaps his masterpiece. Gehry’s design is enhanced by a number of impressive outdoor sculptures that emphasize the whimsical nature of the design.
Sculpture is not just impressive outside the building. The most impressive part of the collection for me was the series of large, fluid, metal sculptures by the American Richard Serra, that occupy a huge wing of the building. It is easy to get lost amongst the pieces and happily so.
One of the more iconic structures along the main entrance to the museum is Jeff Koons’ Puppy, a veritable living sculpture skinned with flowering plants. We were fortunate to catch the Puppy being groomed.
Fortune was smiling on us and not just because the Puppy was being groomed. More significantly, it was the day for Etxebarri! I had been once before, back in 2011, with my son, and it was one of the best and most memorable meals of my life. It was also, probably the one restaurant that just about everyone on the trip specifically wanted to experience.
Getting to Axpe and Etxebarri can be a challenge as the Basque language, tricky roads and it being a small, mountain town can complicate matters very quickly. We had no such difficulty with our bus and experienced driver, Antonio, and arrived early for our 1:30PM lunch reservation. Though a bit overcast, it was a lovely day and we had some time to explore the area before sitting down for our meal. The alpine surroundings are spectacularly idyllic and not an insignificant part of the magic that makes Asador Etxebarri as special as it is.
We drank a lot of wine on this trip and we would have plenty during this meal, but most of us started with something unique, a beer brewed by Bitor himself. Slightly bitter, the brew had great body and depth of flavor.
The brew was an interesting and tasty curiosity that helped cast a fine light on the breadth and depth of Bitor’s talent, but in and of itself was not the reason for the visit. That was to taste Bitor’s cooking, whether for the first time or once again to relive past gustatory magic. The first morsels to alight on our palates was a small sandwich of house made chorizo on sensationally crunchy bread. Though I have come to severely limit my intake of carbs, this was not a meal during which I would worry about that and I devoured this relatively inelegant (for such an elegant restaurant) few bites.
Arguinzoniz is known for serving the finest product and he does wonders with everything, but few things served at Etxebarri astound me more than his slightly smoky, ash-topped goat’s milk butter. It is not just that it is delicious – that is totally expected here. rather, it is in the nuances of detail and depth achieved with such a seemingly straight forward commodity.It may not be the most spectacular element of the meal in terms of its absolute deliciousness, but it may be the most impressive elevation of any particular ingredient served.
A bit of fresh cheese from water buffalo milk laced with hazelnuts and a bit of honey continued the theme of stunning simplicity and there would be no let up throughout the meal.
Even the anchovies are house cured and stupendously perfect.
In most restaurants this next dish may have been a standout, but here it was one of the least impressive of the meal. It was roasted pumpkin with herbs, flowers and seasonings. While good, it lacked the depth of the rest of the meal.
The pumpkin may have been relatively disappointing, but that was quickly assuaged by the appearance of Bitor’s legendary grilled gambas rojas de Palamós. These are some of the finest prawns in the world handled just enough to enhance their innate deliciousness. Of course, they arrive head-on, which the Spanish know full well, is the source of some of the most profound flavor anywhere. The head is snapped off with a quick twist, lifted like a cup to the mouth and knocked back with all the sweet juices sucked dry.
Squid and onions seem to be a Spanish thing and no wonder. They do go very well together. Etxebarri’s grilled squid was served with caramelized onions and some of the squid’s ink. The sweet onions and squid were complemented by the slightly bitter char, making the overall effect more complex than its simple description would belie.
I enjoy contrast, but even more I enjoy an expertly combined set of foods that blend into each other seamlessly. Such was the case with Bitor’s mushrooms and eggplant, a seemingly unlikely duo for a role like that. This dish, however, was all subtlety, nuance and umami.
Raw pork? Daring, to say the least! I wouldn’t chance it at too many places, but here, in the form of chorizo tartare, I did and I would happily do so again.
Arguinzoniz knows how to select, cook and match mushrooms. In this case, he paired chanterelles with artichoke. While not entirely intuitive, the combination worked quite nicely with the sweetness of the artichoke complementing the meatiness of the mushroom.
While we were having the tasting menu, people one table over were indulging in the a la carte selections. One dish, in particular, was so appealing that I simply had to order it to share amongst the table. These were the largest percebes that I had ever seen and as it turned out, they were the most perfectly cooked and delicious percebes that I have ever eaten. Once the outer cover was twisted off, the internal flesh was reminiscent of a very well prepared lobster – sweet, firm and briny. It required no further embellishment.
Next up was a whole grilled fish. Called besugo in Spanish, but known as sea bream in English, the large fish had been splayed down the middle from head to tail. It was portioned at the table and served along with a platter of grill roasted vegetables. The fish was cooked through to the proper point of retaining full moisture, but with a distinct flake. It was magnificent!
The chuleta I shared with my son at Etxebarri in 2011 was as fantastic and memorable a beef steak as I’ve ever had, unmatched until the one served at this meal, which proved its equal. Jammed with umami, perfectly seasoned, crusted and the very epitome of beef flavor, this was no ordinary steak, just like no product at this restaurant is ordinary. Bitor possesses the extraordinary skill of being able to fully enhance great product as far as it can be without altering its essence. His chuletas are as fine an example of that skill as anything.
Throughout the meal, we enjoyed good wines to complement the savory courses. We started with a lovely Cava, the Gramona Imperial from Penedes.
This was followed by a bright, citrusy Vizkaiko Txacolina from Itsasmendi, which was a superb match for a number of courses including the fish.
The final wine, poured from a decanter, was a lovely Tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero, the Finca Valdeolmos from Goyo-Garcia.
One might think that desserts may be an afterthought at Etxebarri, but that would be a mistake. They carry the same aesthetic, devotion to product and preparation skill as the savory portion of the menu. His milk ice cream with beet juice is as simple in appearance, but as complex in flavor as anything else brought to the table.
Intxaursalsa is a traditional Basque dessert made with ground walnuts, cinnamon, milk and sugar. Here, it was paired with grilled apple to make a dessert that was both hearty and satisfying without being too sweet.
The meal finished up with mignardises. The muffin, while good, was easily forgettable amongst all the greatness that preceded it.
The éclat de cacao, on the other hand, was a wonderful dollop of intense chocolate flavor.
The afternoon moved along at a brisk pace, leaving us with little time to linger. Of course, we visited in his amazing kitchen, with the man behind it all, chef Bitor Arguinzoniz.
A few of us also took the time for a quick walk to appreciate the spectacular beauty of the area and aid in the digestion of a fabulous meal. A short while later, we were back on the bus heading towards our next fabulous destination, the justly legendary San Sebastián/Donostia, one of the most incredibly food centric cities on Earth.