Monday, September 27, 2010

Asador Etxebarri - Axpe, Spain

Asador Etxebarri and its chef Victor Arguinzoniz - the "Grilling Genius of Spain," as Anya von Bremzen dubbed him - have been known and adored by the food cognoscenti for some time. And yet in some ways, Etxebarri still seems to get something of the ugly stepchild treatment among the "destination" Basque restaurants. While Arzak, Martin Berasategui, and now Akelaŕe sport three Michelin stars each, Etxebarri only was awarded its first last year. Stars be damned: this was among the most delicious meals I've ever had, with the quality of several of the items establishing themselves as personal benchmarks.

The full set of pictures from our lunch is at: Asador Etxebarri - September 2010.

The story of Etxebarri is well-known at this point. Situated in a tiny village in the hills of Basque Country, down winding roads about an hour away from either San Sebastian or Bilbao, a self-taught chef set out to refine, and in some ways, reinvent, the idea of the asador, or grill-house. Chef Arguinzoniz makes his own charcoals, he's invented his own grilling implements, and he sources the finest product he can lay his hands on, some hyper-local, some from other parts of Spain.

As we pulled into the small plaza on which Etxebarri is situated mid-day for lunch, we found ourselves right in the middle of some sort of race; indeed, I quickly realized I was practically standing on the finish line as runners stomped past and someone called out their times. When we retreated from the race course and found the restaurant, we entered to find the downstairs bar crowded with revelers. While Etxebarri may be internationally famous, it is also still a locals' watering hole. Upstairs in the dining room, in a simple room with an exposed wood-beam ceiling and plain white cloths on the tables, we settled in and ordered the tasting menu.

puré de cebolla
To start, an amuse bouche of a lusciously smooth and silky, soubise-like onion purée, topped with shaved bits of celery and apple.

mantequilla casera
To go with their nicely crusty bread, two butters: the lighter-colored one in the foreground of goat's milk, lightly smoked and sprinkled with ash; the creamy yellow one in the background of cow's milk, pure and rich.

anchoa al salazón
A salt-cured anchovy, tender, meaty, oily, fishy in the best possible way, served over a slab of toasted bread. One of the finest anchovies I've tasted, though a bit less salt in the cure might have let it shine even more brilliantly.

percebes a la brasa
We first tried percebes, or gooseneck barnacles, on our last trip to Spain. They are harvested at extreme peril from rocks on the coast of Galicia, they look disconcertingly like they could be dinosaur toes, they are mind-bogglingly expensive, and they are one of the most delicious seafood items I've ever tasted. The outer casing  is peeled off (sometimes at small peril to the diner, since they can squirt), revealing the little muscle within which has a magically pure brininess. Typically steamed, at Etxebarri they are given the grill treatment, imparting just a subtle hint of smokiness.

(continued ...)

gambas de Palamós a la brasa
Gambas, or prawns, from Palamós on the northeast coast of Spain, with their distinctive bright red shells, are among the most prized in Spain. We ate them in many places on this trip. The ones we had at Etxebarri were the finest we had in any of our meals, and indeed the best prawns I've ever eaten. There is so little going on here - prawns, salt, smoke, heat - and yet absolutely nothing else could make this any better. The tail was perfectly cooked, simultaneously tender, meaty, salty and sweet. And the juices from sucking the heads, enhanced by a smoky grace note, were just fantastic: nectar of Poseidon, if you will. A reference point dish.

mejillones a la brasa
Playing on the Spanish penchant for high-quality canned seafood products, these mussels were presented in a mock can. Removing the lid revealed several small, plump, warmed mussels, swimming in a frothy, intensely carrot-y broth, perked up with a sprinkling of pimentón. Very nicely done.

chipirón a la brasa
This was another reference-point dish, very possibly the best grilled squid I've ever eaten: wonderfully fresh, with a pure and clean flavor, and riding the perfect line between springy and tender. The first of the grilled items to feature any real adornment, this came with some sweet caramelized onions, a dab of dark, rich squid ink sauce, and some barely wilted vegetables, all of which came together nicely.

bacalao a la brasa
This codfish was probably my least favorite dish of the meal, not because of any failure of the kitchen but only because it's not one of my favorite fish. Notwithstanding that, it had a lovely silky texture, coming apart in big fat flakes separated by the fish's juicy gelatin. The little plank of grilled zucchini (and its flower) may actually have been my favorite item on this plate, making me wonder why vegetables didn't play a more prominent role in the menu, though the piquillo pepper's strong flavor may have slightly overwhelmed the fish. A pil-pil like sauce, tasting of an emulsion of garlic and the fish juices, was swirled about the plate.

chuleta de vaca a la brasa
We had eaten a lot of food by this point, but this steak, grilled on the bone and then sliced and sprinkled with coarse salt, was impossible to resist. Though perhaps disconcertingly rare for those who don't like their steak bloody,[1] it was in fact perfectly cooked to bring out its deep flavors. It had an ideal balance between chewy and tender, with a touch of char on the exterior, a thin ring of pink, a wide band of deep purple, with a denser, richer flavor than any other steak I've had - yes, possibly another benchmark dish. Mrs. F does not like her steak this rare, but still couldn't stop picking at it. It was served with a simple salad of pale green lettuce dressed in a sherry vinaigrette, which nicely cut through the richness of the beef.

infusion de frutos silvestres con helado de queso
This ice cream of fresh cheese, nestled in a thick sauce of wild berries, was mind-blowingly good. Creamy, tangy, rich but not too heavy, perfectly playing off the sweet-tart berry sauce beneath. I want a tub of this stuff.

tartaleta de manzana con helado de leche reducida
Possibly more interesting, but slightly less pleasing, was this apple tart with a smoked milk ice cream which closed our meal. The apples had the silky smooth texture of an apple sauce, and were curiously combined with what I understand to be spaghetti squash.[2] The smoked milk ice cream was good, but I wasn't completely convinced that this was the ideal pairing for it.

The wine list features a number of very reasonably priced options. More out of curiosity than anything else, I ordered something I'd never seen nor even heard of before: a white wine from a producer in Bierzo, a region which I didn't even know made white wines. The wine, from a producer named Mengoba, was a blend of Godello and Doña Blanca, was priced under 30€, and turned out to be a lovely match particularly for the briney seafood dishes.

In some ways, it demeans the importance of the chef's skill to focus on the quality of the ingredients at Etxebarri: and yet it is only through the combination of both that the restaurant provides such a magnificent dining experience. What I found most remarkable is that in a time when so much of the direction of contemporary cooking has shifted to technological precision - immersion circulators and cook-n-hold ovens that heat ingredients to a specific temperature - Etxebarri achieves perfection with that most primitive of cooking methods: fire.

Asador Etxebarri
Plaza San Juan 1
Axpe-Marzana, Spain
+34 94 658 30 42

[1]I have read some people who complained about the service at Etxebarri, noting in particular that they were not asked the degree of doneness they wanted on their steak. These people are idiots.

[2]This is an inferential leap: when we asked what it was, we got both "cabeza de angel" and "calabaza" out of the response.


  1. Frod, you are definitely the best person to live a Spanish foodie vacation vicariously through. Thanks.

  2. I found the "copulating crustaceans" presentation in the above photo rather amusing. Undoubtedly a visual cue that primed you for your enjoyment of sucking the heads.

  3. I thought that about the prawns, but didn't say it. They do look happy though, don't they?

  4. Great post - that squid does look perfect

  5. I've never actually seen shrimp screw, so I can't make the reference. It's a little more PG to imagine that they are spooning happily.
    Amazing post. Your comment at the end, although proposing irony, is more of a justification. What better way to truly understand food on any level than to take it down to these base elements.

  6. "What better way to truly understand food on any level than to take it down to these base elements." - Absolutely. Same destination; many routes.

  7. Somehow I missed this post... Humping shrimp! I only have one question: How the hell do you pronounce Etxebarri and Axpe?

  8. The Basques spell everything like they're cheating at Scrabble: practically every other letter is an "x" or a "k." As best as I can figure, the "tx" spelling is the equivalent of a "ch" sound - i.e., "pintxos" sounds like "pinchos," "txakoli" sounds like "chockolee," etc.