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Friday, July 21, 2006

Etxebarri: excellence personified

The place that made perhaps the biggest impression on me on this last trip to Europe –on yet another a pilgrimage to many starry restaurants- was, surprisingly, a kitchen without even a star to its name. This restaurant, called Etxebarri, which simply means 'new house' in Basque, was the very definition of the phrase 'middle of nowhere', and serves up the kind of strikingly personal cuisine that makes one sit up and take notice.

A friend had warned us that the normally useful directions from Via Michelin were incorrect, and gave us instead a tattered treasure map with pencil markings on the roads where we were supposed to turn. We had a better idea though, or at least we thought we had one. We had a GPS in our rental car, whom we dubbed Hal II, and for whom we lavished blind faith. Need I say that our better idea turned out to be hardly better than nothing at all?

Driving in and around San Sebastian is quite non-trivial. Many of the major arteries in and out of the main city overlap each other, with varyingly named motorways sharing the same actual road. Signs on the roadside look at times like a long series of coded messages. Adding insult to injury, everything is labeled in both Castellano (standard Spanish) and Euskara (Basque). Not that I would ever begrudge a people so proud of their heritage, but, speaking neither Basque nor Spanish, I found myself in a constant state of confusion in the world full of math equations in place of a road sign!

After an action-filled drive from San Sebastian (ahem, Donostia), we finally made our way to a little town called Axpe, where Etxebarri locates. The restaurant is in an unbelievably beautiful setting, in a village seemingly comprised of only a few traditional stone buildings, set against a dramatic hillside. The picture doesn't do it justice at all.

We came all the way here in seach of the distinct cuisine of the chef, Victor Arguinzoniz, the renown grill master of the region. To say that grilling is his passion would be an understatement. Not only that every dish out of his kitchen is grilled, but he makes his own charcoal, and even invented his own oven and grilling contraptions to take it to a whole other level.

It's the kind of highly personalized cuisine that could be confounding to some. Michelin, who is unusually generous in this area –San Sebastian has the highest ratio of Michelin star per capita- gives him no star at all. I'm not sure if it was because they couldn't understand him, or perhaps simply couldn't find him.

Despite what Michelin thinks, we were delighted to find ourselves sitting in his dining room. The restaurant was completely booked, even though it was lunch, and that being –need we say again- the middle of nowhere. All the tables we could see were occupied by locals, and when we finished our meal at way past four o'clock, there were still diners arriving for the lunch service.

As is our custom, instead of ordering from the menu, we asked the kitchen to do a tasting menu for us. We were prepared to eat pretty much anything he put in front of us -except, of course, for beetroots.

The first to arrive was a little piece of grilled bread, pita-like in the puffy consistency, onto which was smeared some unbelievably smoky pureed Baccalau, or Salt Cod. That was as good a first bite as any I'd had.

The second to arrive was his famous Chorizo sausage, or Txorizo as they're called in the area. Each of us had two thinly sliced pieces of grilled bread, again with a touch of smokiness, topped with a few precious pieces of Txorizo. Victor's Txorizo was unlike anything I'd ever had before. It was moist and toothsome at once, with a lovely smokiness and just a hint of spice. It was so good we immediately asked if we could buy some to take home. Of course our waitress said no, claiming that chef barely made enough for the restaurant.

Next up were sweet, sweet shrimps. Again grilled, and again with just a touch of smokiness that really was getting to be intoxicating. The shrimps, Gambas de Palamos, had been fished off the coast of Girona (in Catalunya) at a depth of two-three hundred feet. They were so delicious, and somehow the shells were so surprisingly crispy that we left practically nothing on the plate when we were done.

Then we had some oysters, somehow grilled outside on the shell since there were grill-marks directly on the flesh, yet remained unctuous and moist.

Next were the Sea Cucumbers, grilled (again) to a caramelized perfection. They were crunchy and amazingly delicious, similar in texture to calamari but far more flavorful. This dish was served with a salad of young fava beans bathed in local olive oil and herbs from the garden.

Next up some amazing Kokotxas, the most delicate and prized morsels of meat from the throat area of a fish, usually Cod or Hake. Here the Kokotxas were again grilled, ever so gently so that the outer layer didn't break. Biting into one was an explosion of flavor and the most unctuous and gelatinous texture. The green peas and local olive oil served with the Kokotxa added even more sweetness to the dish. I was getting teary eyed by this time.

Then we had some fresh Anchovies, cooked ever so delicately that they arrived medium rare. They were sweet, salty and tasted of the sea, every bit the perfect Platonic ideal of the form.

Next was Rouget, Red Mullet, serves with tiny Spring vegetables from the garden that Victor and his father tended on the side of the mountain right next to the restaurant. Even the Spring vegetables were grilled, and each bite was better than the previous.

The final fish course was Baccalau in Pil Pil sauce, which was an emulsion made of the oil from the fish itself. This was, by far, the best Baccalau either of us has ever had, and that is saying something.

The final savory dish was Galician beef, grilled perfectly rare, and served with green salad. This was the first time I've had Galician beef and I was amazed by the quality of it, needing absolutely no other adornment but a simple sprinkle of sea salt.

The meal ended with a dessert of strawberry tart –itself was just ok- served with a delicious ice cream made from a Candy Cap-like mushroom from the region.

We drank a bottle of local white to begin. The wine had a little spritz that was akin to giving it a spring in its steps, poured -Basque style- at arms-length from high up into a waiting water glass common to the region. We also had a bottle of Rioja –didn't write down what it was- with the heavier courses.

And so ended the meal. We were not only more than satisfied, but completely stupefied. This meal was unlike anything I had experienced until then. The kitchen and the chef had one technique, grilling. But he took the technique far beyond perfection. I had been afraid that I might get a little bored with everything being just grilled, but happily it couldn't be farther from what happened. The quality of ingredients was astounding, but even more so was the care with which the chef took in cooking each and every product that arrived on our table. We could taste the distinct level of smokiness in each plate, each, of course, tailored to a particular fish or meat, and grilled to a differing doneness based on a particular ingredient as well.

Everything here was made in-house. The pimenton peppers for the Txorizo were grown in the garden by Victor himself. The vegetables came from the garden. Even the charcoal came from the Oak trees surrounding the area, and made by the chef himself in an oven he specifically designed for his kitchen.

We went into the kitchen to visit the chef and to see the grill stations he famously designed and built. The small, galley-like kitchen was completely taken up on one side by grill stations. Each grill has a metal grate that's connected to a turning contraption that allows Victor a complete control over the proximity of it to the hot charcoal below. Every centimeter made a difference, he said.

David and Victor got along famously, talking and gesturing with delight in at least two languages. It was a complete meeting of minds: two cooks who had just discovered the utmost respect for one another. The ultimate quality of a great cook, they both agreed, was hardly in the chemistry or intricate sauces. It is in the ability to master the fire.

Here's to boys playing with fire. I say.

Getting there

We set out from San Sebastian, or Donostia in Basque, and headed toward the general direction of Durango, which is the nearest town to the little village where Etxebarri locates. Hal II told us to follow one particular highway, but the road that we followed out of town –based on his very own turn by turn guidance- was labeled with a different number. We basically had to ignore him, after assessing that we are heading the right direction anyway. We followed the signs to Durango (ahem, Bizkaia), and finally got there with nary a wrong turn.

Things got a little iffy after Durango, however. The whole town appeared to have been under construction, with detour signs everywhere. The tattered treasure map Mikael gave us was by then not detailed enough to be of any use. Luckily, Hal II somehow reset himself and began making turn by turn announcement again.

As soon as we felt comfortable with him, Hal acted up again, this time telling us to turn on non-existent streets! At one point he insisted that we're to 'make the second right turn at the roundabout'. Well, erm, Hal, dear, there was no roundabout. We kept on going and Hal threw a fit, a two-year-old-in-a-tantrum fit. We thought of turning the car around, going through the motion of a pretend roundabout, but doubted that it would help. Happily, somehow, we were ok again, and a few more turns later we found ourselves in front of a group of stone buildings set around a church. It was hardly big enough to be called a village, but I guess it was.

The large stone house that is Etxebarri is the second biggest building next to the Chruch. It was built in the traditional Basque style, the kind of sturdy stone structure that could withstand the harsh Basque winter.

A few weeks after we got there, our friend Jet managed a trip there himself. Jet had the same trouble we did once he reached Durango, but he successfully extracted an entirely reasonable direction out of an English-speaking local at a gas station. From the gas station at the autoroute exit to Durango, follow the sign for elorrio, after 7 or 8 km you'll see a sign for Axpe, follow that, it will take you all the way to the restaurant.

Restaurante Etxebarri
Plaza San Juan, 1.
48291 Axpe-Marzana.
Atxondo (Vizcaya)
Tel. (+34) 946583042

More photos on my Flickr.

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