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Andy Fenn

Etxebarri

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It wasn't going well. My first day in a left hand drive car, having negotiated the coast road from San Sebastian at a snail's pace, we set off from our final stop on the way to Axpe. The English guy I spoke to on the phone assured me that it was only 40mins from San Sebastian. So it could only have been half an hour from Orio. And surely just west of the point where our single road map ran out. But no. We drove and drove. And got lost. A lot. When we arrived nearly half an hour late, there didn't seem to be anybody there. Downstairs deserted. Upstairs, said Englishman was nowhere to be seen. Only two other tables occupied, and a CD player booming out operatic classics. We were worried.

But the concerns were misplaced. The English guy we spoke to on the phone was actually working in the kitchen and he came out to explain the degustation menu they were to put together. A glass of wine settled the post drive shakes, and the music grew on me. Most importantly, I was about to embark on the most incredible culinary journey of the trip, if not ever. The quality of the raw materials we were to experience was out of this world, and I had never fully understood why some people couldn't get enough of perfect ingredients perfectly cooked. The photos don't do justice to the flavour, due to the unadorned and unadulterated purity of the ingredient, but they at least give an insight.

Course 1: Chorizo on toast

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They make this about 50 yards up the hill. Incredibly supple and smooth, packed with subtle flavours. The best of its kind I have ever tasted.

Course 2: White Tuna (Tuna Belly) with garden tomato

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Perhaps it was because this was our first introduction to the seducitive subtle smokey notes of the etxebarri grill that the tuna tasted so good. Perhaps it was because our British tomatoes are so dire in comparison that the tomato tasted so rich and sweet. But this dish is wrestling with the Mugaritz vegetables for best of the trip. Combining them on the fork, you first get hit with the smokey notes of the grill, then the knock-your-socks-off sweetness of the tomato, and finally the lingering meaty taste of the fish with the simple olive oil dressing. This was absolutely spellbinding and I was grinning ear to ear with every mouthful.

Course 3: Gambas Palamos

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These are caught below the sea at depths of up to 300ft. The chef took great pleasure in telling us that their heads exploded on the way to the surface, so it was imperative that we suck them clean. The meat was richer and sweeter than any I have tasted, dressed in nothing more than a crystal or two of sea salt. The heads were enormous, and full of things I didn't realise featured in a prawn's anatomy. You can see the colour through the translucent shell. I had a good crack at wolfing it all down, which rewarded me with an even richer, slightly saltier experience. Again, I have never tasted prawns like it.

Course 4: Lightly grilled oysters with seaweed

For some reason I forgot to snap these, but there is a photo on chez pim. They were great. I don't love oysters in the same way as I love other kinds of shellfish, but these were undoubtedly superb specimens. We had three each, and they tasted simply of the sea, with a faint smokey undertone, imparted by a gentle moment on the grill.

Course 5: Sea Cucumber with Cannellini Beans

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I had never had this before, and fear I may never taste a better example again. Similar texture and flavour to squid, but slightly richer and superior in my opinion. The beans were meltingly soft, enriched with a little ham stock, and partnered the charred cucumber perfectly. Wonderful.

Course 6: Mussels with Tomato Broth

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The mussels adopted a smokier flavour than any of the other preparations, but the mussels were sweeter than any I have tasted, and handled the influence of the grill without being overpowered. The tomato broth was magical. How could it be anything else, when using those tomatoes?

Course 7: Bacalao with grilled peppers

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This was the other standout dish in the company of stellar performers. As you can see, it was an enormous piece of fish. It was cooked to perfection. You needed only to press the top with your fork, and the flakes would fall away, yielding moist, translucent and surprisingly gelatinous flesh. There was a hint of garlic imparted, and the peppers had reached an exquisite smokey sweetness, which provided a superb accompaniment to the fish.

Course 8: Grilled Beef Chop

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The aroma of the beef as it sat beneath me was intoxicating. Cooked black and blue, this was the finest piece of beef I have ever tasted. Again, a simple salad and a couple of grains of rock salt were all that was required. Incredible.

Course 9: Apple pastry with ice cream

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Not grilled, but still lovely. Excellent quality filo. The ice cream tasted a bit of bacon, which I liked. But I was assured that there was no swine in there. Bizarre. Think my senses had taken a pounding by this point, so I forgave myself. But it was a very good dessert.

This was a truly fantastic meal. The only potential downside, is that ingredients everywhere else will disappoint. The next evening, at Arzak, I had crayfish, white tuna and beef. They didn't touch the quality I experienced at Etxebarri. Why don't the top places use ingredients like these?

So yes, it is worth the hype it gets on the foodie boards. Simple food it may be, but it takes a master to get the best out of these ingredients, and the results were spellbinding. Michelin's loss.

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Mouthwatering report, Andy. Though the preparations were a bit more involved, the pristineness of the ingredients remind me of Rafa's in Roses. I doubt the quality of the ingredients is that much superior to a place like Arzak. The preparations are certainly very different though. Arzak relies much more on the combination of ingredients and techniques. It appears that this restaurant holds to the primacy of the ingredient with a simple zen-like preparation.

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The lone, but not negligible, concern that lovers of Etxebarri in Spain have is how long Víctor Arguinzóniz can continue handling those heavy grill contraptions with a bad back that is causing him much distress. I do hope he finds a way to continue directing the orchestra while not working himself to death.

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Two weeks ago I made the pilgrimage to the amazing and bucolic Achondo valley in the heart of El Duranguesado to see what was all the fuzz about and I became a converted. I guess that it was at the same time than Andy Fenn so most of the dishes are the same.

The Basque Country has been always a land of great asadores, from the amazing roasted tourbot and fishes in Guetaria to the flinstonian rumpsteaks in Tolosa. But what Víctor Arguinzoniz in Axpe is much more than that, he is a gifted and serious cook who also dominates the grill in all it's forms.

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The restaurant is quite normal, located in a rebuilt country house with a typically basque female service.

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Taking a look at the menu makes you want to try everything but in the end we opted for asking the chef to prepare for us a roasted seafood tasting menu being the famous chorizo the only exception, and this is what we had:

- Home made chorizo from iberic pork using dried pepers meat instead of pimentón making the best chorizo that I ever had. This chorizo is served over a roasted toast and I can assure that this is the best chorizo that I've ever had.

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- Roasted albacore over a home growed tomato with bay leaves and soy sauce. Really good tomato straight from the vine with a perfectly roasted albacore steak. A nice salad for a good starting.

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- Roasted sea cucuber with pochas (fresh beans). This was the weakest dish, the espardeña was good but somehow lacking a bit of taste and the pochas were tasteles due to the lack of salt.

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- Grilled Palamós Prawns. Superb mediterranean prawns taking the body a new dimension with the smoked flavours and the head plenty of savoury sea esences.

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- Herring roasted over vine branches with roasted zuchini. Amazing dish where the vine branches adds complex and spicy flavours to the fatty herring. I'm still dreaming about this dish.

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- Salted cod over roasted red peppers and pil pil sauce. Really good aproach to the Club Ranero recipe.

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- And ended with a Cantabric Red Mullet with a refreshing citric skin sauce that enhanced the sea flavours.

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As a dessert we had an original roasted peach with icecream.

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The pictures doesn't speak about the amazingly amount of different tastes in the dishes and the surprising flavours comming fromevery single kind of wood used in every dish making a multidimensional meal.

This is probably the best meal that I have had so far this year, so good that I was in the verge of comming back the following day something that I should have done.


Edited by Rogelio (log)

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Thanks, Rogelio. This place has landed on my must visit list next time I am in the area. It looks to be a beautiful setting, too.

Interesting that your cod dish had the pil-pil. While it may have been there, it is not apparent in Andy's photo. Your red mullet looks perfect!

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Planning on heading here early November but all the talk of getting lost is worrying me. Does anyone know how long it takes to drive here from Bilbao? I've done a lot of searches on the restaurant on the net but info on directions is thin on the ground - any help appreciated...

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Mouthwatering report, Andy. Though the preparations were a bit more involved, the pristineness of the ingredients remind me of Rafa's in Roses. I doubt the quality of the ingredients is that much superior to a place like Arzak. The preparations are certainly very different though. Arzak relies much more on the combination of ingredients and techniques. It appears that this restaurant holds to the primacy of the ingredient with a simple zen-like preparation.

I June I had two meals at Etxebarri prior to a meal at Arzak and to me the difference in the quality of ingredients was deafening. At Etxebarri I had Galician lobster that was as fresh and sweet as I have only encountered in a handful of restaurants or when I have fished lobster myself or bought lobster directly from fishermen. All seafood was of exceptional quality. The vegetables from their own garden were also very very good. The Galician beef was fantastic even if the Galician beef served by Piege at les Ambassadeurs was slightly better and a little more aged. Victor explained that the tradition is not to age the beef beyond two weeks even if the piece he served me had been aged for three and a half weeks. Victor’s cooking of the beef was superior to that of Piege though.

By contrast at Arzak I cannot say I had a single ingredient on the long array of plates that I thought was even very good. For instance, the langoustines were mediocre, indeed I have had better frozen ones, the monkfish slightly better but still not acceptable for this type of establishment, the foie gras and lamb so-so. The vegetables served as garnish here and there were not convincing. Also worth to note was that Arzak on their menu had “green lobster” implying American rather than European “blue lobster”, which indicates low costs are more important than quality.

The quality of the ingredients at the meal at Martin Berasategui (on the same trip), also left me a lot to wish for since for example I was served farmed sea bass of inferior quality. To their credit they were honest to immediately upon questioning advice that the sea bass was indeed farmed.

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It's about 40 minutes from Bilbao. Here's a map from Bilbao from the Campsa site:

http://www.guiacampsa.com/bienvenidoalinfi...adio=15000#ruta

thanks butterfly that's really useful

now I just have to decide whether to go before or after Arzak. After reading the comments on here this seems like an important consideration - will ponder a while I think...

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Planning on heading here early November but all the talk of getting lost is worrying me.  Does anyone know how long it takes to drive here from Bilbao?  I've done a lot of searches on the restaurant on the net but info on directions is thin on the ground - any help appreciated...

Despite the reported difficulties, if you approach the village of Axpe from the north (which is the normal approach from Bilbao), you can't miss the Etxebarri parking lot. It's well signposted (on the left). Coming from the other direction it's much harder as you can't see the sign and have to hope you see the chiselled stone marker above the door - which is difficult to see even when walking! Of course, figuring out how to approach from the north is the tricky part!

And in November they are promising elvers. The only time of the year they're available. He had to design a special pan in order to grill them.

Another hint is to arrive for the earliest seating. We were there earlier this month and arrived first, and were rewarded with a couple of wild turtle doves, trapped on the hillside, - they only had two and we got them both (we tried to be generous and leave one, but ordered a tasting menu and they won't do separate dishes for each person - they must be identical, so we had no choice (!!!!!) but to take them both).

His current 'special dish' is grilled beluga caviar (which he's perfected after several trials - only the genuine beluga is fatty enough to be complemented by being grilled). Only just added to the menu. My fourth ever taste of Beluga, and this was clearly my favourite (in fact disliked two of the four). The caviar loses some of the 'pop' but takes on a smoky flavour that adds complexity. To counteract the loss in texture it's served on a bed of 'congealed' (my word - I'm sure there's a better Spanish one) crab blood - sort of oyster-like texture but much different flavour. By far his most expensive dish (of course).

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Sounds extraordinary.

Do you know where the caviar was from?

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And in November they are promising elvers. The only time of the year they're available.

Actually - no. Elvers (that's baby eels) are caught throughout the year, but specifically through the winter months. The problem is not the dates, but the ridiculously low availability and amazing prices ($350 a lb. the last time I looked) of this almost extinct, lamentably overfished delicacy. Most of the catches these days are bought by the Japanese, not for eating purposes, but to allow them to grow into adult eels.

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Sounds extraordinary.

Do you know where the caviar was from?

I was told it was from Caspian Sea sturgeon (which could mean any of the surrounding countries). Didn't ask which one as I'm aware of the current political issues surrounding caviar, and I was there to dine not discuss politics.

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And in November they are promising elvers. The only time of the year they're available.

Actually - no. Elvers (that's baby eels) are caught throughout the year, but specifically through the winter months.

I stand corrected!

I was actually told it's the only time of the year that they're served at Etxebarri. Given his attention to detail, I speculate that is probably the time that they are best for grilling.

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Sounds extraordinary.

Do you know where the caviar was from?

I was told it was from Caspian Sea sturgeon (which could mean any of the surrounding countries). Didn't ask which one as I'm aware of the current political issues surrounding caviar, and I was there to dine not discuss politics.

I suspected so, though I hoped that maybe they had developed some local production as i understand that they have sturgeon in Spain. This topic is not the place to debate the underlying issue here, but it does diminish my ardor to dine there. Regardless, i respect the artistry involved.

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There are several factories in Spain farming sturgeon and producing caviar. Riofrío is probably the best known.

I've just had lunch at Etxebarri. Everyone should make a point to go there, no matter if you have to leave one of the starred restaurants out of your schedule. More when I'm not in a dial up connection.

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Have been trying desperately but unsuccessfully to find time to write about our visit to Etxebarri. Given time is moving on I am just going to note that it was the best meal we had in our two weeks in Spain.

We left ourselves in the hands of the sous chef Lennox who was great fun had a truly outstanding and memorable lunch. Will write more detail but for now I really wanted to add to the praise already expressed about the place. If you are anywhere near it make sure you go.

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I have been to Etxebarri twice, the most recent visit was this past summer. I certainly recommend the visit and I agree that the food is outstanding, especially the actual quality of the ingredients, which is without doubt superb. I also find that everything is at the same level, all the way from the bread to the final coffee cakes, make sure you leave a iny space for those. They also have a small vegetable garden so youre likely to get some very freshly picked seasonal produce. And the scenery in Axpe is really breathtaking.

The only drawback we had on our second visit, and it really was a pity since I had been raving on about the food at this restaurant to everyone, was that our meat order was clearly overly burnt on the outside spoiling the taste entirely (on my 1st visit it was perfectly cooked). I told the waitress, she in turn told Victor. We were then told by the waitress that sometimes the flames in the woodburning fire get out of control and it can happen, that Victor would cook us another, but at that the same time, that the same thing could easily reoccur. In my opinion thats not acceptable of a master griller like him, and especially at those prices you expect him to cook everything very carefully, even if it takes 10 attempts.

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I have been to Etxebarri twice, the most recent visit was this past summer. I certainly recommend the visit and I agree that the food is outstanding, especially the actual quality of the ingredients, which is without doubt superb. I also find that everything is at the same level, all the way from the bread to the final coffee cakes, make sure you leave a iny space for those.

While I agree that ingredients have been pristine when I have been and his cooking stunning, I don't think I would even call the bread mediocre. It was well below that from every point of view.

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I think you are right, if I were objective. The bread wasnt OUTSTANDING but used to very poor standards in Spain, I probably found it to be better than the average...the petits fours were outstanding, for sure.

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Yes, Virginia you can get hosed at Etxebarri. I and some of its partisans did this past November. Somehow the people in the kitchen messed up every fish dish, especially in light of much better preparations of turbot and hake cheeks (pil-pil) at Elkano and Ibai respectively. As almost always, we were put at a disadvantage by having the six of us receiving a 10-course no-choice tasting menu. The most partisan fellow in our group laid the blame on the owner's bad back, the arrival the next day of a "Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia" crowd that had booked the restaurant, and one or two other excuses. Great restaurants, however, never screw up 70% of its offering. Nonetheless, I recognize that "stuff happens" and I plan to return for a pow-wow to try to hone in on generous portions of the best products of the day.

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I'll be doing a small gastronomic tour the next few days includinge Etxebarri, and looking tremendously forward to it; how is their wine list/-pricing?

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I'll be doing a small gastronomic tour the next few days includinge Etxebarri, and looking tremendously forward to it; how is their wine list/-pricing?

Standard spanish prices, but not a remarkable wine list.

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When I was there, I had:

Pazo de Señorans Seleccion de Añada 2002 Albariño from the Rias Baixas

Probably the most expensive wine on their list, but it's outstanding. Even held up to the meat courses. I recall around €40.

NOTE: The 'seleccion de Anada' part is important - it denotes their "reserve" wine. The 'regular' version is still good, but lacks some weight.

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Perhaps it was because I had eaten at El Bulli the night before and been slightly underwhelmed. Maybe I was just delirious with joy at having completed the seven hour trip from Roses without incident. Whatever the reason, I was in the right frame of mind for my meal at Extebarri, and I was blown away. This was one of the most spectacular meals of my life, leaving me to ponder the joy to be found in the most pristine ingredients, simply and artfully prepared.

Lennox, the sous chef from Great Britain, introduced himself, and after a brief conversation we gave him the go ahead to put together a tasting menu. What followed was truly amazing.

The first course was house made butter from goat's milk, spread thinly on a small piece of grilled bread, and covered with shavings of a local, seasonal mushroom. This was absolutely stunning.

Next was the house made chorizo which is all you have read about and more, soft and unctous.

These were followed by the Gambas de Palamos, the most famous shrimp in Spain, simply grilled with sea salt. These left me momentarily awestruck, but I recovered in time to devour mine and have a go at my wife's shells after she was done in case she had missed any of the juices.

We were then served oysters, given just enough smoke to add flavor without overwhelming the briny flavor of the sea.

A huge spoon of caviar followed, Iranian I think, again put on the grill for just the right amount of time.

My new favorite foodstuff followed, Esperdenyas, and then a huge portion of center cut Bacalau prepared in the traditional Basque fashion.

I was thrilled to see a bowl of lightly grilled mixed vegetables next, sliced artichokes with their stems among the mix, each tasting like they were just picked and kissed with light smoke from the grill.

Slices of cote de boeuf followed, of incredible flavor and tenderness. My wife was groaning audibly at this point, but surprisingly we received a second meat course of baby milk fed lamb chops from Aranda del Duero, also wonderful.

Desserts were next - smoked Idiazabal cheese ice cream served over raspberry sauce. The ice cream was complex, smoky and sweet at the same time. A terrific dessert.

A grilled pear served with cinnamon ice cream finished the meal.

The quality of the food here is enough to wake up the most jaded gourmand, but what makes Extebarri so special, aside from the obvious hook of the many charcoal grills, is Victor Arguinzoniz Olazabal's obsession with obtaining the freshest, most pristine ingredients and honoring them with simple, honest, straightforward - but often completely unique - preparations.

I will end on a practical note. Take our advice and arrive in the truly beautiful little village of Axpe in late afternoon and stay just up the hill at the Mendi Goikoa, a lovely little 18th century stone farm house converted to an inn. You will hear nothing but the sound of the few farm animals nearby as well as enjoy amazing views of the valley and surrounding hills. Besides, you will never get there from San Sebastian in the dark.

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