From the moment I saw Asador Etxebarri featured on On the Road Again Spain, I knew it was a matter of when, not if, I would dine at that restaurant. After my friends and I decided to travel to Spain a couple of months later, Etxebarri was one of the driving factors behind the itinerary. I don’t know why I was so completely fixated by something as seemingly pedestrian as grilled food, but no question about it, I was going to do whatever it took to get there. Even though it meant reshuffling our days in Basque country, renting a car solely for that purpose, and suffocating in a cigarette infused little Citroën for a couple of hours. I was blindly convinced it would be worth it. And I was right.
The Asador Etxebarri experience starts before you even set foot in the building. Etxebarri is in Axpe, a little town nestled at the base of not so distant mountains with so few buildings at the center that I’m not sure I can even call it a town. We got there an hour early so I wandered up the few roads and locked in the sights of lush green grass and snow covered mountains, which I found out later had just fallen the night before. The air smelled so clean and fresh, I soaked in as much as I could and joined the woolly, black faced sheep at the nearby farm in idly gazing at the hillside. Everything about it seemed idyllic, even the light rain just added to the feeling of tranquility. It was the perfect overture for the meal ahead. I almost didn’t want to go inside.
But I would have missed out on what could easily have been the best meal of my life. Opting for a tasting menu, we left our fate in the hands of the sous chef(?), Lennox. What followed were incredibly fresh and honest dishes that tasted of sea and earth and reflected the pristine beauty of the restaurant’s surrounding countryside. There was no fuss or pretense, just unlocked, natural flavors enhanced by the right wood, oil, and salt. It was the kind of preparation that I love and I savored every bite as each mouthful was pure contentment.
Warning: what follows are pictures of gratuitous food porn. Shield your eyes if you can’t handle it and don’t soil yourself.
We started with house made chorizo on a slice of grilled bread with some sopa de alubias, or as the three of us like to call it ,”rain” soup, because we kept hearing the server say “lluvia.” The chorizo was nicely spiced and had firm, toothy texture.
The next course was smoked butter. I looked at it askance when the butter was served by itself as a course but I figured it was there for a reason. It definitely stood on its own as a single dish. I used up a lot of stomach space slathering the butter on hunks of bread. The crisp flour lattice provided whimsy and texture and the volcanic salt added a great smoky flavor. All I needed was a warm fireplace and good book and I could eat that all day.
Grilled shrimp. Lovely, firm texture and the flavor induced some finger licking. This dish, along with the other shellfish dishes had an interesting aftertaste from the oak that was used to grill it. I kept trying to place the flavor and I think the best I can describe it is that it reminded me of the food made with palm oil I used to eat in Liberia but infinitely more pleasant and milder in taste.
At last, the legendary shrimp that I had heard so much about. This beast was as big as my hand and you need to suck down on the head to really get the full flavor. Dr Mary, this is not the dish for you.
This was probably my favorite dish at Etxebarri. So I never really understood why people say oysters are an aphrodisiac. I disliked the big gulf oysters served at restaurants because the taste was overbearing and I preferred the lighter and sweeter kumotos, especially the ones at Sushi Wasabi. Even then, they were never really roll your eyes to the back of the head good. And then I found myself in the middle of Basque country eating this sweet, creamy, plump, smoky oyster. It just melted in my mouth. Oh wow, it was orgasmic. Yeah, I get it now.
Next up was sea cucumber on julienned green beans. As with everything else, it was seasoned simily with olive oil and salt. Having grown up with the mushy brown stuff at Chinese restaurants, I never knew how good sea cucumbers were when fresh. The texture was crispy like tripe and yielded to the bite.
Grilled mussels in carrot broth. I’m not usually a fan of mussels but at this point, I’ll eat anything they serve here because I know it will be delicious.
I had been dreaming about pulpitas forever and having not found it in Barcelona, I had pretty much given up on it so imagine my delight when this appeared before me.
Here are the long awaited and revered angulas, probably one of the best things that Etxebarri offers. Lennox said that they keep them alive in a waterfall somewhere nearby. Keeping your fish alive in a waterfall?!! Can this place get anymore idyllic? I wanted to ask him where the waterfall was so we could go keep the angulas company. The angula season is very brief, only about three to four months in the winter. These baby eels are so delicate that they are killed by blowing tobacco smoke on them. Before I could conjure up images of him and Victor casually smoking cigars and blowing into a bucket of angulas, I was assured that there were no cubans being passed around. They grow their own tobacco leaves on their farm and do something to kill the angulas. I don’t know what or how, but I found this explanation online. I did not know that eels can breathe out of water. Creepy. Anyways, the angulas were delicious. It was like eating whole wheat pasta cooked al dente with a marvellously light flavor. The teeny bones added a rough, grainy aspect to its toothsome texture.
And then to show us the otherside of the life cycle, we got grilled eel. I didn’t expect the skin to be so crispy from merely being grilled. When I asked Lennox about the skin, he looked slightly uncomfortable and mumbled something about it being prepared the Japanese way. Hmmm…trade secret?
Txistorra, it’s a kind of Basque chorizo as far as I’m aware, just not completely cured yet. It tasted like beef but I’m not sure what meats were in it. It was on top of a crisp and chewy rectangular dough made of corn.
By the time the txistorra rolled around, we were pretty much full. So I asked our server if there were more courses and she just said, “un poquito mas carne.” We looked each other and said, alright, a little more is doable. When this ginormous hunk of Galician beef was set before us and our eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. But, we were troopers and gamely attacked the tender chunks of perfectly grilled and seasoned meat. They served it with a side of lettuce, one of the few green things served that day. We did it Asian style and wrapped the beef in the lettuce leaves, convincing ourselves that it would be somewhat healthier that way.
Dessert was a merciful end to the meal. It was smoked milk ice cream with a wild berry infusion. I didn’t taste the smokiness in the milk but that’s like complaining about not enough stars in the sky. The ice cream had the slight tartness of yogurt and was so refreshing. Oh so good. So good. Sigh.
Afterwards, Lennox gave us a tour of the kitchen and although I had seen it on tv and various food blogs, it was still nice to see it in person. We saw their live tank which they fill with water gotten from the deap sea. How hardcore is that?
I am well aware that I am waxing poetic and perhaps even fawning over the experience but it really was that great from beginning to end. I seriously considered putting all my stuff in storage, moving to Axpe, and spend my days peeling carrots for them if they’ll have me. Orgasmic food and cute chef aside, I am thoroughly enamoured with what they do there. AT and Anarchick have both told me that I get this dreamy look on my face whenever I talk about Etxebarri and I just can’t help it. I was lovestruck.