Address: Asador Etxebarri, Plaza San Juan, 1 Axpe-Marzana 48291, Atxondo- Bizkaia
Gan: The best meal. I've had it. Before we made the trek from Donostia-San Sebastian to the little village Axpe and its amazing treasure, Asador Etxebarri, the following phrase kept ringing in my head: "There is no other person on earth having a better meal at the moment". I must have read it from some food blog or from our usual inspiration, Tony Bourdain's No Reservation Spain episode while researching for this trip and on this restaurant. You know how it is when you build up such high expectations that the eventual result tends to be less spectacular than it actually is because you were expecting the impossible. I'm happy to say, Etxebarri had not only met my highest expectations but exceeded it! I truly believed that while I was savoring the last desert dish, there is no other person on earth that was having a better meal at that very moment (except of course, for Sarah.. who's right alongside with me. hehe!).
We arrived a good hour before our actual reservations since we wanted to factor in possibly getting lost along the way. Surprisingly, the journey was smooth and quite enjoyable, through the Basque countryside. Btw, I'm still amazed how we had such a good experience in Spain without speaking any Spanish or the local Basque or Catalan dialects. It was great catching Chef Victor Arguinzoniz in the restaurant before the seating. He looked just as I had expected, in his usual white t-shirt and what looks like his farming attire, looking all the bit like he's about to go out to catch a fish or bring in fresh produce from the farm for the kitchen. Victor is well known for being one of the best griller in the world. Most, if not all, of his dish creation are grilled no matter the subject. My guess is grilling or smoking would probably not be the first thing that comes across most chefs' mind when he's presented with delicate produce such as caviar, butter, sea cucumber, or angulas (baby eels). It is this level of dedication to his technique (or art) that makes him a great chef. Strip away all the complexity of more modern cooking technique or even molecular gastronomy that is the rage in most parts of the world, cooking boils down to simply preparing food by applying heat. Why not grill? After all, grilling is one of the oldest form of cooking that we've continued to use since we were cavemen. One advantage to grilling is that it retains the closest of proximity between food and fire; nothing in between, unfettered, unadulterated. It's like making love without... err, I think I'll try keeping this post in its usual G-rating. :-) Heat. Yes, I think more than grilling, Victor knows about fire and more importantly heat. His famously reported self-invented pulley system and fully disassmble-able grill system allows him to control the proximity of the food and the fire. Controlling heat.. can't get more basic than that. What does pots and pans do? Mostly to transfer heat as well as distributing them evenly. I think that's the secret ingredient in what makes Etxebarri's food great.
We had time to venture around the area, which was to say the least, breathtaking. The backdrop of the dramatic looking mountains were just perfect. It was a nice stroll before we head back to the dining room. Victor's sous chef, Lennox greeted us as we were being seated. It was nice to see a chef coming up to explain the menu to us, or maybe it's because he's Australian and is probably the only person who can speak English there. It seems like Lennox who's an Australian and had ended up in Victor's kitchen have quite a pedigree. He had apprenticed at Michelin starred restaurant and clearly provided finesse to the food here (ie: smaller portion compared to usual Basque portion and the plating). It is clear that Etxebarri has been undergoing transformation in the food that it produced. Both Sarah and myself felt that the chef that Victor had brought on, Lennox, is a key component in making what Etxebarri is today and in the future. We deferred to Lennox to create a menu for us and told him as we usually do, that we have "no reservations" on our dietary requirement.
Sarah: Etxebarri is one of the main reasons why the yaokuis flew all the way from New York City to Spain. After watching No Reservation: Spain episode (again) on youtube a few months ago, we decided to stop salivating over Anthony Bourdain eating those incredible food in Spain and go there ourselves. It was one of the best decisions ever. After lunch, we decided that we just had to visit Etxebarri's famous kitchen and take a look at the grill and we were lucky that Lennox was able to show us around. The restaurant added a few more grills after Anthony Bourdain came about 1 1/2 years ago, and they are now able to cater for big groups such as weddings. Lennox also showed us their aquarium where they kept the fresh and live seafood. All the seafood we had during lunch ie langoustine, oysters, eel, palamos shrimp, crawfish, etc were all as fresh as they can be. Given that the restaurant is located in the mountains and some distance away from the ocean, this is a great idea to make sure the seafood produce from water to kitchen to dining table are shortened and at its freshest. This reminds us of how it's done in Asia, especially in HK, where seafood restaurants has its own in house aquariums. As for the meat, we were told that they source it mostly from Galicia, since, unfortunately the farming industry around this area is not as sustainable as before.
Gan: The 12 courses that followed was the most amazing experience so far. Some good restaurants could only strive for a signature dish that others can judge it by. Great restaurants aims to give you something to remember for each plate that comes out of the kitchen. We got exactly that. The handmade chorizo was simply scrumptious. The smokiness of the ground fat and meat of iberico pork (black pig like kurobuta) matched well with the hearty bean soup. Then came the trio of the most amazing shell fish course I've had. First was the quisquilla small female shrimp which has plenty of roe underneath. It's just plainly grilled with salt. There's only one way to eat them, which is with your bare fingers. The saltiness of the roe compliments the sweetness of the shrimp. Next was one of my favorite seafood in Spain, the Palamos shrimp with its head filled with liquid goodness. There's no other way to enjoy it but to suck the head. It's juicy, briny, gooey, and it's delicious. The langoustine was the perfect ending to the trio. Its meat is cooked perfectly and you can see how skillful the chefs managed the heat in all three trio of shrimp shellfish dishes. The oysters with the seaweed and foam was briny and tasted like it was scooped right out of the ocean. The butter was creamy and smoky with the aftertaste of ash. The smoked caviar was intense, and you can smell the seaweed smoked with applewood coal. You see the history of Victor's forrestry background and intimate knowledge of the different wood and coal used to grill and smoke his dishes in just this one dish. Eating the angulas (baby eels) was like eating one of those Chinese noodles made of fish paste. It was a harmonious balance of texture and taste. The Galician chuletas was a lot more marbled than it looks and was absolutely delicious. In fact, it's a bit gamier than the Kobe beef or most of the beef we could find here in the States. I think it speaks volume to think their steak would've given any of the best steak-specialty restaurants a run for their money. Certainly, it's as good if not better than Peter Luger's, in my opinion. Most surprising of all, the dessert has the most impact for me. We had a 4 hour long meal and 12 courses which could've filled most people, even those trained with American portion :-) but when I had a taste of the sheep milk ice cream and its absolutely perfect wild fruit sauce, I was blown away. I had my favorite dessert in Aquavit when I had their goat cheese ice cream. For some reason, my taste bud are just attracted to ice cream made of cheese. Yes, I had second helping (free of charge).
This female quisquilla (shrimp with roe) was amazing. Grilled and seasoned lightly with salt, it was smokey, juicy and so flavorful.
handmade smoked butter - you can really taste the smokiness of this "dish". It sounds strange to eat a ball of butter, but it was so good that you almost forget you are eating one. I like the crunchy butter and ash like bits on the side
Palamos shrimp was so succulent. Once you remove the head from the body, there will be hot greenish juice/liquid flowing out and we drink/suck the juice. It was heavenly. Then the shrimp itself was just out of this world
Langoustine fans, I can bet you that this will be your favorite langoustine dish ever if you try this. Any other langoustine dishes will not be able to come close to Extebarri's Langoustine dish. Simple yet amazing
Caviar smoked with seaweed - we saw this dish on "No Reservation" and wondered how it tastes like. It was really really good. The seaweed taste is successfully smoked onto the caviar, enhacing its taste
sheep milk cheese ice cream with infusion of wild fruits - best dessert ever. Gan had to order additional serving of this. some other blogs mentioned the ice cream is smoked (the sheep milk smoked before being made into an ice cream) but we couldn't smell any of the smokiness.
Gan: Asador Etxebarri is a rare gem. A confluence of the old and the new. The tradition and the evolution. Simple yet creative. It is no coincidence that many publications and foodies around the world had praised Etxebarri for its food, yet the accolades still elude them. I'm sure Victor Arguinzoniz would not have given much thought or stressed about it but as I've told Lennox, the Michelin stars is as much of an affirmation for us who appreciates greatness do not come by chance, but by sheer dedication and care. Just like any of the best meals we've had, all the accolades aside, all the techniques aside, and all the wrangling over why it's so good, it comes down to flavor. I've had the best tasting meal at Etxebarri.. now, let's go find the next best meal!
Sarah: Eating at Asador Etxebarri was one of the most unbelievable experience for Gan and I. We never thought we would be so impressed. Ever since we ate there, we find it hard not to compare the food elsewhere with the ones served in Etxebarri. Etxebarri is like our benchmark for excellence when it comes to food now. At first, Gan and I thought the restaurant was already awarded Michelin star sometime ago, but they weren't. Strip away all those superficial elements (aka ratings that has nothing to do with flavor) that Michelin rating system judges a restaurant, we think Michelin should award Extebarri Three stars, because they absolutely deserve it.
Additional Reference/Article about this great place