In our brief sojourns through London and Paris we’d sought out great value restaurants and bistros. By the time we’d reached Sarlat we’d opted for more the simple pleasures of local market fare and home cooking. But who doesn’t like a nice treat every now and then? Spain and more specifically, its celebrated food capital in the Basque region, San Sebastian, was our designated food splurging destination and a Michelin starred degustation was in order. Our first stop in Spain was about 25 minutes drive from San Sebastian and our navigation system was honed in on a famed “erretegia” or grill house called Asador Etxebarri, a restaurant with 1 Michelin-star and for 6 years now has featured on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
The restaurant is usually referred to simply as Etxebarri, which can be confusing as it happens to be the name of a nearby town and municipality closer to the city of Bilbao. It is a Basque word comprised of the words ‘etxe’ meaning ‘home’ and ‘barri’ or ‘new’ and for those wondering, the “tx” in Etxebarri is pronounced “ch”, so pronunciation sounds more like “Etch-e-barri”. Linguistics lesson aside, although Etxebarri’s grilling techniques have only garnered international attention relatively recently, it is by no means a new home to owner and self taught chef, Victor Arguinzoniz. The chef had a previous career as a timber worker and over 20 years ago personally restored the old stone house that is now the restaurant. His knowledge of all things timber-related and love for grilling comes together at Etxebarri, where the naked flame influences everything on the menu – even ice cream desserts! The fastidious chef has custom designed and built grilling platforms that raise or lower ingredients over the flame for ultimate control over flame grilling and even creates his own charcoal for the grill like oak, apple, orange and olive wood charcoal to impart distinctive flavours. His hands on approach also extends to many of the basics on the menu including the handmade bread, smoked goat’s milk butter and cured meats like chorizo. Being big fans of the grill, we were well sold and booked ourselves in for a feast.
Our drive to Etxebarri started from the French Pyrenees, surrounded by towering craggy snow-capped mountains and inhospitable sheer rock faces that descended down to lush warm green valleys dotted with picturesque little hamlets complete with white washed farm houses that could have come straight out of Vogue Living. Then we sped onto French freeways that jettisoned us towards Spain. The turnoff from the freeway into Spain was a little less welcoming, and we drove through a gloomy industrial wasteland with high density buildings set right against the main roads. We were struck by how stark the contrast was immediately as we crossed the Spanish border and bizarrely thought it looked not unlike suburban China. Thankfully as we pressed on we found Etxebarri in a quaint town called Axpe, nestled in the foothills of some small mountains, amongst quiet, vividly lush green farms thanks in part to the generous rainfall deluges the region enjoys. With low mist and clouds hugging the nearby mountains floating down to the valley to cloak the restaurant, it really was a serene and beautiful sight to arrive at.
The restaurant itself is a large two story stone house with a vast, high ceilinged main dining room surrounded by multiple small private dining rooms. The lunch seating had only just started when we arrived so the room was still sparsely populated, but as the room filled up we curiously noted that with the exception of one Spanish speaking couple and a table of Japanese tourists, on the day we attended it was only populated by English speaking tourists, and the vast majority of those appeared to be American. Whether that was merely a coincidence, or because Etxebarri was more popularised in the states, or that Americans felt more affinity with the grilling theme of the restaurant, we don’t know.
We couldn’t go past the full tasting menu at 120€, which could better be described as a degustation of locally sourced ingredients celebrating the Etxebarri flavour, with simple menu descriptions that showed little more than the main ingredient in the dish. All the ingredients were selected for seasonal availability and flavour, but also seemed like perfect vessels that married well and showcased the very distinctive Etxebarri smoky char flavour that we were about to become acquainted with. One might expect that a grill house might end up flaming and grilling things excessively, but surprisingly we found if anything things were refreshingly just cooked through or even served deliberately slightly undercooked with varying degrees of smokiness.
With a glass of txakoli, the much loved local sparkling white wine, we kicked off the meal with a small shot of carrot juice, simple and pure. Beta carotene intake for the day – tick.
Three slices of the home-cured and smoked chorizo commenced the starters. Smoky, rich and oily without being greasy, subtly spicy, and subtly acidic.
Next came delicious fillets of salted anchovy on lightly charred, home made toasted bread , drizzled with olive oil – a powerful and unmistakable introduction to the “Etxebarri char flavour” that we would soon find was ubiquitous and omnipresent, but not unpleasantly. I absolutely love anchovies and have been known to eat them straight from the jar. These salted anchovies were unlike any other anchovy I’ve had before – salty, pink, plump and tender but still firm – they were clearly the Rolls Royces of the anchovy world.
Our waitresses’ grasp of English wasn’t excellent and most dishes were introduced with such a heavy accent I could only catch a word here or there. At least that’s my excuse for mistaking the smoked, hand churned goat’s milk butter for – oh I don’t know, some pale form of soft cheese and speared a small piece into my mouth whilst the Co-pilot watched on bemused. Well, take it from me, it was very nice butter and though I’m not a fan of filling up on bread, the creamy goat’s milk butter highlighted with smoky wood ash and black salt smeared on fresh homemade bread was (evidently) difficult to resist.
The seafood courses was heralded by the arrival of the percebes or gooseneck barnacles. I’d read, heard, and watched so many programs about these percebes and was adamant on trying some in Spain so this was proving to be my lucky day. Percebes are filter feeding crustaceans found off Galicia at the ominously named Costa de la Muerte (or Coast of Death), appropriately named as they’re harvested by brave daredevil foragers who risk strong batterings from rogue waves to gather these much loved delicacies that are stuck steadfastly to rocks. The considerable risks are worthwhile as these beauties can fetch over 100€/kg at markets. The barnacles themselves look alien and unappealing like ..er.. primitive phalluses decorated with prehistoric dinosaur toe plates. The edible stalk part of the barnacle (or peduncle) lies beneath a phenomenally tough mesh-patterned sheath and to get to it you have to persistently dig in and worry at it with your nail near the top (capitulum) until you get a tear, then peel the sheath away. It was messy work with pink barnacle juice squirting this way and that and ruining your nails is a given, but the soft, tender muscle beneath is well worth the effort. It tasted deliciously sweet and juicy, delicate but strong with the flavour of the sea, a very unique flavour and texture but not unlike say a raw mussel – but just 100 times better. I wanted a kilo of these babies to myself.
Watching the other diners struggle with it was half the fun and it was apparent that not all the diners were as enamoured with the percebes as we were. The dainty Japanese ladies at the table next to us obviously found it culturally difficult to engage in the messy work and their male companions had to help them. The dining room was filled with the sound of soft curses and complaints, alternating with whoops of triumphant success.
A large oyster shell resembling a Pacific variety was served next, and underneath the oyster lid was a small tender oyster hiding within the shell bathed in a creamy seaweed foam. The combination was an umami bomb and very tasty, the seaweed foam had a concentrated dashi-like flavour. The specially designed plate for this oyster course was equally impressive with a serrated rough indentation to hold the shell securely in place.
Two large prawns came next. Simply grilled in the shell these were wonderfully aromatic – the familiar scent of grilled prawns that assaulted our nostrils was instantly recognisable even well before the prawns arrived at our table. These were only borderline cooked but as all the seafood is kept live until needed, they were as fresh as could be. They were at once sweet, smoky, succulent, almost glutinous in texture and sprinkled with a light smattering of salt – just amazing in its simplicity yet so pungently tasty. Paired here with a glass of crisp verdejo, a Spanish variety grown in the Rueda region the prawns were the perfect vessel to showcase that plancha (grill) technique.
The next course of sea cucumber with fresh white beans was a delightful surprise. Being Chinese, I’m no stranger to sea cucumber but I’ve only ever had them stewed to a wobbly globby kraft glue-like mucous mess. I’ve accidentally stepped on one when emerging from a beach plagued by them in Thailand and the squishy yielding feeling underfoot, only confirmed my convictions about its soft jelly like texture and frankly abhorrent existence.
This sea cucumber was unlike any Chinese style execution I’d had. It was just al dente and almost had a bit of satisfying cartilage-like crunch to it. It was lightly charred and smoky but otherwise didn’t have much of its own flavour. The white bean accompaniment was so tasty like a vegetable soup concentrate that provided a bit of flavour booster for the sea cucumber. I wished I could take a sample of that sea cucumber dish home to show my family that this is the only way one should ever cook sea cucumber!
Moving on temporarily from seafood courses we were presented next with a vegetable course of young and meaty chunks of grilled porcini contrasted by soft smoky eggplant. It was flavourful if simple dish – perhaps deliberately so given the decadence of the next course.
The simply titled ‘scrambled eggs with white truffle’ turned out to be generous heaped shavings of white truffle in the center of a viscous pool of warm and ever-so-lightly scrambled rich egg soup. The dish came covered with a large see-through dome which the wait staff uncovered at the table, allowing diners to inhale in every last skerrick of all that amazingly precious truffle aroma. It was incredible and luxuriously rich. Although it was sorely tempting to slurp up that eggy soup, we found slow and deliberate mastication of the truffle was the way to truly bring out the truffle flavour. Well done Etxebarri – I doubt I’ll ever find ‘scrambled truffled eggs’ that will live up to this spectacular execution ever again.
Returning once again to fish courses, the final fish course was a whole grilled sea bass served with grilled baby vegetables. We noticed larger groups were presented with a full fish and had it portioned at the table, but for smaller groups like ours, the dishes were compiled in the kitchen. The sea bass was nice, simply seasoned with that familiar char flavour, moist and perfectly cooked without a hint of dryness and topped with a lovely chewy skin crust.
There was only one red meat course featured in the degustation menu and it was just utterly sensational. A large Galician beef chop was brought before us to share. It was impressively gargantuan and commanded our full attention. With a seared char crust, sparingly salted and bordering on rare we couldn’t have asked for a tastier dish or a better showcase of that Etxebarri smoky char flavour. It wasn’t a marbled fatty slippery cut, but a slightly “tougher” cut, rewarding those who chew it with full doses of bursting flavour. I experienced steak lust that day my friends. Despite being a mammoth sized steak, we polished it off easily, and not wanting to waste any part, the Co-pilot discarded etiquette and picked up the chop to chew on the remaining morsels.
As mentioned earlier, we were told that everything – even the desserts get the char grill treatment, though in practice, the smokiness in the desserts was very subtle if at all noticeable. A quenelle of reduced sheep’s milk ice cream swimming in a red fruit infusion was supposedly made with smoked milk, though to be honest I couldn’t taste any smokiness. Nonetheless, the sweetened condensed milk paired nicely with the tartness of the fruit. The Basque cake that followed was light, fluffy and eggy filled with those incredibly sweet European figs we’ve been devouring on our trip and finally we were treated to little almond meal financiers – a light and lovely finish to a really enjoyable meal.
Overall we thought it was an excellent degustation with a few particularly notable highlights – the gooseneck barnacles, the prawns and the beef chop were exemplary and that subtle Etxebarri char so perfectly intermingled with those starring, astoundingly fresh local ingredients. The ingredients, techniques and flavours we tasted certainly convinced us that Etxebarri was more than deserving of their one Michelin star.
At the end of the meal, we were both genuinely sated and satisfied. The Co-pilot in particular seemed very taken with the experience, enjoying the simple, unfussy techniques, ingredients and honest flavours. He declared himself to be a fan of one Michelin-starred establishments and said he far preferred it over more fussy, upmarket fine dining options usually associated with 3 Michelin stars. When one Michelin starred establishments deliver like this, I find his reasoning hard to fault.
Plaza de San Juan 1 48291 Axpe, Atxondo-Bizkaia, Vizcaya, Spain
Tel: +34 946 58 30 42
Open for lunch only, closed on Mondays. Seasonal closures: 24 Dec – 08 Jan; 01 Aug – 31 Aug.
Menu: the tasting menu is 120€; the a la carte options ranged from 22€ – 200€