Asador Etxebarri – dazzlingly simple food in the Basque mountains

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Asador Etxebarri is a bit of a conundrum. First, there’s the name, a seemingly unpronounceable juxtaposition of consonants which don’t roll easily off the tongue until you realise that t and x in Basque just correspond to our ch sound – read Etchebarry and it becomes a lot simpler. Second, in spite of having to book months in advance to secure a table, it’s well-nigh inaccessible, tucked away up in the mountains, about an hour’s drive from either Bilbao or San Sebastian. The area itself is hardly what you’d call “Spanish”; precipitous mountains, large low farmhouses with gently-pitched roofs, the constant clonking of cowbells and a profusion of wild flowers, bring to mind the unfeasible beauty of a Swiss chocolate box. Thirdly, there’s the “Asador” thing. Asador means “grill” in Spanish and I’d heard that chef/owner Victor Arguinzoniz is famous for his use of different woods to conjure particular flavours from his food. I expected a traditional open kitchen with chefs sweating over a furnace of crackling logs and the pungent whiff of smoke permeating the air. Instead the place was almost clinically clean; of the kitchen there was no evidence and the pared-back style of the whitewashed dining room was a foretaste of the meal to come. The tables were unadorned save for a spotless linen cloth, a napkin and a water goblet.

 

The menu was equally spare – a no-choice menu of 15 tasting courses at €125. Now, I’m not a fan of tasting menus, often a vehicle for the chef to show off his latest technique or weird marriage of outlandish ingredients rather than cooking something the customer might actually want to eat and, oh so frequently, another version of the emperor’s new clothes. Here, bar the skill of the kitchen, no boundaries were pushed and, for once, the bare menu description, so beloved of the “modern” chef, who imagines he is going to surprise and delight, but more often dismays and disillusions his paying customer with elaborate, idiosyncratic and pointless “interpretations”, was entirely appropriate. What was described on the menu was exactly what we got –no sauce, no garnish, no foams, smears, puddles or spheres – just a succession of utterly simple, tiny dishes of the finest, freshest ingredients cooked with astonishing precision. There was evidence of woodsmoke but applied with such a deftness of touch that it was almost ethereal, never overpowering and used really only as an extra seasoning.

 

The courses started by coming in quick succession, each of the first four materializing before we’d finished the previous one. At first, we imagined they wanted us out as soon as possible but actually, there was a different and quite appropriate intention. In the manner of Basque pintxos, or tapas, these dishes were presented to share and intended to complement each other. To go with hunks of sourdough bread, there was home-cured chorizo, sliced so tissue-thin it melted on the tongue, then an applewood smoked buffalo ricotta drizzled with wildflower honey, a slab of goat butter and fat, lightly-cured anchovy fillets on toast.

Following these appetisers we were each presented with a miniature Chipiron – a whole baby squid, barely grilled and presented with a compote of caramelised onion and a blob of reduced ink – a mouthful of perfect simplicity. Then, two wild prawns, steamed in their own juices and presented with no garnish or seasoning, just the merest hint of smoke adding a new dimension.

Course after course followed in a blur, timings impeccably judged by the friendly and efficient front of house team – none of whom appeared to speak any English – a welcome change. A teaspoon of criminally underage peas in an intense pea broth, shavings of raw St. George mushrooms on slivers of rye cracker, then a final fish course: a rectangle of bluefin tuna belly, merely shown a hot pan to colour the exterior and presented with a red pepper puree. Suddenly I realized why the Japanese prize the belly over any other cut – dense, fatty and utterly delicious, each flake melted on the tongue, tender as the rarest fillet steak.

 

The final savoury course was billed as chuleta, or rib, of beef. We were expecting a few small slivers of steak, but we were in for a surprise. What arrived was a whole rib to share, red and tender in the middle, the outside a riot of caramelised fat and charred flesh with the crunch of seasalt flakes and, again, a hint of woodsmoke adding an extra element. This was served with the lightest and fluffiest chips I’ve ever encountered. Decorum went out the window, and we fought shamelessly over the bone. I subsequently discovered that, unlike the young (36 months is the legal maximum slaughter age) beef we have in the UK, this comes from an animal around 15 years old proving, as I’ve always known, that the tenderness of youth is no substitute for the mellowness of age.

After all this, I struggled to recall the three tiny desserts, but I remember a teaspoonful of intense chocolate broth and a scoop of velvety ice-cream made from milk gently caramelised on the stove and served with a sauce of sweet and earthy reduced beetroot juice.

 

It was gone midnight when we left but in true Spanish tradition, many of the other guests had barely started their meal. God knows what time the staff finished. When you witness a lifestyle like this and, bearing in mind that most people start work at 8am, you realise why the Spanish have a lengthy siesta. We certainly needed one.

 

If you have the time and some spare cash (the exchange rate is particularly good at the moment), catch a flight to Bilbao or San Sebastian and seek Etxebarri out – you’ll be well-rewarded.

 

 

Arguinzoniz cooks over wood using the system he invented to raise and lower the grill

 

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