Etxebarri (Axpe, Spain) – Legendary Expectations
“Etxebarri” – it’s spoken on the lips of the fooderati as if it’s an impossible perfection.
Etxebarri is tucked in the rolling hills of Axpe, Spain inside a two-story stone building on a village square. The restaurant has been mythologized in blog posts and magazine articles – a man, exemplary seafood, his home-made grills and charcoal, and a grill technique from the next realm. It’s a romantic story, a Basque Howard Roark, cooking his food without regard for international trends. It has become the ultimate experience in foodie currency. Everyone has been to Roses by now but how many have trekked their way from Bilbao, or San Sebastian, to the bucolic village of Axpe?
This is the sort of place that piques my interest in all of the right areas. It has a vision, un-adultered by any concern for markets, and it has an identity tightly coupled with its region. I expected a statement as powerful and transcendental as Urasawa, the closest ideal I could find in the culinary pantheon. These expectations, as we’ll see, played a significant role in decoding this meal.
Chef Victor Arguinzoniz begins with the freshest ingredients possible for the day. The Etxebarri web site lists different seasons for what have become luxurious and highly sought after ingredients. The nearby mountain, the site says, provides a stomping ground for the chickens, plots for the gardens, and even a well for the water. The seafood quality on this trip was uniformly excellent, with a few examples being reference-worthy.
Chef Arguinzoniz then applies his own brand of culinary technique to the offerings. Rumored to be among the world’s greatest grillers, he takes his art very seriously. Where else would you find a restaurant that produces its own charcoal, different varieties depending on the dishes to be served. Where else would you find a chef who has created his own grill? Obsessiveness – it does indeed help create legends.
Notoriously, Michelin has not ranked Etxebarri. It will be interesting to see if that changes with the next edition considering the fanfare the restaurant has been receiving. The food has been universally praised but not much has been said about the facilities. Where I expected a serviceable room, the room had a refined and rustic touch more than becoming to a Michelin one or two star restaurant. It sets the mood nicely for the meal to come.
Very moist, tasty, and full of subtle flavor. It is said to be made from iberico pig with meat and fat from the same cuts. Very Good.
Smoked Salted Butter
This home-made butter couldn’t reach the heights of the legendary Bordier but it laid the gauntlet down – this charcoal and grill business can reach sublime heights. The butter was quite creamy but the light smokiness, courtesy of the tiny flakes of smoked salt, elevated this dish to a meditative experience. Excellent.
This had an excellent subtle iodine flavor but it was marred by an overcooked section of the tail, closest to the body. Many joke that I would gladly eat on the plains with the lions, but even slightly overcooking a langostine is a costly mistake. Ok.
Intensely sweet, cooked perfectly, but it lacked the necessary salt to brighten the meat. The lack of salt was a theme with this meal. This dish also made me wonder if the simple prawn, as good as they are, is even better with subtle spices ala Manresa. Good.
Oyster with Seaweed
Quite sweet, plump, lightly grilled, unlike any oyster I’ve had, with a light smokiness throughout. Some reports say the oyster is sprayed with olive oil, others the oyster juices. Regardless, reference material for cooked oysters. The seaweed, slightly smoky itself, provided perfect texture counterpoint. Excellent.
Most reports suggest this is Iranian caviar but I wasn’t paying attention. The slight cooking seemed to rob the caviar of its intensity although the smoking was an interesting effect. Ok.
A perfect, and I don’t use that word lightly, char that was subtle enough to impart a taste but not dominate it. This dish fulfilled every expectation I had for Etxebarri and his prowess with a grill. Easily, the dish of the night. Excellent.
Mussel in Tomato
Unlike any mussel I’ve had, nearly as plump as the oyster, with a fair amount of spiciness from the soup. Again, a reference for future mussels. Very Good.
Mushrooms and Eggplant
Grilled nicely but it terribly lacked salt. Good.
Squid with Ink
The perfect char from the sea cucumber was missing; this seemed nearly lazy in comparison. The dish also suffered from a lack of salt. Good.
Beautiful piece of fish. The fish was barely cooked, just enough to be warmed throughout. Each section, as you can see in the photo below, was salty and slightly gelatinous. Very Good.
Not much upfront taste but a much stronger aftertaste when compared to American beef, with a light smokiness carrying it. You could say the flavor was gamey. Made of retired Galician cows more than 8 years old (whereas the typical American cow is generally less than 2 years old.) Very Good.
Milk Ice Cream
Perfect ice cream. Unsure of which sort of milk, sheep’s being my guess, the texture and richness was unparalleled. Others have reported that the ice creams are smoked, but I don’t recall any smokiness in the flavor. Excellent.
In the end, it was a meal of mixed emotions. You could see the purported brilliance, nearly taste it in every dish, but it just fell short. From a grilling perspective, only the sea cucumber and oyster fulfilled the promise of their mastery. The smoked salt butter was also exemplary for its smokiness. But, unfairly or not, I expected more dishes to be a revelation.
But why does this meal stick in my mind? In a normal restaurant, even of three-star levels, one is usually ecstatic to get one or two memorable dishes. And yet, Etxebarri, this modest farmhouse, produced four or five reference dishes – dishes I’ll use as a yardstick to measure others. When I discount the misses, and focus on the hits, the meal advances in the memory.
Would I recommend it on a trip to Spain? Yes, for the truly obsessed. It is too expensive for someone with just a casual interest. Would I include it in a list of the world’s best restaurants? Not yet. Will I re-visit on my next trip to Spain (or Southwest France)? Yes. Do I expect it to make it into my top 10? Yes.