Visiting San Sebastian was our designated food splurging destination of summer 2016. San Sebastian is probably the only place that matches France in terms of quality and depth of restaurants. Some feel they even rival France in this department.
Everyone in the foodie “know” told me I must make a pilgrimage to Asador Etxebarri, which has been featured for many years in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, a Michelin starred place, and has been regarded by many as the premier destination for wood grilled cuisine in the world. It is located in the quaint town of Axpe, nestled in the gorgeous, lush foothills of some small mountains, that were something out of a fairy-tale. It is not too far from the city of Bilbao. I suggest visiting the Frank Geary designed Guggenheim museum in the morning and heading out to Etxebarri for lunch. It is not easy to find even for a taxi driver. Thank goodness for google maps. It’s humble chef Victor Arrguinzoniz used to be a timber worker and he personally restored the old stone two storey house that the restaurant is in. He has knowledge of all things timber, and his love of grilling comes from that, and influences everything on the menu and I mean everything he makes, from bread to ice cream. He also creates his own charcoal from oak, apple, and orange wood. All his breads are homemade and he cures his own meats. He churns his own butter, makes his own cheese and cooks his own meat. We got a chance to chat with him in his immaculate kitchen and he couldn’t be more kind, humble and unassuming. He has been seducing customers for over ten years, bringing barbecue” to new heights. Each bite is reminder of the skill and passion of the chef.
There is an a la carte menu and only one multi-course tasting menu for €135, for 15 courses, which is a relative bargain considering the splurge. Even though this is a grilling restaurant there is only one red meat course on the tasting menu, and by the time you get to the meat course, you will be rather full, so try and pace yourself. That was our plan, but the problem was everything was so delicious, so we could not resist finishing all on our plates.
The restaurant is casual, you can come wearing jeans if you prefer. Tables were well spaced and afforded privacy. Lunch was a four-hour ordeal. His grilling is subtle, elegant, balanced and sophisticated. Many people go for a wine and beer tasting, for 7 full glasses, but we decided to go with one fine bottle of red.
It was cooking in its purest form and a dining experience I will never forget. For me it was the art of grilling at its highest level. It is true simplicity too, with no garnishes or sauces, just unadorned, but everything had the kiss of smoke. The food was accessible and uncomplicated, yet cooked with precision.
Some of the standout dishes for me was the best chorizo sandwich that I have ever had, and I don’t even like chorizo. The homemade bread with goat’s butter and buffalo cheese with fine herbs and hazelnuts was outstanding. Anchovies are another dish I am not particularly fond of, but his were so fresh and tasty, I could become a convert for them. The scorpion fish and courgette were so sweet and delicate. The beef chop was cooked to perfection, a succulent and glorious slab of the finest, with a terrific caramelized crust and delicious fat. His reduced milk ice cream with beet root juice was also splendid, rich, fresh and not too sweet.
As Anthony Bourdain said, “he could die at this restaurant”. Well, I may not feel this enchanted but it was an exceptional restaurant and worth the journey. The restaurant is open 6 days a week for lunch, and for dinner on Saturdays.