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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Elkano, simply, from the sea

When asked where the beautiful Turbot on our plate had come from, our waiter simply gestured toward to sea just beyond the windows. "Everything we serve here come from right there", he said. Elkano is that kind of restaurant, where deceptively simple technique gives way to the superlative freshness of the local ingredients. And that's precisely why we had gone there in the first place.

We had arrived only a few hours prior, a flight from Paris to Biarritz, on the French side of the Basque country, then an hour or so drive to San Sebastian. After a brief rest at the hotel, our friend Mikael joined us for the drive to Guetaria, for dinner at the famous seafood house Elkano. And so began our saga of driving –or getting lost, rather- in the maze that's the highways and byways of Donostia.

By the time we arrived at the restaurant it was far too close to midnight, having gone over 40km the wrong direction and back again. We rehearsed the starving children look with each other in the car, hoping to be pathetic enough that they would serve us still, despite the hours. Happily, we once again underestimated how late people ate in Spain. Not only that they took us in without complaint, two more tables arrived even later than we did, and the restaurant seated them without missing a beat.

We took a quick glance through the menu, though it was just for show. We knew what we had come all that way for, and it's the Turbot. That majestic fish, whose sweet, succulent flesh and gelatinous bones are considered by many a great chef to be the very finest specimen of fish in the world.

We told our nice waiter that we were there for the Turbot. Yes, we came all the way out here for the Turbot so could we PLEASE have a Turbot, and might we have it NOW?

Needless to say we were a little eager. The waiter seemed quite amused by all this, and kindly assured us that they certainly did have Turbots, still. But wouldn't we be interested in a thing or two else to begin, he wondered. He had some very fresh Percebes and Kokotxa that would make a great precursor to our Turbot.

The primordial-looking Percebes landed first on the table. It is a type of shellfish that grows wild on the rocks in the Cantabric sea. The Percebes on our plate looked a bit like severed toes of small Dinosaurs. To eat, you pick one up by the part that looks like the nail, hold on to the other end with your other hand, and then give it a little twist to separate the meat from the tube-like body, so you could suck the sweet flesh off easily.

Even the act of eating it sounds primordial, no? While I was contemplating this, Mikael and David went to town, tossing the shells off to the side and squirting the juice all over themselves. I threw my manners to the wind – sorry Mother- and joined them. Eating delicately with this crowd could actually mean not eating at all.

After we quickly did away with the pile of Percebes on the plate, the second course arrived, Kokotxa, tiny morsels of meat from the throat of Hake fish. The Kokotxas were dipped in a light egg batter and then fried. The crunchy and eggy batter contrasted gorgeously with the juicy and salty meat.

Another plate arrived with yet more Kokotxas, this time simply grilled. The waiter explained that they had a special contraption that allowed the superbly fresh Kokotxas to be cooked directly on the grill without any oil. The final result was gorgeous, eating one was like biting into a delicate bubble encasing the spirit of the sea. When the plate was finished, I badly wanted more, but managed to contain myself because I knew what was to come. Yes, it was time for the Turbot.

And so it arrived, at long last, a beautiful specimen of the fish, about 3-4 pounds in size, simply grilled, glistening and slightly crisp in places and around the edges, laying in a pool of clear, viscous liquid which we knew to be nothing but the juice and gelatin from the fish itself.

The conversation ceased entirely, each of us concentrating on the beautiful piece of flesh and bones on our respective plate. We started out timidly dissecting the fish with our utensils, but quickly dispensed with them in favor of our own Mother Nature-issued hands. The goal was not only to eat the sweet meat, but to get to the best part, to suck every bit of gelatinous membrane off every single piece of bone.

That wasn't easy, mind you, my fingers kept getting stuck as if glued together by the gelatin from the fish. Far be it to let that minor detail deter me, I just had to suck my fingers as I went along to keep them separated –again, sorry mom.

Sated, and the fish reduced to an impossibly tiny pile of bones, we sat back to contemplate our great fortune. What a privilege it was to be there, to have a meal that was so glorious in its simplicity.

Elkano is my kind of restaurant. Like its neighbouring Etxebarri, Elkano is the kind of situated place that inhabits and expresses the very essence of its surroundings. It is, simply, there and nowhere else. I don't feel that way very often with restaurants: Michel Bras and Olivier Roellinger came to mind, but I'd be hard pressed to think of many others.

Not that I'm averse to foam and air and all the trickery novel culinary techniques offer. I enjoy a fun, challenging, cerebral kind of meal, delighting in unusual combinations and pushing the flavor and texture boundaries, a scientist at heart, still, me.

But sometimes, you know, sometimes, happiness is just a pile of fish bones.

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ElkanoGetting there
Unless you took the 40km scenic route we did, the drive to Guetaria from San Sebastian should only take you about 20 minutes (to go the 25km or 15 miles distance).

Once you get into town, head toward the direction of the port, and the restaurant will be hard to miss. Trust me, we nearly ran right into it.

Elkano Restaurant
Herrerieta 2
20808 Guetaria
Guipuzcoa, Spain
P: +34 943 140024
F: +34 943 140530
info@restauranteelkano.com

If you made it to Elkano and Guetaria in September 2007, you might want to check out the Balenciaga retrospective that will celebrate the completion of the multimillion-dollar museum and headquaters for the Cristobal Balenciaga Foundation. Guetaria was the birthplace of the famous designer. (Thanks the New Yorker for the info.)

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