The Basque of be­yond

The ar­du­ous jour­ney to the world’s most fa­mous grill house is well worth the ef­fort KEN­DALL HILL

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue -

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.

asadoretxe­barri.com

Vic­tor Ar­guin­zoniz works the grill at Asador Etxe­barri, left and above right; smoked but­ter, above; in­side the restau­rant, be­low

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