I’d heard and read so much about Asador Etxebarri from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations (he also said it was the best meal of his life) to Chez Pim’s journey there, it was a must on my recent eating/drinking tour of northern Spain. Like Pim, I was grateful to get to eat at various starry restaurants on this trip, but this place didn’t even have 1 Michelin star when I went in 2011 – quite possibly because the folks at the Michelin guide couldn’t find it.
Etxebarri is notoriously hard to find. We had explicit directions in our guide book, which were as good as any, but didn’t show any distances or what the “turns” actually looked like. We also had a British GPS, but Jane/Gayle was a little crazy (as we drove on the freeway, going the correct way, she would suddenly direct us to take off onto the Spanish fields alongside). And, we had Pim’s post open on our laptop as well. And it actually took all 3 devices to get us to the tiny town of Axpe, right on time, after allowing double the driving time to allow for the very slow driving (wasn’t me), and for getting lost.
Although the town was only 15 minutes from a bustling suburban area near San Sebastian, it felt as remote as Heidi’s mountains. A small cluster of stone buildings, sheep grazing in the mountain fields full of wildflowers, and mama sheep with babes in front of every small farm along the way had us wondering if we were in the right place.
And then we saw it! The typical Basque facade shown above looked over a tiny village square, awaiting our arrival, to fill our bellies with chef Victor Arguinzoniz’s grilled masterpieces until late in the afternoon. He is known for cooking with fire, over coals and wood, and for pairing different foods with the correct type of coal or wood that suits it best. He even makes his own coal to get the best pairing! This was going to be good.
First things first, we needed wine. Another thing that impressed me was the very accessible wine list. The prices were really reasonable (less than some of the food!), making it easy to order a bottle – not a glass – of local white to go with the many varied seafood dishes and a bottle of Rioja red (made mostly from the Tempranillo grape) to go with the meatier ones. Since lunch would be a 4-hour affair, we had time to take the wine all in. We ordered the Itsas Mendi Txakolina white wine to go with all the seafood we would be having on the tasting menu.
This was a local grape called Txakolina (shown above) from Itsas Mendi which means “sea and mountain” in Basque. The Basque make Txakolina in flat and sparkling varieties, and drink it with everyday meals in their homes. This flat Txakolina was lively, a bit lemony and briny. It’s made from a local grape called Hondarrabi Zuri, grown and bottled overlooking the bay near Bilbao. A bit wild and windy, perfect for the Grill Master’s typical meals and seafood dishes.
Then the amuse bouche arrived: Arguinzoniz’s famous house-made chorizo shown above and fire-baked bread.
The first course was handmade goat butter on grilled bread, topped with setas, spring mushrooms from the local hills, and charcoal salt.
Second course shown above was goose barnacles, something I’d never eaten before. We had to peel off a gray layer of interlocking fibers resembling fabric, which squirted orange ocean-flavored juice onto our table and eyeglasses, exposing the delicious neck of the crustacean.
Next up was grilled Palamós prawns, the best-tasting and largest prawns in the area. And the most beautiful I would add.
The next course was again something I’d never eaten: sea cucumber, shown above. These sea animals are related to sea urchin and starfish, but look a bit more like a slug. It tasted, however, more like a scallop, but meatier and tastier. This one was grilled and served with baby fava beans and a fava flower.
I was unprepared for the next dish to be the best of the day, grilled baby octopus served on a bed of onion confit and charcoal paste. Sweet and smoky and tender and so pretty too.
A classic Spanish dish, grilled anchovy, was next. This was perfectly cooked, barely seasoned and served with an arugula salad, shown above.
And now, the meat dishes. For the wine, we chose an affordable Rioja 2007 Crianza from Fernández de Piérola. La Rioja is just an hour’s drive or so from here, and remains the locals’ wine of choice for nicer bottles with dinner (read more about Rioja wine here). What I love about Rioja wine is how the laws about grape quality and specific requirements for time in barrel and in bottle assure the drinker of how the wine will taste. I love the youthfulness of Crianza over Riserva and Gran Riserva for pairing with various meat dishes – it’s a pretty versatile wine. This wine was elegant in the background of the food’s main stage, complementing without being too brash.
Next on the tasting menu was grilled fresh chorizo on a polenta cake. This was seared; not cooked! It was really really good. We also ordered a Rioja Crianza to go with this and the next meat dish.
And finally, a glorious piece of grilled beef on the bone shown above. For a girl from Oklahoma, this was a fitting climax to the meal and also perfectly cooked.
The first of two desserts came next: fresh sheep’s cheese ice cream with a wild fruit infusion. This ice cream tasted like the strongest, sharpest sheep cheese…you know, the one that smells a bit like the Zoo? It was stinky and heavenly, and the wild fruit infusion played the perfect complement. I got to eat two portions since the pungency was too much for my companion!
The last course was a Basque cake, torrija de pan y nuez (a cross between French toast and tres leches cake, if you can imagine that) served with smoked milk ice cream, shown above. This ice cream tasted like a vanilla, creamy campfire!
As the late afternoon started to wink at us through the trees, our happy bellies wanted nothing more than to take a long nap into the night. So, coffee was in order, along with lovely muffin pastries, to make it to our next bedding destination after this four-hour indulgence in the Spanish mountains.
A perfect meal for a perfect day in Spain by the world’s Master of the Grill, Victor Arguinzoniz. Can’t wait to come back to Asador Etxebarri!