Asador Etxebarri: Ashes to ashes, Dust to dust, The Best Meal of 2011

If I have absolutely one clear thought about 2011, it is that the meal which most profoundly impacted me in 2011 was Asador Etxebarri. How can I say such a thing when I ate at Mugaritz, the 3rd best restaurant in the world, or tried Napolitan pizza from the Masters? Well, Etxebarri remains the only one I can still taste. And it is this small rural "farm house"/grilling station that still makes my mouth water.




If I have absolutely one clear thought about 2011, it is that the meal which most profoundly impacted me in 2011 was Asador Etxebarri. How can I say such a thing when I ate at Mugaritz, the 3rd best restaurant in the world, or tried Napolitan pizza from the Masters? Well, Etxebarri remains the only one I can still taste. And it is this small rural "farm house"/grilling station that still makes my mouth water.

Five or six hours north of Madrid there exists another world, certainly another country, this is Basque Country, in the northern region of "Spain". Without getting too political, the Basque Country is another fascinating example of Spain's many autonomous communities that really does have a character and lifestyle of its own. Here, you don't let cold weather stop you from doing anything, here, you chop your own wood, and in the Basque Country you eat like a King. Set away in a storybook setting of pine trees, fresh green grass, outlined hills, and large rock formations stands a modest pueblo of 70 residents (sheep out number the people) called Axpe with one of the finest restaurants on the planet, #50 according to Pellegrino's 50 Best List 2011. Victor Arguinzoniz turned a down-on-his-luck moment into an internationally renowned dining experience; he rented a restaurant, incorporated the art of charcoal wood fire ovens in place of electric stoves and engineered pivoting grills with movable grates that allow him the ability to cook almost anything you previously thought couldn't be put on a grill, like butter, caviar and sea cucumbers! The end results are quite impressive, and in the unlikely event you don't like the taste of a dish his kitchen prepares, you certainly have to appreciate the concept and will most likely note that this sensation of unfamiliarity is not dislike, but simply a taste you've never experienced before.

The grand irony of Arguinzoniz's kitchen and as I mentioned previously as the Basque's national sport, is the wood, which at Etxebarri is generally oak. The manly, machismo rites of passage of axing through tree trunks are a stark contrast to the delicate manner of mildly "smoking" a food product, or giving it a gentle massage of heat instead of charring the heck out of it. Victor can likely do both, the cooking I'm positive, the chopping I'd bet on it.

Everything, and I do not lie here, had a "oh wow this is new and exciting" moment. Unlike many other fine dining restaurants, serving sizes are generous, and while initially we were concerned we didn't order enough, we left as puffy as the sheep outside. Out of the 5 dishes and 2 desserts we ordered, we LOVED 6 of them. It was only the oysters that I don't think our taste-buds where properly adjusted to, although others rave about them. Personally, I was blown away by the goat's milk butter (which by a stroke of luck had been delivered to the restaurant for the first time in the 2011 season), it was a creamy earthy-animaly flavor tinged with an evanescence smoke background, as if the curtain was falling on act one of a Shakespeare play. The fish, a grouper (which I later discovered is on the seafood watch list in the US, not sure about Spain) was also memorable, served hot off the grill, at who knows what level of his magical grilling machine, but perfectly cooked, moist, flavorful and without the need to add anything else- no lemon, it seemed simply some olive olive and a tad of salt did the trick. Another lasting impression on the palate was the fillet, a gorgeous piece of meat, likely from an equally attractive Galician cow, which melted on the tongue just as the butter appetizer had done previously. Not to be missed are the desserts, and Etxebarri slammed us against the wall with a powerful punch of tradition combined with ingenuity. Carefully and subtly using smoke again as their weapon of choice, Victor and his team managed to "smoke" the milk that went into their homemade ice cream. When trying the condensed milk flavor (leche reducida) I was sure that they had incorrectly given us the cheese flavor, because on the tongue the milk was so much like that of cured/smoked cheeses, but they told us it's the process of burning the milk on the grill that gives off that tinge. In comparison, the cheese ice cream was much less pronounced and had the familiar tang of non-smoked cheeses. The fresh cheese flan was surprisingly light and bouncy, the caliber and locality of the milk noticeable. We stopped there, but Etxebarri didn't. With the coffee order came fresh mini almond muffins, and while the stomach had no room, the heart recognized the gesture.

I really believe Etxebarri has the whole package. The staff is professional yet casual, the food outstanding at the rate of being immeasurable because of it's uniqueness, the location a dreamscape, and the humility of the entire meal unmatched by what I've encounter elsewhere.  It's like the beautiful girl who doesn't know how stunning she really is. Since being "discovered" by the masses and international critics Etxebarri has held very true to its roots, and its prices, not jumping more than a few euros in fours years for an entree and €.20 on a bottle of water. It's clear where their priorities stand. As for curious parties, just follow the smoke signals.

The melt in your mouth homemade goat's butter. Mantequilla casera de cabra.

Also homemade, the foie gras. Foie gras de pato. 

Three little oysters. Las ostras. 

Grilled grouper. Mero a la brasa. 

Oooo solomillo! We chose this over the T-bone steak (chuletón) because I prefer less charred meat cuts. 

Fresh cheese flan. Flan de queso fresco.

Blended berries served with reduced milk ice cream. Infusión de frutos silvestres con helado de leche reducida.


Reduced milk and Cheese ice cream (the "c" of my hand was so that I remembered which was cheese). Helados de leche reducida y queso. 

The first step of the process. 

The machines that do it all. A la Brasa! 


Plaza San Juan 1
Atxondo-Bizkaia, 48291, Spain 
+34 946 58 30 42
Reservations can be made by email: info@asadoretxebarri.com 


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