Etxebarri: Temple of Grill in Basque Country

Grill legend, Victor Arguinzoniz

Chef Victor Arguinzoniz’s serious obsession with wood-fired grilling has earned him a reputation as one of Spain’s legendary grill shokunins and, his restaurant Asador Etxebarri, a pilgrimage for foodies and chefs from all over the world. After musing over the self-taught chef’s ingredient-driven cuisine for a year, we traveled nearly 7,000 miles across the world this Spring to partake in the primitive pleasures of dining at his grill temple, located in the rural Axpe Valley of Basque country, Spain.

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Situated amidst the picturesque foothills of Mt. Anboto in Axpe Valley, Etxebarri is an hour’s drive from Bilbao or 20 minutes from Durango. While the restaurant is known as one of the world’s best, it is also among one of the most rural and can be inaccessible without a car.

Destination Dining In the Heart of Nowhere

Despite nearly getting lost after a brazen attempt to travel to the restaurant by public transport and subsequently searching every inch of Durango town for a taxi, we found a sleeping driver by a stroke of luck (we had no choice but to wake him up!) and made safe passage up the rocky treks of Axpe Valley.

As soon as our five-hour lunch tasting began, a succession of perfect meats, dairy, fish, seafood and vegetable produce – cultivated and sourced locally – filled our bellies with the utmost satisfaction. Every course – from the freshly churned buffalo cheese to the delicate pearls of caviar (38€ for 10g) to the homemade chorizo tartar to the large Palamos prawns to the milk ice cream – has been grilled or smoked over different firewood selected and chopped by Arguinzoniz himself. Dishes embodied an elegant simplicity, masterful techniques and packed deep flavours: goat butter is first made from cream that has been gently smoked for hours, then churned and shaped into rectangular bars, and finally topped with volcanic salt dust before serving, spring peas are cooked in a stock made from only its own smoked pea pods, water and salt for complexity and sweetness, and the famed Galician beef chop is aged for 21 to 30 days before being charred under a medium flame.

There were no weak or complicated dishes, no fancy molecular gastronomy techniques and no strong-flavoured seasoning for umami; Arguinzoniz’s selection of the best seasonal ingredients, as well as his preparation and cooking techniques, exemplified a deep understanding and respect towards each ingredient’s natural flavouring (i.e. saltiness, sweetness), enhanced only by salt, water, time and the chef’s mastery of the grill. Simply put, Arguinzoniz is no ordinary grill master, and our outstanding meal at Etxebarri left us in awe.

Worth the special journey?

Similar to the Japanese ethos and craftsmanship of perfection, Arguinzoniz’s shokunin-like approach to ingredients and wood-fired grilling is worth the most arduous of journeys. Our recent experience at Etxebarri made us reconsider the way we look at the flavour potential of vegetables and seafood, and how sometimes simple is best.

Not to be missed:

Everything. But if we had to pick, the simplest plates of spring peas, buttery and sweet Palamos prawns (truly, the best in the world) and, the lightly grilled mackerel that rivals the cooking at some of Japan’s best sushi and traditional kaiseki restaurants.

Pictures from our meal:

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Chorizo on bread toast
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Salted anchovies on toast
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Homemade goat butter with volcanic salt
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Fresh buffalo cheese
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Smoked caviar on a bed of minced daikon
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Caridean shrimp
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Scallops
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Sea urchin in sweet pumpkin broth
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Giant Palamos prawns
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Head of Palamos prawn – buttery and delicious!
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Cod kokotxa, Basque delicacy
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Mushrooms plucked from Basque mountains, baby onions
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Freshly made chorizo tartar
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Spring peas cooked in a stock of its own juices
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Mackerel with wild flowers, leaves and pickles
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Beef Txuleta steak: Hearty, rare, with a beautifully-charred exterior
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Meat of choice for non-beef diners: Grilled leg of lamb, still slightly pink and deliciously tender, cooked in a stock of its own juices and splashes of white wine
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Pre dessert: Mochi to cleanse the palate
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Reduced milk ice cream with beetroot juice

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Chocolate souffle
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Mignardise of financiers
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Tasting menu only: 16 delicious courses selected from the best seasonal ingredients is served at the restaurant, with a choice to include extra courses such as caviar, shrimp and cheese at additional costs. Wine pairing available.

Asador Etxebarri

San Juan Plaza, 1, 48291 Atxondo, Bizkaia, Spain

Opens Tuesday to Sunday for lunch
Closed on Monday
Reservation: Online; Exactly 4 months in advance

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