The Basque of beyond
The arduous journey to the world’s most famous grill house is well worth the effort KENDALL HILL
A HARRIED couple, windswept and dishevelled, are led to their table by a waitress in elegant black. They take their seats and settle themselves before he turns to his wife.
‘‘Is this it?’’ he hisses, trying for sotto voce, but everyone in the restaurant hears. We can all sympathise a little with the sentiment.
Asador Etxebarri, in Spain’s Basque Country, is always described as being ‘‘near Bilbao’’, but in fact it is a tortuous drive along poorly signed country roads that terminates at the base of Anboto mountain, a 1300m limestone peak that soars above the pretty village of Axpe.
The scene could be a film set in soft focus: neat stone houses, white sheep against brilliant green meadows, an apple orchard in blossom, a spring-fed fountain, a sandstone church. Stretching away into the distance in every direction are forests of pine, eucalypt and holm oak.
Wood is central to this Spanish food pilgrimage. Asador means grill. Etxebarri means new house. Since this ‘‘new grill house’’ opened in 1990, it has earned a reputation as the most sublime barbecue joint in the world.
While the Basque country A-list eateries of Mugaritz, Arzak and Akelarre bask in the substantial glow of their collective Michelin stars, Etxebarri is a more understated affair. Its proprietor, Victor Arguinzoniz, is perhaps the humblest chef in Europe. When we visit him in his kitchen after lunch, he is kind but seems uncomfortable with the attention.
He explains the grid of six grills he’s constructed along the kitchen walls and the series of pulleys and cables he works like a campanologist to balance heat and distance. Through a lifetime of trial and error he has fine-tuned his cooking technique for ingredients as diverse as caviar, baby eels and hulking great slabs of prime Spanish beef.
There are j ust five people in the kitchen, remarkable for a Michelinstarred restaurant ranked 44th on the 2013 San Pellegrino list of the world’s best restaurants.
Assisting the cooks are two deep brick kilns, reminiscent of ancient baker’s ovens, that are fired up at 8am for the 1pm lunch service to provide a constant supply of embers, mainly from holm oak and vine cuttings.
Arguinzoniz may use a little fruitwood with the caviar, and occasional orange and olive, but oak works best for seafood and grapewood for beef. In his hands, almost everything edible can be improved with a spell on la brasa, the wood-fired grill.
Asador Etxebarri’s kitchen is at the rear of the downstairs bar, a timberlined space that could be a local anywhere in rural Spain. The dining room above is smarter but still humble, with its polished parquet floors, stone and plaster walls, clothed tables and timber-paned windows framing village and countryside views.
We take our seats as The Flower Duet from Lakme fills the room, and take champagne to start because it seems a fitting reward for such a pilgrimage. Diners can choose a la carte and order such exotic fare as goose bar- nacles — priced at ($ 297) a kilogram — but most opt for the set tasting menu.
Things get under way without fuss. Awaitress delivers a black slate bearing two wafers laden with paper-thin slices of spring mushrooms, warmed just enough to tease out their delicately earthy, mealy flavours. Next comes a trio of plates showcasing Arguinzoniz’s prowess as a primary producer. Slices of warmed chorizo elaborated from the chef’s acorn-fed pigs: from his goats, an intensely rich butter with a texture like shortening that’s seasoned with black volcanic salt; a ball of mozzarella, snow white against ink- black porcelain, made that morning with milk from Arguinzoniz’s buffaloes. All it needs are a few flakes of salt and a single oregano leaf to suggest it might be the best mozzarella I have tasted.
These unadulterated plates, served with the barest of seasonings and often only in their own juices, set the tone for
LENNOX HASTIE the nine courses to follow. There is no elaborate French saucing, no molecular anything, not a food fad in sight. Just pure ingredients enhanced with heat, fire and smoke.
A lidded shell opens to reveal a steamed oyster in a foam of its own briny j uices. Two strapping prawns from Palamos, on Spain’s Mediterranean Costa Brava, are served whole. The shells are a shocking scarlet colour, the flesh plump and immaculate until the creature is torn open and its head oozes green liquor everywhere. The liquid is heady and intense and, coupled with the oak-smoky flesh, makes for a most memorable prawn.
We expect the sea cucumber to be challenging, but in fact it is quite staid. The fluted exterior is a glistening mess of char and savoury caramel, the texture not unlike a thick bit of squid. Its only accompaniments are a muddle of baby bean pods and a bit of chickweed. It’s all very tasty.
We are too late for baby eel season (November-March), but not for baby octopus. At Etxebarri they come 10 abreast on a smear of caramelised onion with a comma of black ink. They are so supple and tiny, each about half the length of my little finger, that to devour them seems a guilty pleasure.
There are St George’s mushrooms harvested from the base of Anboto, a pea soup of the most minute pods that is like spring in a dish, and a blushing cut of red mullet, its pale salty flesh tempered with the sweetness of tempura carrot.
All the above is j ust a warm- up, really, to the main act — a plate listed blandly as ‘‘beef chop’’ on the menu. It is a beautifully aged rib-eye from Galicia, served on the bone. Arguinzoniz’s ingenious grilling device cooks both sides at once over scorching heat to seal the flavours and juices. Beneath fireblackened bone and chewy, charred flesh is a narrow layer of sherbet-pink meat casing the bloodied crimson centre. A bowl of iceberg lettuce doused in vinaigrette is a token antidote to the excesses of this fabulous flesh.
A trio of desserts to close. A sorbetstyle blood orange smoothie resets the palate for strawberries, grilled over coals, their juices staining a rod of white marshmallow. And then another surprise. Arguinzoniz has infused the flavours of la brasa into a glossy scoop of ice cream that floats in a liquid pool of berries — cherry, raspberry, blueberry. The milk in the ice cream has been smoked; pails of fresh milk are left in the brick ovens to infuse with the aromas of burning wood. It’s like eating fire and ice at the same time. Incredible.
In an era when so many chefs are turning to gadgets to push the boundaries of haute cuisine, Arguinzoniz chooses instead to play with fire — harnessing the most primitive and volatile cooking method of all to create food that is sophisticated and stunning. If you’re searching for the best asador in the world, this is it.
Victor Arguinzoniz works the grill at Asador Etxebarri, left and above right; smoked butter, above; inside the restaurant, below