Continuing our journey....
The meal I was most excited about on this trip was not Akelare, it was Etxebarri, out in the countryside in the tiniest of tiny villages, Axpe. Maybe it was Anthony Bourdain's visit on "No Reservations: Spain" that made the notion of a meal at Etxebarri seem so important, so anti-establishment, so ... delicious. (at least three other tables, Americans and Canadians, were all there because of Anthony Bourdain - Etxebarri surely owes him a share of receipts) Or maybe it was the relentless accolades I kept reading, or my friend who went there a few months ago and said I should go there twice and forsake another meal somewhere else. I mean, this is a place in the middle of nowhere, the tiniest little village somewhere between Bilbao and San Sebastian. A place in the middle of nowhere that is literally a pilgrimage stop. A pilgrimage for foodies, especially those baptized by St. Anthony Bourdain, shown the gospel of a fanatical man who invented his own grills and instruments, meticulously experimented with different woods and coals to find the perfect match for each dish. In any case, I tried to dampen my own extreme expectations, because I know when expectations are too high, disappointment is sure to follow. So, dampen, dampen, dampen I did, to the point that I was expecting something simple, something good, yes, but something simply good. Well.... that was blown away when course number two arrived. But that's getting ahead of myself.
The road from San Sebastian to Etxebarri is not the most scenic in the world, at least compared to the road to Akelare or the road to L'auberge Basque. Yes, it starts with rolling hills, and ends under looming mountains, but in between is a whole host of industrial no man's lands. On top of the warehouse row barrage, there was a barrage of rain pouring down on our car throughout the drive, deep heavy clouds shrouding the view of the mountains most of the time. The rain continued throughout the meal, though we were happily ensconced inside the old stone walls of the restaurant and didn't really care about the outside world by that point. Axpe appears suddenly after many turns that lead you to believe you must be going the wrong way. First, a single farmhouse, then a quick collection of four or five stone buildings, a church, a courtyard, Etxebarri. That's about it. We parked, made a dash through the rain, walked through the awkward dimly lit downstairs bar, up the stairs, and into what is many insist is one of the great temples of grilling in this world. And so it began...
Amongst the four of us, we chose to do three of the 12 course tasting menus and a smattering of other dishes to enable us to try a few more things. Foie gras, grilled grouper, a beef filet to compare against the bone in steak. Keeping my mind on simple was easy at first - the menu reads exactly this:
Handmade smoked butter
Grilled goose barnacles
Grilled Palamos prawn
Grilled frog’s legs
Grilled baby squid
Grilled salt cod
Grilled beef on the bone
Wild fruit infusion, fresh goats cheese ice cream
Figs, smoked milk ice cream
Simple, right? Grilled this, grilled that. A tomato. Butter. Chorizo. What could be more basic? And the chorizo kept up the illusion momentarily. It WAS simple. It was good, yeah, but simple. Chorizo on bread.
And what we were drinking? Local txakoli, Itsas Mendi. Simple again, good and simple. We ended up ordering a second bottle just to make sure it was still good. All of 18 euros.
Then course number two came. Handmade smoked butter. Now the whole simple notion started to unravel a bit. Butter, yes. Smoke, sure. And then we took a small tentative bite. A bit of butter, a bit of the flakes of breadcrumb, a bit of... grilling heaven. The smoke intensity was phenomenal, the butter flavor clear and rich, the salt and the slight crunch of the breadcrumbs providing the necessary texture. Stunning. Mind altering. Butter. Simplicity be damned.
So now my expectations were blown away. The courses that flowed over the next couple hours mostly (mostly) validated the accolades. This is a cuisine, an approach, a restaurant like no other I've ever encountered or am likely to encounter again. This chef is not after Michelin stars or celebrity, he is after perfection, a very specific form of perfection where fire meets pristine ingredients from the nearby countryside and shore. He's on to something.
So I'll now launch into the blow by blow account of each course.
Tomato: I'm not sure what this was exactly. Well, it WAS a tomato. A more sincere and elevated taste of tomato has never crossed my lips. Superb.
Foie gras: This was very good foie gras. Nothing crazy, nothing particularly distinctive, but very good, and a very large portion.
Grilled goose barnacles: Percebes. Scary looking little boogers. My wife wouldn't touch the stuff, the more for me. These are among the most immaculate tastes of the sea one can find, firmer than an oyster, brinier than a scallop, cleaner than a clam. Taking them apart was delightfully easy, and the reward inside was simply lovely, despite the mean outward appearance.
Grilled Palamos prawn: Yes, this is among the most perfect prawns served in the world. Break off the head, suck in the deep rich juice, dig in to the tender, slightly smokey meat. Yes. Simple perfection.
Grilled mussels: After two dishes that literally were simplicity themselves, the mussels arrive with an incredible, sweet carrot sauce that again blows your expectations away. Knockout.
Grilled frog’s legs: OK, I'm not sure I "get" frogs legs. I know these were really good frog's legs, but to me, they are basically skinned chicken wings. The crunchy garlic on these was really nice, and, yes, I finished my own portion and my wife's. They were good, but not something I would order on their own.
Grilled baby squid: Now squid, I like. It's a dish that can go horribly wrong when not cooked just right. Too rough, too rubbery, too chewy, too bland. This was the perfect baby squid. Seriously. Likely the very best squid I have ever had, and, yeah, pretty simple.
Grilled grouper (ordered a la carte): Perfectly cooked, nice crispy skin, some lovely vegetables alongside. Delicious though a bit uninspired to tell you the truth.
Grilled salt cod: By this point, frankly, we were getting full. None of us even finished this dish. It just didn't deliver anything compelling. Based on our meal, fish is not the kitchen's strength, though shellfish and mollusks clearly are. I even noticed that they used a much more interesting plate for this dish than for any other, compensating?
Grilled beef filet: Good. After Asador Alameda (and before the next course) this was a bit of a letdown, and that surely is due to the choice of ordering a filet vs. another cut. What did make this dish really nice though was the amazing grilled red pepper served alongside the beef. Wow. Now that was good. And when you have a bite of the beef, with the red pepper, followed by a glass of Roda I Reserva 2004... well, now, THAT is VERY good.
Grilled beef on the bone: So, our expectations dampened once again on the prior couple courses, the monstrous plate of meat for the table arrived. After the smoked butter, this was the standout dish of the meal, the most elemental meat eating experience I have ever had. A caveman moment. A carnivorous carnival. The very epitome of meat plus fire. Yeah, it was that good. Nearly blue rare in the middle, crisply and densely charred on the outside, a smokey infusion coating the meat in every bite. I doubt I will ever have a steak like this anywhere else in the world.
Wild fruit infusion, fresh goats cheese ice cream: Wow. The third amazing cheese-based ice cream of the trip and every bit as good as the others. A simple, stunning dessert.
Figs, smoked milk ice cream: Again, the man has a way with ice cream and fruit. Fabulous flavors and texture. Delightful.
Heavily sated, practically sedated, we moved on to coffee (maybe our best of the trip actually, quite good, though I don't think he grilled it). Some almond-y, macaroon-y type cookies a perfect foil.
Etxebarri is an anomaly. There is no meal quite like this anywhere else. It is resolutely of its place, out in the countryside, sheep and cows in the field nearby. You have to be wanting what it is they do to make the trek out there, and I imagine that the vast majority of pilgrims walk away happy. Our meal was fabulous overall, a revelation at times, though a few dishes simply didn't deliver, and I have to say that the service was spotty. We had to ask for water three times before it was brought to the table. Our meager Spanish and their meager English made communication slightly difficult, and the two women who were managing the room were fairly robotic in their actions. They seemed to be programmed to deliver each course and not divert their eyes for any other purpose. I've read about an Australian sous-chef who has provided great service to a number of people, but he was evidently not there the day of our meal. Also, we had hoped to see the kitchen, but there was one large table that came in an hour after us and the kitchen wanted to stay focused on their cooking rather than show off the place, even for just a minute. Understandable, yes. Despite those bumps along the way, we did indeed walk away very happy. Cherishing a unique meal. And dreaming of smoked butter.