Tag Archives: Basque country

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

16 Aug
  • Rating: 20/20
  • 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: 195 minutes
  • Chef: Victor Arguinzoniz
  • Style: Wood-Barbecue
  • Michelin Stars: 1

Previous Write-ups:

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SUNDAY came, and the sun trickled through the windows. It was the day – a second rendezvous with the delights of wood-grilled barbecue – 3 whole days after I had been there. A second visit to a tasting-menu restaurant is like reading a second novel by a favorite author – another opportunity to take in a preferred cooking/writing style, while having the particulars changed.

And I had enjoyed my first meal there very much. The smoke was directed by the hands of a master.

The drive there took 45 minutes – this time I did not miss the turn-off at Durango, and as I arrived on the verandah the meal began.

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  • Marrow Squash (4.25/5)
    • Three salty slices of marrow, with a gentle smoke. I remember the stolid integrity of the green slices, still quite firm

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  • Tomato (4.25/5)
    • A sweet oversized tart berry, salted atop the kiss of the grill
    • When cut with a knife, the specimen exploded with juice,
    • and quickly folded under.

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  • Cracker (4/5)
    • Xixa cepas – sliced raw a top a cracker. Similar to the treatment of St George’s mushrooms in my first meal
    • Quite some confidence, to put sliced raw mushrooms on a cracker!

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  • Brochette of chanterelle (5/5)
    • Great. Each of the chanterelles – A deep smoky flavor outside, but inside the delicate mild-fresh taste of spring.
    • Made crisp at ends of the cap when grilled, the chanterelles were a shade of orange so aggressive on the eye, it recalled the warning shades of radioactive-orange.
    • At the end, I drank all of the mushroom liquor.
    • Simplicity itself. It got me thinking about the source of my happiness – Do we have to travel all the way to a far place, to put enough aesthetic distance between ourselves and simply-prepared flavorful food, that we can enjoy it anew? I think the answer is “No”. The effort in travel, whether it imparts aesthetic distance between ourselves and simple food, or whether it connotes a sense of personal luxury, is not the main reason. I think of the main reason is still the rare talent/genius of chef-proprietors (particularly minimalists like Passard, and Arguinzoniz) who listen to their environment, and know what it can bring. We travel not to impart aesthetic distance or luxury to simple food in order to enjoy eating it; we travel because there are geniuses who have mastered a thousand little details to make simple food that is enjoyable to eat, and even mysteriously – connotes aesthetic pleasure, and luxury.
    • For I have travelled a long way for simple food many a times (e.g. Empanadas in Argentina, bouillabaisse in Marseille) – but have not had the same visceral reaction of aesthetic pleasure and luxury due to a lack of attention from the chef. Too oily empanadas here, too astringently garlick a bouillabaisse there. So it isn’t just about simple food. It is about the interplay of first-class ingredients and first-class cooking. (both of which the empanadas and bouillabaisse generally lacked)
    • And Passard and Arguinzoniz, among others, are showing that first-class cooking doesn’t have to be very noisy. It can be stripped down, but minimalism seems to have its own rules to create a full-bodied experience – that only a select handful of chefs in the minimalist can execute on extremely well -> the varietals of smoke for Arguinzoniz, the vegetable varietals for Passard.

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  • Oyster and spinach (4/5)
    • A gently smoked oyster, with no grilling
    • Spinach to cut sweetness of oyster

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  • Caviar (5/5)
    • Smoked caviar. Using a custom-made pan with micro-slits. (I think you can find pictures on Google)
    • The yolk had ever-so-slightly set a bit more than normal
    • The caviar was smoked with a strong robust, wood smoke
    • A complete food in its saltiness. Decadent, perfect. Every bite only prompted more hunger, the hunger that the robust wood smoke provokes, someplace deep and primal in the brain. In my brain, there is a switch for the connection between delicious woodsmoke and hunger, and this dish turned it on.

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  • Goose barnacles (4.5/5)
    • “Percebes” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goose_barnacle
    • With a coating that looks like nylon stockings but is actually an impenetrable rubbery armor, it took a firm twist to open the percebes and… squirt it all over myself. A amniotic-red fluid drizzled over my jacket.
    • And then you’re confronted with striated bands of what seems a fleshy, squat, finger. “Pop-toe” was the word that came to mind.
    • I popped it in my mouth. Delicious, with the tenderness of lobster, with the crunchiness of Maine lobster.
    • This was the one dish where Victor’s grilling seemed to have made the least impact – there was a subtle grilling taste which made it really good. But the star was indubitably the crunchy barnacle flesh. Probably the lack of telling impact from being grilled came from the barnacle’s hermetic seal within its protective casing – it really took a firm twist to access its flesh
    • The little tentacly bits at the base of the percebes had a mix of crunchy textures.
    • An expensive delicacy, its odd looks have also prompted an odd history:

In the days before it was realised that birds migrate, it was thought that Barnacle Geese, Branta leucopsis, developed from this crustacean, since they were never seen to nest in temperate Europe,[2] hence theEnglish names “goose barnacle”, “barnacle goose” and the scientific name Lepas anserifera (Latin anser = “goose”). The confusion was prompted by the similarities in colour and shape. Because they were often found on driftwood, it was assumed that the barnacles were attached to branches before they fell in the water. The Welsh monk, Giraldus Cambrensis, made this claim in his Topographia Hiberniae.[3] Since barnacle geese were thought to be “neither flesh, nor born of flesh”, they were allowed to be eaten on days when eating meat was forbidden by religion. (Wikipedia)

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  • Lobster (5/5)
    • I’m very grateful that the kitchen managed to source a first-class Galician female lobster that hadn’t laid its eggs yet.
    • A tremendous feast, pulsing with pinkish egg sacs that were like sheets of silken tofu skin.
    • A dark, angry purple of hard eggs, seemed like a rock-wand of eggs.
    • The soft gelatinous texture of lobster tail end, mixed with perfect firmness when you bit into it from the top
    • The most concentrated crustacean flavor that came from the claw
    • A bit of toughness from the middle tail segment
    • the nice and frilly gills of the lobster.
    • And more echoes of the tasty claw in the legs.
    • A salty, smokey liqueur from the lobster was just irresistible
    • A great feast and gift of a course from the kitchen

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  • Baby squid caramelized onion and its ink (4.75/5)
    • The tentacles of the squid so crisp; the give of squid body to the knife; Sweet onions

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  • Mushrooms and egg-plant (4.5/5)
    • Sweet and tender eggplant, nutty

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  • Green beans (4.25/5)
    • Paprika sauce, gentle, the beans a bit bitter than the sweet peas

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  • Grouper and Green peas (4.75/5)
    • An incomparably tender and gelatinous grouper, with the sweet green peas.
    • Crisp skin, with pil-pil sauce.
    • It had the gelatinous cooking of sous-vide, without the insipid uniformity of texture from said cooking method. It was great.

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  • Beef chop (5/5)
    • Piece-de-break-my-resistance
    • This steak was a reprise from the first meal, though I would say that this had slightly more tendons and was a bit more chewy.
    • When your rational mind is telling you that this is the best steak you have ever-eaten, and are ever likely to eat; but your stomach is telling you that you are too full, that is the definition of a moral dilemma. If I did not have a flight to Barcelona in 3.5 hours, I would have happily sat down for an hour to regain my bloody-minded-ness, my Man Vs Food resolve, and finished that steak, soaked in a most vibrantly bloody liqueur.
    • I managed about half, before waving the white flag. “no puedo mas”.
    • 2 months later, I still regret not bagging that steak to go. I hope the family dogs ate well, at least

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  • Reduced milk ice cream with red fruit infusion (5/5)
    • I begged for a reprise of the smoked milk ice cream from the first meal, and got it.
    • It refreshed my appetite; I finished it all.

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  • Flan of cheese (5/5)
    • A silken flan, liberated from a metal cylinder,
    • the softness of the flan went right up against edge of structural integrity for a cylinder, and for a brief moment looked like it just might not hold – but of course it did. The absolute silken-ness, and caramelised sweet cheese tastes, made this my Platonic form of flan.
    • Another masterful dish. Asador Etxebarri formed so many happy culinary memories over the course of two meals there.

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  • Mignardise (4.5/5)
    • Raspberry liqueur inside

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The wizard of the grill.

Mugaritz | Errenteria | Jun ’14 | “dialogue”

16 Aug
  • Rating: 20/20
  • Address: Aldura Aldea, 20, 20100 Errenteria, Guipúzcoa, Spain
  • Phone: +34 943 52 24 55
  • Price per pax: €230 ($308 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining time: 180 minutes
  • Chef: Andoni Luis Aduriz
  • Style: simultaneously Modernist and New Naturalist*
  • Michelin Stars: 2

* See Emma Marris’s Beyond Food and Evil for a descriptive essay on fellow Modernist-New-Naturalist travellers, Noma and COI.

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Abstraction. Mugaritz is an abstract restaurant, in several senses of the term. In the first sense of an “abstract idea”, the dishes are like gilded puzzle-boxes, each of which houses a dominant idea or “what-if” in cooking. I saw such ideas in a sandwich composed entirely of one-ingredient – the gelatinous hake cheek (kokotxas); and the lamb with mould growth that approximated wool. In a second not unrelated sense of serving “abstract dishes”, the ingredients are pared down, and quiet moments and momentary effects are allowed to take their place on a meditative stage. The sheer strangeness of discovery, that a turf of grass served as an ornament at the start of the meal is actually edible, struck me on that evening of uncommon stillness. A meditative, quiet place, dinner that evening reminded me of a peaceful afternoon watching rocks at a Kyoto rock garden.

In a third sense, Mugaritz reminds me of “mathematical abstraction”, where the constants of the restaurant experience (the conventional, such as the orthodoxy that every diner is served a dish on his/her own schedule) suddenly become variable (One such dish was “Linking…”, where every patron in the restaurant started making the same aspic sauce with a grinder at the same moment). Such dishes remind me that Mugaritz plays on a larger canvas of effects, a higher-dimensional space than other restaurants. If the heart of mathematical abstraction is to seek a greater generality in order to conceive of how a mathematical system could otherwise be – to produce a series of fruitful and plausible alternative conceptions, then Mugaritz is such a mathematically abstract restaurant. You are likely to encounter at least one dish here that will challenge your preconceptions about dining.

Mugaritz, as reflected in the international quality of the diners, exists as a reference point in the frontiers of world gastronomy. There is a subversive humor at work, which I love. I have found it difficult to write about my Mugaritz experience. The restaurant seems as meditative as a Zen Buddhist temple; the courses as ineffable as a series of Zen Buddhist koans. Through a series of dishes, the restless intelligences of the chef and his staff engage you in a Socratic dialogue that continues long after you have left the table…

Notable Links:

My June 2014 menu –  “Simplicity, originality, lots of creativity, lots of innovation, lots of risk and uncertainty”

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  • A dozen smeared radishes. (3.75/5)
    • A nice salty tomato paste, full of flavor, but it did not curb the astringency of raw radishes, which left a latex taste in the mouth.
    • The idea: Minimal transformation of ingredients, a la the veggie crudites from Blue Hill in New York.

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  • 7 spice Rattle. (3.5/5)
    • A rattle featuring an outer meringue case
    • The idea: Using ingredients to create a musical instrument.

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  • Cultural textures. Several layers of dressed Kokotxas. (5/5)
    • Brilliant. This toast sandwich of kokotxas, a seemingly one-ingredient dish, had the natural taste of gelatin from the filling, pure kokotxas, as well as two slices of kokotxas chitterling, made crispy from that gelatin.
    • The idea: A one ingredient dish, playing with the potentials of gelatin in kokotxas, both in traditional gelatinous form, and crisp form

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  • Mushrooms: house grown colony. (4.75/5)
    • Baby mushrooms, tempura-ed at the bottom (with sour-lemon tastes changing into spiciness). The meaty texture was an ideal foil for the sour-lemon tastes

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  • Lacquered duck neck with herbs and dry grains. (5/5)
    • Duck neck with fresh herbs. All the natural tastes of duck skin with fresh tasting leaves.
    • I liked that the accompanying plate emphasised that the lacquered skin was the duck’s neck.
    • The idea: A duck neck that sheathed vegetables and not flesh.

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  • Toast of roasted crusts. (5/5)
    • Iberico pork neck dumpling – a mantou bun fused with pork skin, And pork meat atop.
    • The idea: What if a pork bun could include crisp pork skin?

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  • Vegetable tiles. A handful of Highland grass. (4.5/5)
    • All this while, there was a turf of grass in front of me. I was served a bowl of tip, and to eat that turf of grass.
    • It was surprising, and confounded at least two expectations – we don’t eat our table decorations, and we don’t eat grass.
    • The grass turned out to be young Ethiopian teff grass, which had a very neutral flavor, though a fresh loosely packed yet springy texture – exactly what you’d imagine a carpet of grass would taste like. It was a good textural vehicle for pinenut cream and malt crumble.

The idea: A secretly edible dish, was all the time in front of the diner. Mirroring the own epiphanies of Andoni Aduriz: “We realized that even what is closest to us can seem exotic and mysterious merely on account of our ignorance: even though we are surrounded by a specific environment, we’ve never really lived in close contact with it.” “It Is clear that today ‘exotic’ is no longer associated with distance. Today, exotic is synonymous with the unknown. And the unknown, or mysterious, can be hiding right next to us, under that apple tree.” – Aduriz, Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking, p26

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  • …decadentia… (5/5)
    • At this point, I moved into the main building to continue with the meal.
    • I was served a great piece of bread, comforting because it was crusty.
    • And served a delicately textured fork, in a case.
    • Along with a smoked eel mousse, eel crisps, and edible flowers on top. I was instructed to eat the mousse with the fork, and then eat the fork! The fork was made from sugar…
    • Using the fork, it imparted a subtle sweetness to the smoked eel and flowers. Textural contrasts from eel crisps. And then… down the memory hole went the fork, as I ate it in 4 bites.
    • What is one to say to such a dish, except “Bravo…Bravo!” to the imagination and the perfect execution of the kitchen. The whimsy and execution of the dish blew my mind. These are the touches that make the trip, no, pilgrimage, to Mugaritz worth it – nowhere else could you imagine serving these delicate set-pieces, these jeweled puzzle-boxes, these gilded conundrums, except at Mugaritz.
    • I still recall this dish very fondly.
    • The idea: Why should The Edible end at the tine of a fork?

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  • Red scorpion fish marinated in its barrel bottom and sour textures. (4.5/5)
    • Fresh almonds, oxalis leaves, brown almond puree underneath red scorpionfish (sour)
    • The sourness did not rise to the level of a Peruvian Leche de Tigre (used to prepare ceviche), rather a mellow sourness. The fresh almonds were tender, and it was a perfect counterpoint to the fireworks of decadentia, a quieter marriage of two great ingredients – fresh and impeccably firm scorpionfish, and the taste of fresh almonds.

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  • (Pig’s blood meringue) (5/5)
    • Every guest to Mugaritz gets a kitchen tour. In 2010, Mugaritz suffered a devastating fire. But the silver lining was that it allowed the kitchen to be extensively remodelled into the modernist wonder it is today. And the small bite I was served was an expression of the empirical spirit animating the chefs – a pig’s blood meringue.
    • Meringues are formed from egg whites because of their albumin content. But egg whites are not the only albumin-rich food available. Another is pig’s blood. The meringue, whipped up from pig’s blood, was seasoned with peppercorn, onion, cocoa and cinnamon. It tasted so much like an egg-white meringue that when told something was afoot with the meringue, I did not even suspect it was because of the composition of the meringue – rather focusing on the condiments.
    • While speaking to one of Chef Aduriz’s chefs (he was not in the kitchen that evening), I learned that they were preparing at least 40 different dishes. But they could not have had more than 6-7 tables that evening. I learnt later from reading the Mugaritz book that this was because of the kitchen’s philosophy in only sourcing the best produce – often limited in quantity – and thus each diner would get a personalised menu that would not overlap completely with any other diner’s.

“We set out […] to access the produce provided by nature in the most direct and purest way possible, whether of not we could find it in the markets, regardless of demand, and without any concern for the two conditions usually required of a product in order to ensure profitability for the producer and security for the buyer, namely quantity and reliability (most chefs need to know they’ll get a minimum quantity of an ingredient, year in year out). No, we will not need a lot. No, we will not always need it”. (Aduriz, p. 28)

“We know that there is insecurity in providing exceptional produce. However, the comfort, regularity and consistency offered by the market of supply and demand also makes them all products more or less the same. It evens out the differences that make them unique. But we want those peas. We know that they are not always going to be available. We also know that when we have them, they will be extraordinary. Even if we have so few that half the diners will not be able to try them. We will give them something equally wonderful instead.” (Aduriz, p.28)

    • The idea: Meringues are formed from albumin. Science!

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  • Lukewarm scallop with sour lentil consommé. (4.75/5)
    • A scallop with fermented lentils. The lentil consomme had the sour taste of off-beer, in the most delicious way possible. It had a gorgeous rounded and complete flavor, its viscosity and intensity of taste reminiscent of the best Cantonese soups.
    • The scallop had the smoothness and integrity of abalone, and interestingly did not even begin to resolve into strands when cut, as most scallops are wont to do. A high quality combination.

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  • Pear. Honey vinegar and toasted milk. (4.5/5)
    • The pear, fragrant and honeyed, hard and crunchy in texture (reminiscent of a calcified Asian pear Pyrus pyrifolia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrus_pyrifolia), was paired with an aggressive sour-honey vinaigrette.
    • Two roughnesses (the hardness of the pear, and the sour-sweet of the vinaigrette) cancelled each other out, leaving a pleasant synthesis of texture and taste.

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  • The game at the table; gambling a bite of bread and heavy cream. (4.75/5)
    • I played a game with my server Mohamed – we would each have up to three bone pieces, and secretly put 0-3 in our fists. At the same time, we would put forward our fists, and guess what the combined number of bone pieces was. I recalled many childhood games from this exercise.
    • If it was for two people, then apparently the winner would get a large helping of caviar, and the loser none – sourcehttp://kuloksilver.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/gehry-arzak-mugaritz-and-hitchcock/
    • But anyway, I made the exercise academic by winning 😛
    • Milkskin, “caviar” made from algas marinas algae, and cream.
    • The idea: Interactive games before food. Game theory in sharing.

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  • Coastal fish with mushroom threads. (4.75/5)
    • Seabream, with crisped seabream bones, and mushrooms, in a pil-pil style sauce (garlic a bit more understated than usual)
    • To me, it was a showcase of supreme confidence from the kitchen to served crisp bones. Any imperfections in preparation could lead to unpleasant consequences, like getting the bones embedded in the throat. I was very pleased to see that at least one restaurant has attempted to use crisped bones.

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  • Cod tongues in a bone marrow emulsion. (4.5/5)
    • Tongue of kokotxas, of the highest melt-in-the-mouth quality, with a garlicky bone marrow sauce. Complementing cubes of salty crisp pork lard, with coriander.

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  • Chicken and lobster Catalan cream. (4.5/5)
    • Catalan cream is essentially creme brulee. Here it was savory, not sweet, bursting with seafood – scallop, shellfish, prawn, something orange that was either uni or lobster brain or lobster roe (you can see it pictured) – and topped with phyllo pastry.

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  • Fifth quarter octopus. (4.75/5)
    • Octopus, incredibly tender between the individual suckers, was pressure cooked to arrive at that temperature. It put in the pressure cooker, and then skinned of membrane. A textural marvel.
    • The idea: Octopus, achieving a balance of tenderness and integrity that you previously thought impossible.

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  • Linking… dip of fried bacon and saffron, cornbread. (4.25/5)
    • Corn, bacon, garlic, and aspic jelly with flowers. Saffron added a gingery aftertaste. The tastes were not what you’d call full-bodied. But the idea was novel.
    • The idea: The entire restaurant performing a rhythmic ritual all at once

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  • Eucalyptus smoked loin of lamb with its cultivated wool. (4.5/5)
    • Lamb with the smell of liquid smoke – black cotton, actually the fuzz from soybean fermentations, inspired by a Southeast Asian soybean dish called “tempeh”. It is a new twist on the “sheep with wool” dish – usually the wool is made of cotton candy (see my post on Borago, Santiago). Here the wool was made with the edible mold.
    • The last two dishes (linking, and lamb), while not purely delicious, are signposts to future developments.
    • Idea: The fuzz

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  • Frozen apple chippings with mature cheese. (5/5)
    • When you first look at this dish, you’d think the shavings were apple, and the crumble on top some crumbly cheese. But it’d be wrong. This is a trompe l’oeil dish.
    • The frozen sheets are actually very cold mature cheese, and the crumble and goo on top, processed apple juice. The effect of juxtaposition is that I just tasted an amazing combination of cheese and apple with every bite, trying to get at the nonexistent apple in the frozen cheese sheets, but gaining it only in the toppings. Delicious.

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  • Starched handkerchief of fruit and flowers. (4/5)
    • Plum tastes in the rice flour.

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  • Lemon Succade with our herbs from yesterday and today. (5/5)
    • A whole candied half of lemon peel (succade), forming a bowl for lemon sherbet. The peel was crisp, and completely without rind. It evoked an egg, playing off egg-lemon similarities.

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  • Caffè latte cookies… Light. (5/5)
    • A light ice cream sandwich – room temperature meringue, and cold icecream. One of the best meringue biscuits I’ve tried (up there with atera’s lobster rolls and saltines). Light taste of coffee – latte icecream

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  • An almost impossible bite: sugary porra (3.75/5)
    • The rocks which had been on the table throughout the meal, were to be grated over a porra (deep fried pastry stick in Spanish, though a swear word in Portugese), in a throwback to the turf of grass in the first half of the meal. It was made of sugar, cloves, vanilla and star anise.

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  • Mignardises: Seven Deadly Sins (Pride, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Greed, Lust, Sloth) (5/5)

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    • Pride: A gilded but hollow chocolate, the gold reflected in the surrounding mirrors.

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    • Envy: If I had been two, then one chocolate would have been a big gold one, and the other a small silver one. Who’s going to take the larger? The smaller? Similar concept to the game for caviar above.

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    • Wrath: A spicy chocolate marshmallow

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    • Gluttony: Lots of chocolate puffed corn.

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    • Greed: Nothing

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    • Lust: Dehydrated strawberry and flower film. Red, and in reaching for lust, the diner becomes “red-handed”

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    • Sloth: A chocolate truffle. Usually people don’t finish this one. I did.

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* I was left speechless – and I left the restaurant with the knowledge that my memories of that meal would be lifelong.

APPENDIX: Mohamed’s recommendations for Denia: Casa Federico in Denia for paella; Aroz Caldoso at Casa Pepa in Ondara.

Akelarre | San Sebastián | Jun ’14 | “not a fan”

31 Jul
  • Rating: 13/20
  • Address: Paseo Padre Orcolaga, 56, 20008 San Sebastián, Gipuzkoa, Spain
  • Phone: +34 943 31 12 09
  • Price per pax: €190 ($255 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 1/5
  • Dining time: 150 minutes
  • Chef: Pedro Subijana
  • Style: Modernist
  • Michelin Stars: 3

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I have two warnings to gourmet-travellers who are considering whether or not to go to Akelarre.

The first is that the Classics menu is a relative disappointment. Akelarre offers three menus, one based on seafood (Aranori), one based on meat (Bekarki)*, and one a series of Akelarre’s Classics. I ordered the Classics menu, thinking it was a menu of signature dishes. Akelarre has a reputation for turning out creative dishes, and I was hoping to get a meal featuring its creative signatures. I found it to be more Classic in the other sense**, with a very classical dish profile (risotto, pasta, beef, lobster salad). Yes, there were some interesting twists on them – a foie-oxtail tiramisu was interesting – but generally they seemed needless elaboration on top of the classical flavor profile. I was disappointed in the Classics menu, and I think I would have enjoyed myself much more with the other two menus, which seemed more creative, as I found out over lunch by noticing what the other tables were being served.

*(Reference: Entry on “Akelarre”, Where Chefs Eat, Joe Warwick,)

**(This double-meaning seems accidental, for that menu is indeed a compilation of Akelarre hits that have graced the Aranori and Bekarki menus in previous years. They seem to have selected a conservative set of dishes as their “classics”.)

The second is a warning about ingredients. I was served frisee leaves in the lobster salad, that had clearly reddened at its stems. This is a tell-tale sign of old-leaves that have been prepped a long time in advance (maybe hours or days ahead, who knows.) That it made its way to my plate is either a failure of Quality Control from the kitchen, or ridiculously zealous cost-saving from the kitchen. Neither reflects well on Akelarre. I choose to believe the former, since the whole raison d’etre of haute-cuisine is to sample great ingredients, or at very least, better-than-normal ones. I hope my dish was an isolated lapse from the kitchen, and that this is not a systemic pattern at the restaurant.

My meal here plodded with the ordinary. It was less accomplished than a disappointing Arzak meal I had the previous day. While I might return to savour the view (Akelarre is situated beautifully on the Basque shore), I would not order the Classics menu, and in the mean I hope Mr Subijana can ensure that less-than-optimal ingredients will not leave his kitchen.

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  • Sea Garden
    • Prawn’s Sand (4.5/5)
      • Delicious. Sweet, salty, prawny
    • Oyster Leaf.
      • with local wine jelly. Tasting remarkably like oyster.
    • Mussel with “Shell” (4.75/5)
      • Shell of cocoa butter
    • Sea Urchin’s Sponge
    • Beach Pebbles (Shallot and Corn) (4.5/5)
      • Nice corn flavor
    • Codium Seaweed Coral (goose barnacles tasting tempura) (4.5/5)
      • Supposedly tasting like percebes.
      • Good

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  • Lobster salad with Cider vinegar (4.25/5)
    • The lobster was well-prepared, savory and appropriate on the lobster claw, tail and other assorted parts. The whole emphasis on the luxury-ingredient, lobster, made it seem like hotel cuisine.
    • Upon inspection however, I found oxidised salad leaves. Not just one, but multiple oxidised leaves, the red ends of which were not trimmed. That this found its way to my plate in a 3* restaurant is very questionable. Presumably, Chef Subijana does not intend to send out days-old frisee salad leaves (after all, they are one of the cheapest ingredients, a fraction above the price of air). Who then prepares the salad leaves? His sous chef? And how can Mr Subijana allow this dish, using clearly old salad leaves to leave the kitchen? I am forced to conclude that either the Quality Control of the kitchen has dropped, or Akelarre is economising on even the cheapest ingredients (then how can a diner trust that the kitchen is providing the best?)
    • Neither possibility reflects well on the kitchen. This is not a failure of technique (which would be understandable), but of ingredient-quality, the foundation of haute-cuisine. That the days-old leaves made it to my plate, would be questionable at any Michelin-starred restaurant. Even more so at 3* Akelarre.
    • Very disappointing.

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Reddened stems

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  • Pasta, Piquillo and Ibérico Carpaccio, Mushrooms and Parmesan (4.25/5)
    • A carpaccio of pasta, not entirely successful, for the dough-sheet had a starchy texture in the middle, probably a bit undercooked.
    • The truffle had little taste (understandably, given they were not Australian truffles and we were in June), but was redeemed by the earthier dark mushrooms.

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  • Rice with Snails and Periwinkles in Tomato and Basil Film (3.5/5)
    • Carnaroli rice.
    • A lukewarm risotto rice, a bit crunchy, seemingly undercooked, with some sausage-like meat (periwinkles and snails).

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  • Whole-Grain Red Mullet with Sauce “Fusilli” (3.75/5)
    • Red mullet fillet, head and bone praline, liver and onion. Fusilli stuffed with parsley, soy, ajo blanco sauce
    • Whole-grain = use the whole red mullet, head, bones liver
    • The red mullet was good, though a residual shiny sheen of oil on its skin was a bit thick for my taste. The conceit of using fusilli for the different sauces was creative, though the jelly tasted like tasteless water, and it was hard to get into the sauce.

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  • Carved Beef, Tail Cake, “Potatoes and Peppers” (3.75/5)
    • Tail Cake with Foie
    • Coppered Potato and Piquillo peppers
    • A tiramisu of foie and oxtail, bitter. And some beef with jus, and pepper and potato crisps. Okay. Very classic flavor profile. I guess I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I guess I assumed classics meant signature dishes. Given Akelarre’s reputation for creativity, I was hoping for their signature creative dishes, but what I got was classic dishes with a little twist.

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  • Gin-Tonic on a Plate (3.75/5)
    • Jelly of gin and tonic, juniper sauce (the gin parfum). Mix as desired
    • Bitter jelly, with lemon ice cream. It was okay.

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  • Warm Red Fruit Cake, with Candied Fennel (4/5)
    • A nice fruit/spice cake, flavor profile like British mince pies, except with a bit more raspberry. Good fruit spice.

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Bar Zeruko | San Sebastián | Jun ’14

26 Jul

Fifteen quick minutes
To Spain’s World Cup opener
versus the Oranje

I was in SS
Recuperating after
Lunch at Arzak

I went downstairs and
Googled for “mejor pintxos
I found Zeruko

2014-06-13 20.57.59I had ten minutes
Rushed over and found it packed
Time only for one

2014-06-13 19.59.48 2014-06-13 19.59.56 2014-06-13 20.00.48 2014-06-13 20.02.12 2014-06-13 20.02.27Football fan I am
I choose you, hoguera
Highly rated one

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You smoke bacalao
On a grill, then eat it with
bread and herb puree

Down it with lime juice.
Think of a Patisserie
For modern pintxos

That is Zeruko:
Bewildering assortment
Of colourful things.

2014-06-13 20.07.16Went back to my room
The streets ready to party
One-nil Spain ! Xabi!

Oh dang van Persie
Equalises with header.
One-all. It gets worse.

Daley Blind plays a
“blinder”. One-five. It’s full-time.
I expect sadness.

But Donostia is
Still buzzing after the match
The party goes on.

A loss won’t deter
The determinedly festive
Who’ve made it to Spain

2014-06-13 22.51.57


  • Address: Calle Pescaderia, 10, Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain

Arzak | San Sebastián | Jun ’14 | “un-Basqued”

26 Jul
  • Rating: 16.5/20
  • Address: Avenida del Alcalde José Elosegi, 273, 20015 San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa, Spain
  • Phone:+34 943 27 84 65
  • Price per pax: €217 ($291 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 1/5
  • Dining time: 130 minutes
  • Chef: Elena Arzak
  • Style: Modernist
  • Michelin Stars: 3

Notable links:


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Arzak has had mixed reviews in the last few years. Michelin continues to rate it highly. But reviews by some food bloggers (Andy Hayler, Elizabeth Auerbach) are less complementary. I was determined to enter Arzak with no expectations, and approach Elena Arzak’s cuisine with an open mind. (and I do not think comparisons to the Arzak of Juan Mari are relevant at all.) Where would this Banco de Sabores take me?

It turns out, I was transported in an Asian direction, unintentionally or intentionally. More specifically, Chinese cooking. A soy-sauce-inflected seabass, nut & seed sauces for pigeon, a scorpionfish dumpling and a sardine sphere that hinted at dim sum, sesame seeds infused with soy and wasabi. Regardless of whether my guess of Chinese experimentation on the part of Chef Elena is correct, I also noticed a lack of an identifiably Basque style to the cooking. And this is perhaps what disappointed me a little about Arzak. The oriental features of the meal were not particularly strong (the nut & seed sauces for the pigeon aside), and I ended the meal thinking that Arzak would have had a stronger meal had they chosen to put their own spin on some dish rooted in Basque country.

2014-06-13 12.40.03Indeed, a 2004 report by the lady “lxt” mentions how Arzak builds on traditional Basque ground:

Under no condition does Arzak fall under the category of those fickle travelers who bounce from corner to corner in their attempt to fit the “current trend.” Perhaps someone dining at Arzak for years may feel nostalgia toward the times when its cuisine was more in accord with the restaurant’s rustic décor, but it hasn’t lost its “personality,” and its development represents nothing but a steady, undeviating, long evolution of contrasted flavors, precisely articulated structures and decisive details, as a result of a highly developed aesthetic intuition while standing sturdily on the raw ground of tradition, letting each dish convey a unique rhythmic movement of a beautifully harmonious ballad. Elena managed to break “the traditional box by sliding out from beneath the roof and extending into the landscape” (Philip Johnson) rather than breaking the foundation of the old “house” completely to rebuild the new cuisine. – lxt

Dining at Arzak 10 years later, it feels as if the pressures to remain innovative has created a restaurant abdicating its Basque roots, experimenting with both oriental gestures and the trappings of modernism. It’s a new ship, this ship of Theseus, and one that’s not recognisably Basque.

*(A special mention for the service, which was excellent)

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  • Scorpionfish mousse with katafi (4.25/5)
    • Scorpionfish in a wispy noodled croquette. Not bad.

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  • Bitter raspberry (3.75/5)
    • Melon-ham cork, raspberry mixed with a bit of apple. Visually interesting, tastewise though ingredients were fairly normal.

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  • “Gilda” of carrots and ssam-jang (3.5/5)
    • Carrot and black olive

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  • Sweet chilli pepper and sardine sphere (4.25/5)

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  • Chorizo with tonic (3.75/5)
    • Ginger ale with ham taste. Ham taste a bit muddled under the ginger ale.

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  • Cromlech, manioc and huitlacoche: Crispy manioc hydrated with huitlacoche stuffed with a preparation of onion, green tea and foie gras (4/5)
    • A bit unwieldly to eat, since the foie gras et al. was underneath a manioc/yuca pastry creation. The fin made a it impossible to flip it over. I settled for flipping it onto its side, and eating it with an undersized spoon.
    • foie’s richness was cut by caramelized onions.

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  • Lobster “Sea and Garden”: Grilled lobster with a crispy star shaped crepe and fresh greens (4.75/5)
    • The best dish of the meal, lobster with tomato water. A star-shaped crepe. A side dish of zucchini (?) roasted with paprika. Spinach leaves with juniper. And various sesame seeds, infused with soy and wasabi, to get a rainbow of different colours.
    • The main axis was the lobster-and sesame seeds combo, enhanced with tomato water. The visual effect was quite stunning.

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  • Ovo-lacto: Egg with semi-crunchy shell and baobab accompanied by “lactic leaves” and curds (3.25/5)
    • A poached egg with crispy milk, and a circular dab of gorgonzola-idiazabal. The idea presumably was to showcase the intersection of milk and egg, two common proteins. But it tasted undistinguished, remaining just a poached egg, a bit of cheese, and milk.
    • The kitchen might also consider not putting so much powder on the crisp itself. While raising it to my mouth, I happened to inhale at the same time, breathing in a lot of powder, and coughing.

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  • Fish steak with potatoes: Fillet of seabass lightly marinated with gin and served with several flavors of potatoes (4/5)
    • Seabass in a light soy sauce. With dehydrated potato films (green potato, blue potato) and candied pistachios.
    • A dish reminiscent in presentation to The Fat Duck’s Sound of the Sea, only this one outdoes it with a visual movie of waves!
    • The seabass was a bit fishy – which I didn’t like, and actually very similar to a Chinese steaming of whole seabass in soy sauce. It was in fact, disregarding the potato films and the candied walnuts, a very Asian-influenced preparation. What did the additional ingredients add? Little – the potato films were mostly tasteless, there for eye-candy and texture, while the candied pistachio bits had crusted sugar on them – good bar snacks, but very little reason to be on the same plate with seabass.
    • I found Fat Duck’s Sound of the Sea to be successful because of the entire marine theme of the plate, but with only one marine item on Arzak’s plate (seabass), the rushing of waves did not enhance the dish. I think these extrasensory items, really only work if all the ingredients transport you to a certain remembered place. Arzak’s avant-garde dishes are at best rooted only in Arzak, and so the visual movie transported me nowhere, and was actually a bit of a distraction.
    • To the extent I was transported, I was transported by the taste of soy, to a crowded outdoor Chinese restaurant, eating a steamed fish in soy. Not really the seaside!

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  • Pigeon and seeds: Pigeon breast over a selection of dried fruits accompanied by an elaboration of seeds like pumpkin, grape or sunflower (4.25/5)
    • Pumpkin seed sauce: delicious. Grapeseed sauce (green dabs): delicious. Sunflower towers: nice. Pigeon leg, with papaya-black-olive-almond, sprinkled with chives: Not bad. Pigeon: with orange sauce. Good.
    • Reminded me of the nut candies I used to gorge on as a kid during Chinese New Year, mixed with pigeon.

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  • The big truffle: Large cocoa and sugar truffle with a creamy chocolate and carob filling (4.5/5)
    • Cotton candy surrounding a creamy filling, with chocolate poured on it. With orange flavor. Comforting.

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  • Black lemon: Crispy black lemon image with a sweet citrus cream interior sprinkled with the same fruit (3.75/5)

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  • Ice-cream assortment (4/5)
    • Carrot ice cream and carob ice cream

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  • Ferreteria
    • A nice selection of visually stunning odds and ends for mignardises. Though the tastes did not wow.
    • Coca-cola gelatin and pop rocks, Bolts, keys, screws. Other stuff.

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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”, http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/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“, http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/sep/13/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.

Elkano | Getaria | Jun ’14 | “turbot”

24 Jul
  • Rating: 16.5/20
  • Address: Herrerieta Kalea, 2, 20808, Getaria, Guipúzcoa, Spain
  • Phone: +34 943 14 00 24
  • Price per person: ~€80 ($108 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 3.5/5
  • Chef: Aitor Arregui (and family)
  • Style: Seafood


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In the course of 6 days in Basque country, I had the good fortune of visiting two ingredient temples. The first, Asador Etxebarri, and the second, Elkano in Getaria. Elkano has the reputation as the best seafood temple in Basque country. It is named after Juan Sebastián Elcano, born in Getaria, the first man to circumnavigate the world (the original expedition commander, Magellan, was killed in the Philippines). The restaurant is located in the centre of the sleepy seaside town, opposite a small square with a statue dedicated to Elcano.

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It was a winding drive from the surf-town of Zarautz, where I was staying, to the town of Getaria. The coast is fairly rocky, the road sometimes passing under drilled out rock. The beach was also nothing much to look at, the sand a dirty brown.

Elkano is famous for its innovative barbecue techniques, specifically, roasting fish whole in its own skin. This was invented by founding patriach Pedro Arregui all the way back in 1964. It is quite a sight to behold, the mighty winged turbot being clamped by a custom-made instrument, and sent onto the grill. Like Etxebarri, the implements seem rudimentary, with different grills, and wheeled systems to move the grills up and down. The results were fantastic: the turbot in particular, oozing with gelatin with every bite. It was oily, gelatinous, a mess, and absolutely delicious.

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I found out later, that Pedro Arregui, the patriach of the restaurant, had passed away in February 2014. (Write-up by Geeta Bansal here: http://chefgeeta.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/pedro-arregui-elkano-spain/). Just a month earlier in January, Elkano celebrated its 50th anniversary. As long as Elkano remains in family hands (the chef is now his son Aitor), I believe Elkano will remain a top class destination for seafood.

Not surprisingly, as Etxebarri and Elkano are only an hour away by car, I found numerous similarities (though it may be the conjoined cause of their location in Basque country) – the wheel-pump implements to raise and lower the grill, the custom barbecue equipment, and the serving of milk-based ice cream with berries.

Other notable write-ups:

  • Geeta Bansal’s recent piece on Elkano: http://chefgeeta.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/pedro-arregui-elkano-spain/
  • Vedat Milor extols Elkano’s virtues: http://www.gastromondiale.com/2012/05/donostia-and-three-of-the-world-top-10-restaurants-ibai-elkano-and-etxebarri.html
  • Obituary for Pedro Arregui: http://www.diariovasco.com/20140215/local/fallece-pedro-arregui-alma-201402151108.html
  • Quique Dacosta memorialises Pedro Arregui: http://quiquedacosta.blogspot.sg/2014/02/pedro-arregui-elkano-getaria.html
  • An interview with Aitor Arregui:
    • So the Getaria grill started out here in  Elkano?

      Well, the Getaria grill started out in the boats, as the fishermen already used to grill in the boats, but then red bream and chops were grilled over embers on land. My father began to use other fish and in other ways. They used to take the skin off the flat fish and he decided to grill them whole and in their skin, as he noticed that if you cut up a fish like turbot and grilled it without the skin, the fish tended to dry up. Well, when it is grilled whole, the skin protects it and you keep all the juices, and, you also get a combination of skins and textures with the same turbot. The part that they only used to use to make soup, the nape, well, my father took it and from the hake and put it on the grill, and found out that the nape was better than the tail. That was even an economic change, as the fishermen, who had not been paid anything for the nape, began to be paid as much as for it as for the tail or even more.

      A turning point.

      Yes, in many ways. He began to grill whole shellfish and then he began with the clams. I remember, when I arrived one evening, he said to me: “why don’t we put the kokotxas  (fish cheeks) on the grill?” and we invented a kokotxera (fish cheek grill). We began with a sieve and carried on like that for a year before making the fish cheek grill.  And we then started to try out grilling everything: cuttlefish, vegetables, and many other things… My father was a trail-blazer in the world of grilling, a pioneer and I am only trying to carry on with a team with what he did by himself.


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  • Amuse: Monkfish liver (4/5)
    • Tasted like foie, and the comparison is not superficial. It is amazing that this fish can summon up such a fatty texture
    • Served glazed with sherry, and a cherry

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  • Kokotxas – different textures (fried, grilled, and in green sauce [pil pil]) (4/5)
    • Really top class hake cheeks, though I find the traditional preparation “pil pil” to be a bit too garlicky for my taste.
    • Their gelatin lends them the phrase “melt-in-your-mouth”, though I’ve found with all kokotxas, that it slightly overstates the case – to release the gelatin you still need to chew (very very slightly).

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  • Chopped lobster

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  • Squid (3.5/5)
    • Daily catch of the day

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  • Grilled Turbot (5/5)
    • Hello you beauty. So many textures to speak of. The browned roasted fin is like a well done fried potato crisp; the flesh like bouncy jelly, and the various parts of the head filled with tender oily soft melt-in-your-bits.
    • The existence of this marvellous dish is a testament to the superiority of the Arregui whole-fish-grilling method.
    • The larger the fish, the more plentiful the weird odds-and-ends that make eating turbot a delight

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  • Cheese ice cream with strawberry infusion [helado con queso] (5/5)
    • A really good cheesecake flavored ice cream. This was a simple and perfect way to end a feast.
    • This was a good end to the meal. I would find the gesture of a simple milk-based ice cream with berry sauce, repeated at Etxebarri (with Victor Arguinzoniz’s own twist).

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Azurmendi | Larrabetzu | Jun ’14 | “liquefaction”

15 Jul
  • Rating: 19.5/20
  • Address: Legina Auzoa, s/n, 48195 Larrabetzu, Vizcaya, Spain (exit 25, N637)
  • Phone: +34 944 55 88 66
  • Price (after tax + tip, coffee): ~€150 ($204 at 1 EUR = 1.36 USD)
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining Time: 165 minutes
  • Chef: Eneko Atxa
  • Style: Modernist
  • Michelin Stars: 3

Notable reviews:

  1. (2014) Elizabeth Auerbach review
  2. (2013) Vedat Milor review
  3. (2012) Bruce Palling review


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Azurmendi has had one of the fastest three-star rises anywhere in the world. Eneko Atxa’s greenhouse of sustainability, a short 15 minute drive from Bilbao, was awarded 1* in 2006, 2* in 2010, and finally 3* in 2012. In fact, leaving aside the expansion restaurants of celebrity chefs like Robuchon, Ducasse, and Keller – Azurmendi may in fact have the fastest three-star rise for an original chef proprietor anywhere.

Azurmendi is named for both the mothers of Eneko Atxa and Jon Eguskiza, the chef and maitre d’ of the restaurant respectively. They were brought up in the Basque village of Amorebieta-Etxano. Eneko Atxa’s uncle, Gorka Izagirre, is “the largest proprietor of Txakolin in the Basque region.” [1] . Atxa has trained at Martin Berasategui, Asador Etxebarri, and Mugaritz. He also considers Yoshihiro Murata of 3* Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto a major influence:

“There was another Three Star Michelin chef that had a big impact on me in 2005. I learned a lot from Yoshihiro Murata the famed kaiseki chef at Kikunoi Honten, Kyoto) as I worked with him in Japan. I had been talking with him for a few days and asked him if I could witness his creative process in the kitchen. In response, Muratasan told me to meet him at five in the morning so I imagined he would take me to his kitchen and we could cook together. We got into his car and surprisingly, we didn’t go to his kitchen but instead to one of his producers. We had some tea and then spoke for two hours about which produce he should use because of the seasonality. It made me realize that factors like seasons and availability of various products was so important. We visited one who provided vegetables, another who dealt with general produce, who also knew things such as when the best fish are available and why. This was a very valuable lesson to me as I opened my first restaurant at the end of 2005. I was always very clear about what I wanted to do in my own kitchen – to make something from the local produce that had a universal message.” – Bruce Palling


Right when I stepped into Azurmendi, I was given a tour of three spaces (along with snacks) before settling into my table for the afternoon. The first was the environmentally sustainable greenhouse, growing an admirable variety of herbs. I was served six snacks there, some with a “found” quality, akin to a fairytale. The second was a picnic basket of three little bites in the main foyer. The third was the kitchen tour, with two further snacks. And finally I was ushered into the dining room to begin the meal proper. Elizabeth Auerbach mentions that the kitchen considers this the “four acts” of Azurmendi. It is unique among the restaurants I have visited – not least because it requires an integrated compound to have all these spaces to walk around in.

The end effect is that the diner ends at the table well-disposed to the kitchen, for adding a new experience to his memories. I had, for instance, a mix-up with the rental car company that caused me to be an hour late, but I had forgotten all my worries by the end of the tour around the greenhouse, garden, and kitchen.


I wish to draw attention mostly to Azurmendi’s liquefaction effects, which have not been remarked upon sufficiently. I consider this a signature effect of Atxa’s cuisine. I was served a “bonbon” (for definitional purposes: liquid held in a thin solid receptacle), at least eight times over the course of my meal at Azurmendi. Normally, this would be nothing more than a pleasant effect. This is what the modernist spherified amuses-bouche and mignardises at Le Squer’s Ledoyen achieve – an amusing diversion, they bookend Le Squer’s more substantial and celebrated classically-based cuisine.

But Atxa seems a veritable master of liquefaction. There are two major differences I have noticed between his approach to liquefaction and those of other chefs. The first is the variety of textures, and receptacles he uses for his liquids. His signature truffled-egg uses the natural yolk-membrane to hold both hot-truffle jus and gently poached yolk. In the greenhouse, I was served a guacamole cream bonbon with a thicker shell. He uses souffle pillows to hold ham-liquid (in the picnic basket, in the garden) and garlic cream (in the kokotxas). Somehow, he spherifies idiazabal cheese (with alginate? but the spheres are huge…). For his milk dessert, he crafts eggs with creme-caramel filling. Clearly, he has mastered a whole range of techniques for liquefaction and containment of such liquids. He has at least five good ones.

The second major difference is flavor. I do not know his techniques, but the liquids in his spheres are somehow more intense than those of other chefs. (Does it have to do with centrifuging?). In fact, this is a strength not just in the liquids, but in all of the dishes, the flavors tend to belie their minimalist and sleek geometric presentations, with flavors that dance on the tongue.


If Atxa’s cooking seems minimalist, it is – in terms of flavor profile of some of the dishes. Many of the snacks in the greenhouse were two-note bites (e.g. carrot in balsamic, tomato in vinegar, sunchoke skin with lime). While this is to be expected for the simpler greenhouse snacks, it (sometimes) makes a reappearance in his cooking at large. And so we enjoy dishes such as the lobster-chive, where a cornet of lobster tartare sits upon a roasted out-of-shell lobster, in chive oil and chive puree. Or his signature truffled-egg, which is precisely its stated two ingredients. Duck a l’Orange – is duck and orange. His successful dessert of strawberries and roses, is precisely strawberries and roses. This is ingredient-minimalism even beyond that of L’Ambroisie, typically 3-5 apparent principal ingredients; Atxa apparently can sometimes make do with just 2.

Minimalism of flavor profile, requires a great deal of conception and execution to pull off successfully. Atxa is not always successful in this. He hits extremely high heights (the perfectly roasted out-of-shell lobster; strawberries and roses) but can also overplay the unctuous nature of his creations (duck a l’orange, kokotxas). But it is exciting to witness his creations, in the dishes where he sets himself these two-flavor constraints.

Minimalism also expresses itself in radial symmetry in his dishes (nearly all of them). And since minimalism is a perfectionist’s errand, the spirit of a meal at Azurmendi is the opposite of the jazz restaurants (e.g. L’Arpège or André).


The general philosophy of Azurmendi is sustainability. Azurmendi was sustainably constructed (see this video on Azurmendi’s construction), and Eneko has mentioned his desire to be the most ecological restaurant in the world:

“The one thing that was always very clear to me was although I conceived of Azurmendi as a restaurant, I also wanted to be my home, so everyone involved has to think of themselves not as a cook or a waiter but everyone who formed part of the project had to behave like a host. And that is all of the members and staff. There will always be a host to greet our guests and then we start with a small walk. We are happy for people to arrive in electric cars because we have a free service for them to recharge.

We try and encourage this whole attitude within this complex. We have been in touch with the American authorities to see if we qualify as the most ecological restaurant in the world as we are definitely the most advanced one in Europe but we don’t know yet if we quality on the world level too. We are not completely sustainable at the moment but that is definitely the path we are striving to achieve.” – Bruce Palling

But a puzzle about Azurmendi and Chef Eneko’s philosophies remain – one specifically about his culinary philosophy – for someone who worked at Etxebarri, why does he not have a wood-fired grill in his kitchen?

“After further conversing with him I understood that he considers the a la brasa method, however subtle and nuanced it is, as is the case at Etxebarri, not suitable for a top end destination.  He thinks that dishes cooked a la brasa lack refinement. This is strange because I think the very opposite. For example, Etxebarri’s cooking brings out the taste of the great ingredients, whereas sous vide eliminates textural differences between and within categories ( I am talking about meat) in favor of a cloth-like soft and UNIFORM texture.” – Vedat Milor

The flavor of smoke appeared in the fisherman’s rice, but only as if by some sort of flavor sorcery, for there was no smoke to the eye. From my meals at Etxebarri, grilling can elevate a solitary ingredient, and can be seen (with a lot of aesthetic distance) as the culmination of culinary minimalism. Perhaps the final judgement is a visual-aesthetic rather than a culinary one, for the beautiful sculpted dishes of Chef Eneko’s art seem to inhabit a different aesthetic plane from the robust ingredient-dishes at the temple of Etxebarri. Both types of cooking yield great tastes (and Chef Eneko is a master of intensifying tastes), but the sculpted cuisine offers him a greater leeway to create a visual art. Thus the centrifuge over the wood grill.

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  • Appetizers in the greenhouse:
    • Tomato poached with vinegar (3.25/5)

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  • An elixir of (orange, pomelo, hibiscus) (3.5/5)

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  • Pumpkin-parmesan butter biscuit. (3.5/5)

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  • Avocado bonbon – coloured to mimic the seed of the avocado – in a dried avocado shell. (3.5/5)

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  • Roasted sunchoke skin, stuck on the stem with lime gel (3.25/5)

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  • Carrot, marinated in balsamic vinegar (3.25/5)
  • A bunch of herbaceous snacks, which were more interesting rather than delicious, reminding me of Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Pocantico Hills, New York) with their amuse of vegetable crudites. But these one-note snacks were peripheral players, prefiguring the playfulness of Atxa’s vision. These were not chords (hinting at a future dish), let alone fugues (completed dishes), but rather minimalist note tinkering.
  • The fun was to stumble across these dishes, as if these wonders had been placed by Providence along our path through the greenhouse. It was a novel concept (and also one that requires a surrounding bit of nature). Of those I would class the avocado bonbon as the cleverest, relying on a visual similarity between the bonbon and an avocado seed – and the ensuing texture of guacamole on the tongue enjoyable. The sunchoke skin, with its visual similarity to bark, was also very interesting.
  • It was in a way, a logical extension of New Nordic cuisine, which seeks to bring the forest floor to your table. Azurmendi brought us to “nature” (a greenhouse), and served us dishes. In the future, some enterprising chef might even plate full dishes in nature. Alinea (see Ruth Reichl’s 2014 report) and Atelier Crenn in the US have experimented with “found” dishes, using carrots.

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  • Appetizers in the garden:
    • Bread and ham (5/5)
      • This really kicked off the meal. An intense hit of umami, liquid ham, hit the palate as soon as the bread pillow cracked. The senses were jolted with the first protein of the day. The meal had started.

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    • Homemade Seasoned Anchovy (4/5)
      • This was fairly good, but our perceptions of saltiness being what it is (very personal), I felt it was oversalted for my taste. I preferred the salting of Asador Etxebarri version.

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    • CaipiriTxa (4/5)
      • A liquid Caipirinha cocktail bonbon, only with Txakoli instead of rum. Good. You will note that at this point, Azurmendi has already served three bonbons. (avocado, ham, caipirinha)

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  • Appetizers in the kitchen:
    • Red bean soup (4/5)
    • Blood sausage croquette (4/5)

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  • Hazelnut, peanut, almond and mushroom leaf (5/5)
    • Atop a mushroom leaf covering three nuts.  Clockwise from 10 o’clock: hazelnut, peanut, almond
    • Hazelnut turned out to be a pigeon foie gras (5/5)
    • Almond was amaretto liqueur (4.5/5)
    • Peanut was peanut butter [possibly with addition of foie?] (5/5)
    • A big part of Atxa’s aesthetic seems to be stylised set pieces. Here, a tree leaf covers three nuts. Before, a picnic in the garden. Before that, found plantstuffs in the greenhouse. All of the nuts had great mixtures of sweet and unctuousness, from the butters and foie.

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  • House steamed bread with olive oil (5/5)
    • One of the simplest bites, but among my top memories of the place. A simple steamed bread with Andalucian olive oil, but the bread had a milky sweetness and a pillowy texture, similar to a Chinese mantou (steamed bun). It was unexpected that I would find a similar steamed bun tradition in Basque country.

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  • Egg from our hens, cooked inside out and truffled (5/5)
    • A video of Eneko Atxa preparing the dish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqpS3UPQ30w
    • Hot truffle jus is syringed into an egg yolk. The temperature cooks it through, poaching the egg.
    • This is essentially a two-note dish, a modern interpretation of the scrambled eggs and black truffle combination. I thought this very clever. The bonbon effect was at play for the Fourth time again, as truffle and egg exploded in the mouth upon contact. A conceptual masterpiece.
    • One wonders if it can be replicated with white truffle. Would it be desirable to replicate it with white truffle?

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  • Bloody “Mar” (4.5/5)
    • A video of Atxa preparing the dish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyh9L14bSZ8
    • Vodka, black pepper, tomato, with sea urchin and celery.
    • Really strong sea urchin flavor, which was complementary to the cocktail. A bit difficult to figure out how to eat this dish, I settled for taking a bite of the wafer (halving it), then sipping the cocktail, then finishing the other half with the remaining cocktail. I found the concept and flavor pairing compelling, but the presentation unwieldly.

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  • Tomato, cheese and basil tartlet (4.25/5)
    • Vegetable tartlets, with skinless tomatoes, tomato emulsion, and the roasted skinlets of tomato. Finished with idiazabal (sheep’s cheese) bonbon. By the side, a idiazabal cheese sorbet.
    • Good. Sweetness of tomato cut the richness of idiazabal. Strangely, for a strongly flavored cheese, I remembered the idiazabal bonbons as having a bland milkiness. Profound tomato flavor.
    • I was advised to eat one tartlet first without the idiazabal sorbet, and the second one with.

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  • Roasted lobster out of the shell on oil herbs and sweet chives (5/5)
    • A great lobster dish. A lobster tail taken out of its shell, perfectly roasted to give it a crunchy browning outside, with a cornetto of stuffed lobster tartare on top. Chive oil and chive emulsion. The out-of-shell lobster was perfectly roasted to give it the crunch, while retaining softness within. The cornetto was delicious.
    • I remember most the impeccable technique, to impart that crunchy browning to the lobster, while maintaining a good inner texture.

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  • Traditional Fisherman style charcoal-grilled rice (5/5)
    • A strong smoky flavor, a hearty dish of the juices of little clam, with cream of sea urchin, and oysters smoked in charcoal. Eating this, I was transported somewhere near a burning wood campfire, eating with fishermen at the end of a fishing trip.
    • This presented a different side of Atxa’s cooking. Whereas I admired some of his other dishes (like the Bloody Mar) more with the head, this grabbed me by the gut. I craved this dish.

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  • Duck Royal “a l’orange” and orange blossom aroma (4.25/5)
    • The scent of orange zest was sprayed when the dish was served. The “orange segment” was sculpted of foie, covered in orange jelly. In the centre, a terrine of meat (and foie?).
    • While I enjoyed and appreciated the technique involved in reimagining and executing the dish (orange segment especially), the tastes were dominated by the savory parts of foie and meat terrine. I rationed my little real orange bits, and the orange jelly on the foie “faux” orange segment, to provide a fruity respite from the onslaught of unctuousness. This dish felt unbalanced, as if the kitchen had cranked up the dial on fattiness to 11/10.
    • Perhaps as an improvement, a lighter intermezzo course would have worked well between the Fisherman’s Rice and Duck a l’orange.

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  • “Kokotxas” with potatoes (4/5)
    • Kokotxas – an ingredient I would become very familiar with over the next few days – was first introduced to me here. It is the cheek of hake, the most gelatinous part of the fish, and sought by gourmands for its melt-in-the-mouth texture.
    • It was here confit with olive oil, and the gelatin was used for an emulsion with chilli pepper and chipotle garlic. On it, the bonbon-liquidising element made a sixth appearance, with the potato souffle pillows containing a burst of garlic cream.
    • Heavy. The 4th of 5 heavy courses, the gelatinous kokotxas were indeed enjoyable, but the dial on heaviness remained at 11/10 thanks to the garlic and cream.

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  • Confit and roasted baby pig, crunchy pork ear and pumpkin in different textures (4/5)
    • Suckling pig, a croquette of pig’s ear, with slivers of raw pumpkin wrapped around pumpkin cream
    • The suckling pig was drier than I would have liked. Here we can make another observation: in an echo of the earlier snacks at the greenhouse, Atxa can minimise the basis ingredients of his “signature dishes” down to 2. I think of the egg (truffle + egg), lobster (lobster + chive), and now the pork (pork + pumpkin). I do not think it is a coincidence. Atxa’s minimalist tendency expresses itself presentation-wise in sleek geometric lines (think the cornetto) and radial symmetry (this dish); taste-wise in paring down ingredients to two principal actors, with maybe a minor third ingredient for certain accents.

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  • Dry Croissant of Fruits and Creamy Cheese Ice Cream (5/5)
    • Fruit meringue and thyme-cheese ice cream. Tremendous and inventive flavor.
    • The bare bones of a larger idea about thyme and cheese?
    • The sensuous curves evoking the nearby Bilbao Guggenheim.

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  • Strawberries and roses (5/5)
    • With violence, and dry ice, the vase containing a solitary rose exploded into wafts of “smoke”, carrying rose perfume.
    • The delicate crunch of rose petals (shredded and whole), with marshmallow of rosewater, strawberry sorbet and wild strawberries. For me it was indescribable, the delicate vegetal crunch of the shredded rose, along with the light rosewater marshmallow, which captured for me the lightness of the flower. It was given body by the strawberries. Independent of the theatrical presentation (which was much appreciated), this dish had the highest gastronomic merit: the metaphorical lightness of roses was made literal with textures of marshmallow and shredded rose.

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  • Egg and dairy products, Farmhouse Milk Ice Cream, Butter Toffee, “homemade eggs” milk skin and gelée of yogurt (5/5)
    • “It has made me fall in love with vanilla” – that was what I wrote. Bed of toffee butter, cubes of yoghurt gelatin, dehydrated spiced milk. Dehydrated milk bits, milk ice cream, along with for a seventh time, eggs with liquid creme caramel filling.
    • The vanilla in the ice cream was accentuated by its supporting cast. It was the star. The taste of spiced milk; the sour of yoghurt; the richness of toffee butter. A homage to milk.

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  • Petit fours
    • Hazelnut
    • Golden – buddha hand, flan
    • Chocolate jelly
    • Marshmallow, chocolate dip
    • Hazelnut bonbon
    • White chocolate
    • Passionfruit

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