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Asador Etxebarri | Axpe | Jun ’14 | “Round One”

25 Jul
  • Rating: 19.5/20
  • Address: Calle de San Juán, 1, 24549 Atxondo, Vizcaya, Vizcaya, Spain
  • Phone:+34 946 58 30 42
  • Price per pax: ~€150 ($202 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining time: 190 minutes
  • Chef: Victor Arguinzoniz
  • Style: Barbecue
  • Michelin Stars: 1


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THURSDAYBasque country is a wondrous beast. Driving its windy two-lane* roads, one can quickly move from the seaside scapes of Getaria, with its coastal roads filled with recreational walkers and cyclists taking in the sea breeze, to the one lane dirt roads that feed rural farms, not so much sculpted as gently ribboned onto the mountains of Basque country. On these mountain tracks, one hardly meets other cars, let alone other walkers**. Such was the landscape 30 minutes away from Asador Etxebarri, which meant that I was lost.

* (The main highway between Bilbao and Sebastian is mostly a two-lane affair with a speed limit of 120km. But since it only has two lanes, in practice this means either chugging along at 80-90km behind heavy transportation trucks on the right lane, or being tailgated by racing fantasists at 130-140km on the left “overtaking lane”.)

** (Since it generally takes 10-20 minutes to make a complete circuit on one of these Basque mountain roads, I found it easier to just U-turn when in doubt.)

After some fruitless examination of my Google Maps GPS (I had a internet dongle with me), I realised the voice-instructions were generally misleading. Some roads had shifted direction, and more than once I had been prompted to go down the wrong end of a one-way road. I eventually solved the problem by heading to the bigger town of Durango, before keying in directions to Axpe. The key was an easily-missed exit at one of the 400 roundabouts in the area.

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Stepping out of the car, I smelt pleasant woodsmoke in the breeze, and a quaintly bricked building. The front door opened into an empty bar, and then a staircase brought me up to the second floor, where all the diners were.

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There are at least two areas to dine at Etxebarri: the indoor dining room, which is functionally decorated, with a centerpiece of flowers, or the outdoor verandah. I dined indoors Thursday, and on the verandah Sunday – and my favorite spot was definitely the verandah.

Asador Etxebarri occupies a spot very close to many diners’ hearts. It is proclaimed to be the best barbecue restaurant on the planet, staffed by a skeleton kitchen crew that includes Bittor (Victor) Arguinzoniz and perhaps 3-5 other staff in a very small kitchen. Victor Arguinzoniz is a man who has never seen an ingredient he didn’t want to grill.

Initially, Arguinzoniz served iconic Basque asador (grill-house) dishes: chuletas (bone-in rib eyes), whole sea bream, cogote de merluza (hake neck). The flavors were charred and delicious but one-dimensional, and eventually, inspired by the prime ingredients served at the white-tablecloth restaurants he occasionally visited, he wanted more. “What if delicacies like foie gras or spiny lobster met the grill?” he’d fantasize. And so, in the late ’90s, he did the impossible: He grilled angulas, which are so fragile and miniscule no sane chef would ever toss them onto the grate. Actually, Arguinzoniz didn’t try to toss them onto the grate either. Instead, he invented a meshlike stainless steel saucepan and positioned it high above the hot coals. A few years later, he divined a way of grilling fresh anchovies, sandwiching two tender little butterflied fish together, misting them with Txakoli spray and then cooking them for a nanosecond. They arrived at the table barely heated through and improbably succulent, with a touch of wood smoke. Food critics who tasted them went crazy.

Taking grill cuisine to unexpected places required a whole new set of equipment. Since the necessary tools didn’t exist, Arguinzoniz designed them himself. Lining the entire wall of his kitchen are six custom-made, stainless steel grills. The grates move up and down during cooking through an ingenious system of tracks and pulleys controlled by a wheel. This way, the ingredients’ distance from heat can be regulated with perfect precision. The grills are powered by wood coal that Arguinzoniz prepares himself, twice a day, in two 750-degree ovens. Very few ingredients are grilled directly on grates. (Arguinzoniz scrapes the grills every day anyway, to remove the scent of old carbon char and any accumulated drippings.) Rather, he cooks the food in various sievelike baskets and pans he’s created. Can an egg yolk be grilled? Yes, in a little ringed fine sieve with removable sides, which looks like a miniature cake pan. Caviar? In a double-tiered lidded mesh pan, at 122 degrees and just until it starts sweating oil. Arguinzoniz’s most famous invention is a laser-perforated pan for cooking risotto. So fine are the holes that smoke enters while liquid stays in. “Each ingredient demands its own precise timing and heat intensity,” the chef says. He oversees every order that comes out of his kitchen. – Anya von Bremzen, “Victor Arguinzoniz: The Grilling Genius of Spain”,

And more from Jay Rayner:

“But Bittor is a restless soul, and he started experimenting. He decided charcoal was too harsh and so, around the turn of the millennium, moved backwards to the original wood and took the kitchen inside. He began fashioning metal implements with which to cook using smoke, soldering and welding the pieces together himself. The cooking range is a marvellous self-built Heath Robinson affair: six different grills with different width grids, all of which can be raised and lowered on a pulley system. There are pans with open-mesh bases to allow the smoke to reach the ingredients, and covered pots with big funnel-like holes in the middle for steaming open clams and mussels with smoke. This restaurant, Hastie tells me, is not about dishes and creations. “It’s all about the ingredients. Nothing else.” He shows me filtration tanks full of live lobsters and crabs, and turbot still swimming about. There is a basket of slippery eels and another of oysters the size of side plates. Mushrooms and green herbs are brought in by foragers and in the winter there is game shot by local huntsmen. Most of the vegetables come from Bittor’s own smallholding up the hill, which is overseen by his 86-year-old father.” – Jay Rayner, “The best place to eat barbecue“,

Having tried his dishes, I am convinced that Victor is the greatest chef of the grill. He never uses charcoal, because he believes it too harsh and bitter. The end results are spectacular. In this first meal, I had his famous chuleta (ribeye), mozzarella, some amazing Palamos prawns, baby octopus, peas, anchovies and a smoked milk ice cream that provoked first a chuckle of admiration for his dedication to the art of the grill, and then a more serious appraisal of its merits: one of the best ice creams I have ever eaten in my life.

How long will Victor Arguinzoniz continue at the helm of the kitchen? One hopes, for a long long time to come. The following meal is the first round of dishes I had at Etxebarri. Heeding the dictum to eat there as often as possible, I would have a second round there three days later.

Like Jay Rayner, I cannot say that I am well-versed in the subtleties of the smokiness of different woods. In the world of grilling, I don’t think anyone can adequately judge Victor’s Arguinzoniz’s food, because simply of how innovative he is, and the kinds of techniques he brings to all kinds of rare delicacies. The Michelin system and the fussy modernist aesthetic they currently favour, is irrelevant to such a restaurant. (It has a single star, but on culinary merit alone would easily surpass most three-stars). Hence most food critics or writers, coming to Etxebarri, treat the cooking with a deserved awe. The vocabulary of smoke is limited compared to Victor’s own intuitions and techniques about grilling, and thus ironically, it is Etxebarri and not modernist cuisine which provoked in me feelings of ineffability. Today, one can dive into Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine or watch a conference demonstration video, and find out how 95% of modernist dishes are made. The epicurean experience of a 10 or 20 or 30 course modernist tasting menu can be rationalised into its constituent methods and techniques. But the tastes of the grill at Etxebarri are heady and complex, yet frustratingly elusive in description. The epicurean experience, that feeling of being confronted with something ineffable-new-innovative and consequently just going with the flow, is what some have described as their feelings when they experienced the dishes of el Bulli. For me, the epicurean experience, that feeling of being confronted with the ineffable and innovative, and having without a choice to go with the flow, guided by the genius of the chef (who hits heights one could not even previously perceive), is not today to be found in the modernist restaurants, but in the smoky aromas of Etxebarri.

Notable write-ups:

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  • Butter of goat’s milk with black salt (5/5)
    • A woodsmoked butter. Great. Spread as much on your bread as possible.

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  • Mozzarella of buffalo (5/5)
    • Mostly tasting of buffalo’s milk, there was that vague taste of woodsmoke in the delightfully meaty texture of the mozzarella. A dish to die for. The smoking was so subtle, just tantalisingly out of reach, that a diner wants to fill his/her mouth with its flavor by chewing a bite more, and then a bite more, and then suddenly the mozzarella has disappeared. And with it, the tantalisingly out-of-reach smoky flavors within. A dish that surely fulfilled the stomach via the mozzarella, but the smoking within was transcendental, and trying to taste more than the coquettish hints of it, was a trial of Tantalus. Perfect.

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  • Salted anchovy with toasted bread (5/5)
    • Perfect salting, not too salty, with a richness of taste. The anchovy required no complement (too-salty anchovies sometimes do), but by itself was perfect. It had the completeness of the best jamon.

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  • Chorizo elaborated from acorn-fed pork (4.5/5)
    • mmmmmmm. I could live on this series of snacks.
    • warm, hearty chorizo.

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  • Cracker (3.75/5)
    • With mushrooms from nearby Amboto mountain. (Anboto in Basque). They tasted like light papery slices of mushroom, which was palate-cleansing.

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  • Croquette (4/5)
    • Warm and creamy chicken within, grilled on the pastry.

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  • Prawns from Palamós (5/5)
    • Prawns that made me go weak at the knees. One begins the ritual by biting off the head. Within, a thick green liqueur of prawn head-juices. The correct way to eat it is to get all of it into your mouth, by any means necessary. My method involved raising the prawn heads at 90 degrees to my mouth.
    • Then, one spies bright orange pads at the side of the prawn head. Sweet and marine, like uni.
    • Then, the sweet and tender flesh of the prawn.
    • Now, the prawn has been grilled. It is easy to crunch off its legs, which are crunchy and salty like crisps.
    • And now, to add to all of that, imagine all of this is happening while being confronted with the intoxicating smells of woodsmoke while you are eating it. I could have eaten 20 of these, if they had served me more. A la carte dangles that delightful possibility.
    • These were perfect. Palamós prawns are reputed to be the best prawns in Europe. It is true. Holy moly. If mankind ever invents a method to preserve dishes for posterity, I will nominate this one to represent the “prawn” category.
    • Spain is blessed with the best prawns on the face of this planet. (Maybe besides Japan; and the Obsiblue prawns off Australia).

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  • Sea cucumber and green beans (4/5)
    • Not chewy to the teeth, a slight bitterness in the sea cucumber cut by the taste of beans. A good pairing.

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  • Baby octopus caramelized onions and its ink (5/5)
    • Ooooh. Tender octopus, with mini-bursts of saltiness whenever I popped of its inky-black eyeballs. Really really good.
    • With a compote of caramelized onions. Mmmm, a kiss of smoke, and oh so tender.
    • These are grilled in a strainer bowl (you can see a picture in the Jay Rayner review)

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  • Scrambled eggs of St. George’s mushrooms (3.5/5)
    • Like a soup. I found this hearty, though lacking a bit in taste.
    • St George’s mushrooms are considered a rare delicacy.

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  • Green peas in their juice (5/5)
    • !!!!!!!!
    • peas, in a salty broth of their juices to contrast with the sweetness of the pea. The broth had subtle smoke flavors.
    • Each pea was incredibly juicy and yielding to the teeth, like little pop-grapes, flavored with pea. Incomparably excellent.

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  • Throat of hake with asparagus (4.5/5)
    • Kokotxas pil pil, with white asparagus. The asparagus was falling apart, and asparagus juices mixed with the pil pil sauce. The kokotxas were gelatinous soft.
    • I’m not really a fan of the garlicky pil-pil sauce.
    • The smell of smoke, as intense as any Texas barbecue place.

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  • Beef chop (5/5)
    • The famous Galician ribeye (chuleta) of Victor, cooked over heat intense enough to carbonise bone, within a meaty liqueur of salt, fat, and beef. It is perfect. It is a steak to end all steaks. The redness of the meat, beefy intense, like a piece of heat-crusted meat on the outside revived into beefiness within. The charring from the wood grill and the flakes of salt scattered on its crust, perfect. A marvel.
    • Charred texture, meat liqueur, flakes of salt. What’s there not to <3?
    • Served with lettuce and vinegar, to cut the heaviness of the steak.

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  • and on to desserts…

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  • Reduced milk ice cream with red fruit infusion (5/5)
    • Smoked milk ice cream. How? Buckets of milk in an oven, to absorb the aromas of fire.
    • It was a cognitive double-take, the smoky flavors we usually associate with heat, with the cold temperature of a floral milk ice cream. Perfect. Paired with red fruit infusion, which was a good fruit-ish complement to the ice cream.

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  • Fritters of elderflower (4.75/5)
    • A grilled cheese bun, with a flowery cream filling. Great.

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  • Mignardise (4.75/5)
    • A financier.

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Coffee for the road.

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My trusty Mercedes steed, by my side through all of Pais Vasco.