“Where the hell are we?” I asked my wife as we turned onto our third unmarked road somewhere between Bilbao and San Sebastian. She gave me a look, which could only mean, “I told you to get the GPS at the car rental.”
We were trying to find Asador Etxebarri, one of the best restaurants in the world, the old fashioned way—with maps and hand-written directions. All the unmarked roads did not help. After some backtracking, and then backtracking again because we had been going the right way to begin with, we found ourselves driving up a narrow road towards beautiful mountains with rolling hills of farm and pastureland on all sides. Just Google Map this to see for yourself. After passing the restaurant, which had no sign visible from the street, and backtracking one final time, we turned into Etxebarri’s small parking lot.
The restaurant looks like an old elegant farmhouse set in Medieval times, complete with its own bell tower. The whole operation seemed to operate in a different time than the fast-paced New York restaurants where they try to serve as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Etxebarri is only open for dinner once a week, with lunch being the only service the other days. They’re closed Mondays and, of course, the entire month of August.
I wondered how Etxebarri filled their weekday lunch crowd, being in the middle of nowhere, 45 minutes to an hour from Bilbao. “After Tony Bourdain, we’ve had a lot of visitors,” replied the waiter, matter-of-factly, alluding to the New York Times interview in which Bourdain answered the question “Where exactly would you like to die?” with “Etxebarri.”
We were seated on a gorgeous outdoor porch overlooking the mountains (thankfully in the shade). At €125 including tax and service, the tasting menu was about half the price of the those offered at the best restaurants in New York, and considerably less than a meal at other top restaurants nearby, like Mugaritz or Arzak.
Virtually all of the dishes are cooked in custom-made grills over oak and grapevine flames. As we saw in our post-meal tour of the grill or “brasa,” an elaborate pulley mechanism raises and lowers the grates to adjust the temperature, and various baskets and trays are used to cook vegetables and other small items. The kitchen was a far cry from the modern kitchens of virtually any other fine dining establishment (the humble word asador simply means “grill”).
Yet the meal still had the same level of sophistication as any of them. Indeed, the parade of dishes that followed the next two hours was easily one of the best meals of my life. Chef Victor Arguinzoniz seems to detest modern fine dining, with its pretension and overly prepared dishes. At Etxebarri, almost all of the dishes look simple and are simply presented. Each dish focuses on one or two ingredients, mostly from the on-site farm, presented without much else.
Keeping with this theme, those ingredients tended to be served whole—most vegetables were uncut, fish and shrimp still had their head and tails, steak with the bone. The restraint was amazing, and yet the flavors were bold.
First, an assortment of appetizers presented on black slate boards and plates served with homemade springy bread. The obvious first choice for the bread was butter of goat’s milk with black salt, served on a chilled slate to keep it from melting too quickly during the course of the meal.
The outer skin of the mozzarella of buffalo gave way to a very creamy milky, almost smoky flavor, like it took a pass across the grill. Salted anchovy with toasted bread was exactly as it sounds. The beautiful whole cured anchovies provided the perfect flavoring to charred, crusty bread.
The cracker had paper thin slices of deeply earthy mushrooms, a finger food I would love to serve at a dinner party, if only I had the mushrooms. The croquette was light with a thin grilled cornmeal crust yielding to the warm, creamy chicken within.
I then sampled the chorizo from acord-fed pork, the clear star of the appetizer course. The chorizo, from a recipe from the chef’s abuela, had a depth of flavor that I have never had since in chorizo—it tasted like it had been simmering for hours and then somehow distilled into a dry sausage. I’ve had my share of great chorizo, but this one was on another level.
After a small break to refill our wine (a local Txakoli, of course), we had our “first course,” oyster and spinach. A gently grilled buttery oyster mixed with spinach provided a subtle palate cleanser from the strong flavors of the appetizers.
Next were simply prawns, one of the simplest, best dishes I’ve ever had. Lightly grilled, bright red, plump, and delicious, with just a sprinkling of fine sea salt. I couldn’t resist sucking the head, like we were taught on our pincho crawl the day before in Logroño.
A dish of baby octopus was just as good (photo above). The little octopus were smoked and succulent, complemented only with soft charred onions and a slick of aioli made black by octopus ink.
After that we had a series of two vegetable dishes. Mushrooms were subtly smoked with an oil bath and soft, perhaps too soft eggplant. Green peas were a bigger hit, barely grilled, still with a pop, and sitting in a warm broth that captured essence of peas.
From there, our main courses arrived. First a red sea bream, which came to the table head to tail, only to be served by the waiter tableside. It was covered in a subtle buttery-garlicky sauce. A dish of simple heirloom vegetables drizzled in good olive oil accompanied.
Just as we thought the savory courses were ending with a subtle note, a massive beef chop was plopped down at our table (photo above). This was the opposite of subtle, with blood collecting in the plate below one of the best steaks I’ve ever had. The crust on top was intense, as only an open flame can achieve. The steak was everything we love about meat, yet somehow sophisticated. I know of no restaurant of this level that includes a bloody steak of this size as part of a refined tasting menu.
Needless to say, we were stuffed afterwards. But there’s always room for dessert.
The first dessert was billed as a reduced milk ice cream and it tasted like the freshest possibly dairy, sweetened with a delicate red fruit infusion.
Then came my favorite dessert, fritters, baked and then grilled, with an elderflower cream escaping upon a gentle squeeze. It reminded me of a sophisticated carnival fried doughnut, in the best possible way.
Finally, our stomachs unable to take much more, our meal ended with a delicious pair of mignardise—and a double espresso, so we could brave the roads to our next destination: San Sebastian.
Plaza de San Juan, 1
48291 Atxondo, Bizkaia
(+34) 946 58 30 42