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Asador Etxebarri in Atxondo, Spain - 1 Michelin star

Rating: 88.
Rating index:
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Outstanding (93-95)
Very good to Excellent (89-92)
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There is much ado about Asador Etxebarri. In the top 3 of most recommended restaurants in Spain in the Where Chefs Eat guide, it bests Mugaritz (3rd spot with 22 recommendations) and El Celler de Can Roca (2nd with 23 recommendations), with 24 recommendations. With this number, this grill restaurant outstrips popular places like Massimo Bottura's Osteria Francescana in Italy, Brett Graham's The Ledbury in London, and Alain Passard's l'Arpege in Paris. In the 2015 edition of The World's 50 Best Restaurants list, Asador Etxebarri ("Etxebarri") snagged the number 13 spot. Chef and owner of Etxebarri is Victor Arguinzoniz, who is globally celebrated for his grilling mastery; particularly in the early years he was regarded as a revolutionary.


Etxebarri opened its doors in 1990, and for the first decade or so, the restaurant led quite an anonymous existence - internationally that is. In 2004 New York Times correspondent R.W. Apple jr. was possibly the first international journalist (this may be important for some, as the "I got there first" syndrome seems to surround this restaurant) to write about this remarkable establishment in the Axpe Valley. In fact he was so impressed that he was wondering "how Michelin could have missed the place". However this may be, it was Anthony Bourdain who transported the restaurant to world fame, when Etxebarri featured in his highly successful "No Reservations" series in 2008. Michelin awarded Etxebarri a Michelin star in the 2010 guide for Spain and Portugal. 

Etxebarri is open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday and for dinner on Saturday. You can choose between an a la carte menu which features lots of seafood and one beef dish. Prices range between €22 and €72. There's also a 15-course tasting menu priced at €125. I had lunch at with my husband and a friend at Etxebarri on Sunday 17 May 2015 and we all ordered the tasting menu.

Soon after we had decided to go for the tasting menu, the first dishes started to arrive. There was a lovely chorizo sandwich, both the bread and chorizo (Iberico pork) being homemade, quickly followed by some fresh and creamy buffalo milk cheese, covered with honey and chopped almonds, and a slice of delicate and mildly grassy goat's cheese butter sprinkled with smoked salt. To accompany the fresh cheese and the goat's butter there was some lovely crusty bread. Next up was a thin, crisp cracker covered with a light mushroom puree and thinly sliced raw mushrooms; a lovely bite. Best of all though was grilled toast topped with a moist and elegantly salty, cured anchovy.


 

 

 

Lunch continued with oyster (lightly poached in its shell on the wood fire grill), served with some spinach. Lovely, juicy and meaty oyster with a subtle hint of smokiness. Extebarri's signature Palamós (from the Costa Brava) prawns followed. Two bright red, juicy king prawns, simply grilled and sprinkled with some seasalt. I started with the meat of the prawns, which was tender with light grilling flavours, and next (as you are encouraged to do) I sucked out the warm juices from the head, which were nice.




So far the grilling flavours had been balanced and light, but I was let down by the next dish, baby octopus served with a caramelised onion compote, squid ink sauce and some grilling juices. The octopus was wonderfully tender, but the grilling/smoky flavours (and aromas) in this dish were too powerful and took over all the other flavours.


More successful was a dish of succulent and meaty porcini, accompanied by soft aubergine and finished with some salted butter. The next dish, however, didn't work for me at all. On the menu it is described as scrambled eggs with St. George's mushrooms, the actual dish being frothy, but borderline raw eggs served with sliced raw mushrooms. I had anticipated creamy and silky flavours, but instead they were raw and acrid.


 

Next up was a delightful dish of highly seasonal Guisante Lágrima peas served in a lovely, slightly meaty and gelatinous broth. Even better was a piece of flash-grilled tuna belly seasoned with olive oil and salt and served with some grated radish, and a deliciously pungent pimenton sauce that had lovely bitters. In the mouth the tuna was a bit chewy at first but then it transformed into this buttery gorgeousness with a salty finish.


 

Last course before dessert was flavoursome beef chop with a terrific caramelised crust and delicious fat; however, although I like beef with good texture and chew, this particular cut was a bit on the raw side for my taste.


On to the desserts. To start there was a delicious smoked milk ice cream served in a pool of beetroot juice, followed by a lovely (cream) cheese flan, texture-wise a cross between a cheesecake and a flan or custard.


 

Google giveth and Google taketh away; blessed be the name of Google (the book of Jobs, chapter 1, verse 21). In the case of Asador Etxebarri, Google Maps has taken away one element of its mystery. Once upon a time it was famously impossible to find, but modern satellite technology takes you right to its doorstep. The location of the restaurant remains as spectacular as it is improbable however, on the square in a hamlet in a remote valley halfway between Bilbao and San Sebastián. In the case of Asador Etxebarri, there is a real sense of connection between its geographical and cultural position on the one hand and its cuisine on the other.

It is a restaurant with real character and personality and its charismatic chef has inspired other chefs to follow in his wood-grilling footsteps. Restaurants such as Ekstedt in Stockholm and Kitty Fisher's in London come to mind. It is worth noting however, that many dishes at Etxebarri itself have been on the menu for many years - there seems to be relatively little innovation in the restaurant.

As this meal showed, wood grilling is a double-edged sword. If it is done with great sensitivity, precision and restraint, it can add to the natural flavours of the ingredients. Even the slightest transgression can have the opposite effect however and once the wood flavour sticks to your palate, it stays there for the entire meal. Smoking and grilling can generate very seductive flavours, but they were one-dimensional still; I did not find a deeper level of complexity. The food is accessible and uncomplicated and I can see why the simplicity, rusticity and authenticity of Asador Etxebarri would have been a very welcome voice five to ten years ago, when molecular gastronomy was at its zenith and Ferrán Adriá was crowned the Emperor of Chefs.

Etxebarri is a restaurant of contrasts, both in perception and in flavours. I saw Spanish families enjoying some fish and steak for Sunday lunch (in their local grill room) and there were others, accompanied by their interpreters ("fixers"?), who slipped into the kitchen for a photograph with the or a chef (I don't know if Arguinzoniz was in that day) and to touch the famous custom made stove. From a culinary perspective, some dishes were good and some were not so good. It is easy to see why this restaurant comes so highly recommended by so many - it is quite an experience. But in the final analysis, when you only look at what is on the plate, the food was exciting rather than excellent and more interesting than impressive. Service was efficient and friendly and the wine list proved quite extensive and relatively affordable (as is often the case in Spanish restaurants). I enjoyed my visit to Etxebarri but you must take it for what it is.

Posted 01-08-2015




 
 
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