Asador Etxebarri

“Etxebarri” – it’s spoken on the lips of the fooderati as if it’s an impossible perfection.

Simple, unquestionable perfection. Victor Arguinzoniz, head chef and proprietor of Asador Etxebarri is a maestro of the grill and the architect of the greatest meals of many people’s lives.

The ethos of Etxebarri is very simple: take the best local produce available in season, cook it over la brasa (a charcoal grill which he makes on his own using 5 different types of wood) and let the natural flavours of the ingredients shine through. Each dish is uncomplicated and clean in taste (although certainly not simple to execute).

The brasa was designed by Victor and contains a system of pulleys to raise and lower the grill to the precise height over the heat for each ingredient. Wesley explained some of the cooking processes for each ingredient and the care that goes into each dish. 

If you can eat it, he’ll grill it, he says. Caviar, cockles and even milk are cooked over locally felled oak and, unlike at many asadors, few of the ingredients arrive charred or blackened. If you’re tired of your dinner being mucked about with, this is the place to go. Chef Arguinzoniz then applies his own brand of culinary technique to the offerings. Rumored to be among the world’s greatest grillers, he takes his art very seriously. Where else would you find a restaurant that produces its own charcoal ,different varieties depending on the dishes to be served. Where else would you find a chef who has created his own grill? Obsessiveness – it does indeed help create legends.

Without a car, it is a 2 ½ hour trip from San Sebastian to the village of Axpe in the Basque countryside where Etxebarri is located but it is well worth the effort. The train passes through the countryside, past many local farms, through mountains and over small streams and even running around the coast for part of the journey. Etxebarri is tucked in the rolling hills of Axpe, Spain inside a two-story stone building on a village square. The restaurant has been mythologized in blog posts and magazine articles – a man, exemplary seafood, his home-made grills and charcoal, and a grill technique from the next realm.

Notoriously, Michelin has not ranked Etxebarri. It will be interesting to see if that changes with the next edition considering the fanfare the restaurant has been receiving. The food has been universally praised but not much has been said about the facilities. Where I expected a serviceable room, the room had a refined and rustic touch more than becoming to a Michelin one or two star restaurant. It sets the mood nicely for the meal to come.

Upon entering the restaurant, I thought I went into the wrong one. It was packed, loud and noisy and looked like your run in the mill pintxo bar. But I found out the restaurant was upstairs and that the first floor was a place for locals and close friends to meet for casual drinks. Perhaps that’s why Michelin has not agreed with Etxebarri?

Nevertheless, the restaurant is not overly large and the tables are spaced quite far apart giving a feeling that each table is special and somewhat intimate. Soft classical music plays in the background and the views of the surrounding countryside help set the scene.

Here follows the degustation menu:

Fresh cornbread 

Cream of Red Beans

Usually I am not a fan of beans and soup but this was nicely thick and smokey. It was a great way to warm up from the cool fall weather. 

Salt Cured Anchovy

Compared to the first dish, this completely overshadowed any previous taste I had in my mouth. Anchovies already are strong in taste, but once grilled, the taste is 100 times more accentuated. It was sweet, sour, smokey all at once.

Oyster

Quite sweet, plump, lightly grilled, unlike any oyster I’ve had, with a light smokiness throughout. Some reports say the oyster is sprayed with olive oil, others the oyster juices. Regardless, reference material for cooked oysters. The seaweed, slightly smoky itself, provided perfect texture counterpoint. Excellent.

Palamos Prawns

The third course was Palamos prawns, grilled over la brasa . The smoke brought out the prawns natural sweetness and they were without doubt the best prawns I have ever eaten (and likely will ever eat). The best part were the heads where you had to suck out the charcoally-like juices. I have never been one to eat the prawn brains but I found myself sucking on the head and searching for every little uneaten morsel to mop up with my bread. Truly sublime.

White beans and Clam

Another beautiful dish. It felt like the clam was just boiled in water and mixed with sauce. But again, grilled. Was not dry but full of juice and flavor. 

Mushrooms and Eggplant

I thought the flavors of the menu were going to go down but I was taken aback by this simple dish of vegetables. So that’s what a fresh vegetable taste like. Absolutely natural and great!

Egg yolk and White Truffle

I am drooling just writing about this dish. White truffle and egg yolk? Can’t get two better things together. Lightly grilled truffle that unleashes flavor and smell alongside a soft egg yolk. No words can describe this dynamic duo. 

Red Mullet

I wasn’t surprised with the use of scales on a fish. I have seen this type of cooking before, but never on the grill and little charcoaled. A good dish, but did not wow me. 

Beef Chop

Not much upfront taste but a much stronger aftertaste when compared to American beef, with a light smokiness carrying it. You could say the flavor was gamey. Made of retired Galician cows more than 8 years old (whereas the typical American cow is generally less than 2 years old.) Very Good.

Reduced milk ice-cream

Perfect ice cream. Unsure of which sort of milk, sheep’s being my guess, the texture and richness was unparalleled. 

The smoky taste was so pleasant and unlike anything I have experienced before, with the berries providing a perfectly sharp contrast. The dessert was light and also cleansed the palate.

A parting gift…

You could see the purported brilliance, nearly taste it in every dish. Would I recommend it on a trip to Spain? Yes, for the truly obsessed. It is too expensive for someone with just a casual interest. Would I include it in a list of the world’s best restaurants? For sure. Should Michelin list the restaurant? Why not? Will I re-visit on my next trip to Spain (or Southwest France)? Yes. Do I expect it to make it into my top 10? Yes.

Asador Etxebarri
Address: Plaza San Juan 1, 48291 Axpe-Marzana, Atxondo-Bizkaia, Spain
Telephone: +34 9465 83042
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Comments
2 Responses to “Asador Etxebarri”
  1. Sinan says:

    I guess it was all that I dreamed it would be, eh..?

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  1. […] of Axpe, about 45 minutes west out of San Sebastian (en route to Bilbao). You might recall a first visit on my behalf, a couple of months ago. I remember being wowed in the cold winter weather, warming […]



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