Monday, August 03, 2009
Asador Etxebarri has received an incredible amount of accolade in the food community of late, inspiring rapturous prose from food writers and food professionals. It's reputation stems, at least in part, from how unusual it is: at Etxebarri, everything is grilled,using a complex and unique grill system chef Victor Arguinzoniz has engineered. With his wife, Patricia, Arguinzoniz renovated the 18th century stone cottage and turned it into the culinary powerhouse it is today.
The lovely little village of Axpe around the restaurant.
Victor is self-taught and has engineered his unique all-grilled cuisine himself, developing his own techniques and tools to create flavors found nowhere else. The charcoal used in these unique grills is entirely produced at the restaurant: a variety of woods are harvested from the area, calibrated to perfectly complement the meat or fish that's being prepared. The in-house concept extends to the food: the kitchen produces its own salami, butter, cheese, black pudding, ice creams, and smoked salmon, among other treats. Local cows are selected for their beef, and fresh seafood comes from the Basque coastline, where the kitchen has commissioned a fishing boat.
The old farmhouse that houses the restaurant.
Just getting to the restaurant is an adventure. Roughly 20 minutes outside of Bilbao, the drive winds through mountainous passes and through cobble-stoned and elderly Basque villages, finally ending at Axpe, the tiny village Etxebarri calls home. Located beneath a picturesque foothill peak, the asador sits on an attractive square - a good place to sit before the restaurant's official opening.
The dining room.
It's rumored that the Michelin organization hasn't given Extabarri any recognition because of its rustic locale, but "rustic" isn't the first word that comes to mind in the attractive and contemporary dining room, affording excellent views of the peaks. We were seated at the best table in the house, right next to the window, and quickly introduced to the Australian sous chef. We had decided to abscond with the ala-carte menu and pursue a tasting, and he discussed what we loved and what we did not with us in order to tailor-make our experience. (Crabs are in and well, pretty much nothing is out. We're not exactly a tough crowd).
My mom commented on how much the Spanish enjoy eating baby animals, recalling the little piglets in Segovia and the head-on lambs that are served throughout Castile and Leon. Lennox shrugged. "Here in Spain, I guess they like to eat their babies." This is perhaps an element of the national psyche that has not been entirely explored.
Our first course was a few simple rounds of local salami. This was pleasantly smoky with a good, robust flavor, although not more special then other salamis I've tasted.
Smoked butter with calcified salt. This is one of the asador's signature yet incredibly simple dishes - butter smoked and served with excellent, chewy local bread. The flavor seems almost embarassingly simple at first pass but becomes sublime when added to bread, a smoky, rich, and fatty experience unlike anything I've had before. I believe they could make a killing by packaging this stuff in tubs. (Just an idea).
These are crabs imported from Galicia, kept alive in Hong-Kong esque tanks in the restaurants kitchen. The fire-engine red crustaceans were carefully grilled and served up in the Spanish tradition - essentially as-is.
These were excellent, with plenty of ultra-sweet and tender meat, full of yellow and delectable fat. I got somewhat misty eyed and effusive about my affection for crabs when describing my preferences to Lennox. Which meant I got a whole entire crab.
A seemingly simple grilled gamba, but oh my sweet Jesus. The best prawns I've ever had, these magnificent little beasts were simply perfect: when the head is cracked off the body, a sumptuous rush of juices and fat comes out of the shrimp's head cavity, right into your mouth. According to one of the sous chefs, these prawns are fished at deep depths in Galicia. These particular prawns, were, apparantly, gravid, or filled with juicy delicious eggs.
When they are raised to the surface, they turn from their native grey to pink. And their brains explode. Which is why they taste like everything good and virtuous in the universe. (Gastronomy is a curious mistress, dependent on biology and zoology and human creativity in about equal measures. I wanted to be a zoologist and study hyenas on the African serengeti when I was small, now I write about food. How much has changed and how much has stayed the same?)
I devoured the whole thing. All that was left was a tiny and pathetic little spindle of a leg. The chef's wife was serving us, and she smiled at me with evident pride as she took away the plate. Adios, little gamba, you have made my life happier.
This, dear readers, is a sea cucumber. When Lennox mentioned sea cucumber to us, we were suspicious. "Don't bring the sea cucumber," my mom said. "They taste horrible."
"One squirted me in the eye," I offered.
Lennox scoffed. "These are different sea cucumbers. You've had the preserved ones at Korean restaurants, right? These are much better."
Still deeply suspicious, we agreed to give them a try. The right choice.
Fresh sea cucumber tastes like a marvelous combination of lobster, squid, and oyster. The flavor is most similar to a really good, firm bit of lobster, but the texture is what sets it apart - squidgy and slightly stringy in the mouth, appealingly juicy. The sea cucumber had a nice charred flavor on top of its natural sweetness, and was served with an almost ethereal preparation of cooked and aquatic seaweed. Marvelous.
These are the ugliest things I have ever eaten. These are percebes or goose barnacles, one of Spain's more esoteric treats. Commonly harvested in Galicia, these dinosaur-foot esque beasts develop a marvelous flavor by virtue of their dogged attachment to ocean rocks: their battle to stay attached despite the onslaught of the waves makes their foot muscles more succulent.
Here's a closeup of the little alien beast.
Note the vibrant orange juice.
Eating a barnacle requires some finesse. They must be twisted apart in a specific fashion for the little orange meaty bit to be accessible for eating. The flavor? Like the best mussel you've ever had, tender, juicy, and (as with all things at Etxebarri) ever so slightly smoky.
This is a simple grilled oyster, served with a tiny bit of kelp (?) and a bit of subtle, oceanic sea foam. We Northern Californians are accustomed to grilled oysters in the shell, but this took the concept much further. I doubt very much that they are cooked in the shell here, but instead applied directly to the flame in one of the chef's various grilling contraptions, grates, and boxes. This produces an all-around smoked and charred flavor, which, when combined with the always sexy and musky flavor of oyster - well, excellent.
These are chipirones, tiny and delicate little baby squid. These tasted as if they had ever so delicately been exposed to the flame, leaving their firm yet tender little bodies lusciously oily. These were served with one of Etxebarri's few sauces, with just a whisper of garlic and a tiny bit of kale.
Pulp, Spain's mainstay of tiny baby octopi, were grilled and served with some delicately grilled shallot confit and a flavorful yet light reduction of a sauce. Squid have a slightly more delicate consistency then squid and a richer, more exuberant flavor. Excellent (and adorable, but cute things are shown no mercy or quarter in Spain).
The stacking-up of the squid and octopus courses proved to be the only misstep of the meal: they were two very similar dishes, with similar flavors. As both were excellent, it was a fairly minor complaint.
As we were working our way up to the steak course, grilled tuna was an entirely natural progression. These fine slabs of tuna were seared just a little bit, then seasoned with some excellent and high quality salt.
One of Etxebarri's strengths is it's perfect hand with salt - not too much, not too little, providing a little savory crunch. The combination of meaty tuna, sweet grilled tomato, and crisp bits of salt was very nice.
And now onward to the steak course, which Etxebarri is justly proud of, an extremely large slab of cow that fills the diner with a tiny bit of trepidation when it is ushered out to the table. For you have already conquered a number of courses, and then you realize you will now be expected to do justice to a steak - and not just any steak, but a veritable princess among steaks, all ruby-red in the interior and charred with an artist's hand on the outside. You'll have to tuck in or you will probably be committing some sort of spiritual crime. So we did.
The, well, money-shot.
This was the best steak we'd ever had. Simply char-grilled to perfection, the smoky and perfectly salty crust gave way to a rich, super-rare, and decadently beef-fat infused interior. Served with a simple salad with vinegar and fine olive oil, it was an incredible treat. The beef comes from local cattle and is aged for the restaurant: the result is about the epitome of what a good steak is.
A luscious slice of meat.
Our savories were finally spent, and now it was time for dessert. In true Etxebarri style, the grill played an integral role in the sweet courses as well. This was a truly unique smoked ice cream, prepared by carefully smoking local milk and hand churning it in house. The perfectly smooth vanilla ice cream had a bizarre and excellent flavor - like nothing I'd tasted before, and very appealing.
This is a flan, again prepared with the smoked milk. This was magnificent, with a slightly cheesy, smoky flavor, almost like a combination between a classic Spanish flan and a beautiful cheesecake. I find the texture of flan rather unpleasant, and this dessert bridged the gap, with a texture more akin to a cream then a firm flan. I am not very fond of super-sweet desserts and found the addition of smoky flavor - usually associated with meat - to be truly interesting in a dessert context. Lovely. The pink liquid around the edge tasted of acidic citrus, which was a nice counterpoint to the sweet and smoky flavor of the flan.
With the bill came these tiny little muffins - a nice caramelized tasting exterior and a sweet interior. These were the only thing we consumed, insofar as I am aware, that was NOT grilled, unless they've managed to grill muffins TOO in which case I just don't know anymore.
We were finished, after three straight hours of eating some of the best food of our lives. Despite the quantity of the meal, we didn't feel over-full - the food was clean and utterly simple, and doesn't leave you with the queasy feeling a butter-rich French or American meal can. One of the best aspects of Etxebarri is its friendliness.
Unlike other restaurants of its caliber, the service style and the general ambiance was very laid back and friendly. Families with small and well behaved kids were eating around us - one child had brought along a few naked Barbie dolls. Our server, who I believe was the chef's wife, was also very sweet - she was kind enough to demonstrate proper barnacle consumption procedures to us. The combination of amazing food, a beautiful dining room, and a gorgeous view produces an incredibly pleasant dining experience.
The individual bars of the grate come out for easy cleaning.
After the meal, we asked to go see the kitchen, and they kindly assented. One of the young sous chefs was still there (it was getting on after 5:00,) and he answered our questions and showed us the grilling equipment, the seafood tanks, and the stacks of wood that are used to produce the charcoal.
The wood-pile. Different kinds of wood are used for different foods - grape vine is considered excellent for red meat and steak.
The profusion of racks, grates, and equipment Victor Arguinzoniz has created or sourced allows him to grill just about anything - including caviar and angulas, Basque country's beloved and exceedingly expensive baby river eels.
Etxebarri entirely lived up to its formidable reputation. The combination of innovative grilling techniques, magnificent ingredients, and a truly pleasant dining room produced probably the best meal of my (admittedly short) life. I'm certain I'll be looking back on this meal and my time in Euskadi for a long time.