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.
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:
San Juan Plaza, 1, 48291 Atxondo, Bizkaia, Spain
Opens Tuesday to Sunday for lunch
Closed on Monday
Reservation: Online; Exactly 4 months in advance