Thursday, 29 November 2018

Asador Etxebarri, Spain

On the face of it, the restaurants that form the 50 Best list (have a gander here) are a satisfyingly diverse bunch. From the nostalgia-driven Modern Italian of Osteria Francescana, to the jungle-foraged idiosyncrasy of Lima's Central and the international freewheeling experimentation of 11 Madison Park, no one style or set of flavours is more likely to make the list than another. Whatever you think of the inclusions (and exclusions) there's no denying it does a pretty good job of representing the world's culinary inclinations in all their variety, or at least the inclinations of those people with sufficient disposable income to blow €300 on dinner.

But having been lucky enough to patronise a few of the Best over the years, I've realised that aside from what comes out of the kitchen, these destination restaurants do have something in common, and that's a tangible sense of drama and suspense. Whether simply from the expectation of diners that what's coming is likely to be amongst the Best meals of their lives (or at least they hope it will), or through deliberate actions of the restaurant itself (I'm thinking of El Bulli where the front gates were theatrically swung open no earlier than 7:30 on the dot, Wonka-style), these places all conjure an atmosphere of almost febrile anticipation, the sense that whatever happens over the next few hours it will be nothing less than significant.

So it is at Etxebarri. After handing over your coats and bags to someone suitably smiley, you're ushered into an upstairs anteroom, and drink excellent champagne from Zalto glasses whilst a real wood fire (a subtle tribute to what's going on in the kitchen below) burns in the corner. Here, the waiting, the atmosphere of nervous expectancy, creates a kind of gentle hysteria, as you slowly realise that the moment that you've been planning and plotting for the last seven months (I don't imagine many people attempt a walk-in), through booked flights, hours pouring over PDFs of Spanish train timetables, the price of taxis from Durango and back, whether to go for the cheaper AirBnB a bit of a walk from the action or one bang in the middle of the old town, all this has funnelled into these few hours in a converted farmhouse in the mountains of Northern Spain. It all hangs on this one experience. What if it all goes wrong?

And then, with the first canapé, a bowl of mushroom consommé spiked with yuzu, an inkling that perhaps you're in safe hands after all. As the first morsel of food in a significant tasting menu, this little guy had a lot riding on it, but it performed marvellously, with a deep mushroom flavour combining remarkably well with the sharper yuzu. Pretty bowl, too.

Also fantastic were these anchovy toasts, substantial and glossy with a light herb dressing of some kind. They were apparently cured in-house in salt barrels, and had a denser fish flavour (and less of a mouth-aching dose of salt) than others I've tried. Clearly this is a kitchen that obsesses over the details whenever it can.

Last of the pre-show canapés were this cute mini sandwiches with house chorizo. Now, I can see what they were trying to do here - recreate the famous Basque bocadillo in miniature form - but hand on heart I think I'd have just preferred a plate of the chorizo on its own, as it was incredibly good.

After these, we moved through to the main dining room (nicely minimalist but not austere, with well-spaced tables and breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains) for the menu proper. First to arrive was a big chunk of bread. The interesting thing about restaurants in this region (it was the same at Etxanobe the day before) is that you're given when you sit down a big chunk of bread but with no butter or anything to do with it or dip it in, and it stays next to you, like a pet rock, for the entire meal. The Etxebarri bread was enjoyable - a kind of crusty sourdough baguette affair, with a good dense crumb - but it didn't really have much of a purpose, other than scatter crumbs around the table when you tried to nibble a bit.

At least there was more than enough to enjoy elsewhere. Chef Victor Arguinzoniz makes his own mozzarella from his own buffalo (I think they said) and it was an absolutely beautiful thing, soft and sweet with (for a mozarella) an incredible depth of flavour. Presented alongside this were three sticks of goat's butter which we were specifically instructed to eat by themselves and not (as you may be forgiven for assuming) spread on the bread. These were nice and farmy and fresh and, well, goaty.

Cockles - vibrant, plump little things - came in a delicate white bean and miso broth and managed to strike exactly the right balance between seafood tang and earthy stock.

The mini scallops from Etxanobe (zamburiñas according to a commenter on that post) made an appearance here too, sweet and juicy and sitting in an absolutely gorgeous seaweed sauce which we took great delight in scooping into our mouths after devouring the seafood. Like everything else on the menu, they were cooked over coals, but the genius of Etxebarri is that the woodsmoke notes are only ever a background flavour, a kind of framing of the main ingredients, rather than being overwhelming or the mean feature. This means for more subtle flavours like the cockles the smoke sits back, but for more robust and sweeter protein such as the scallops the smoke is slightly more pronounced. It's very clever stuff.

These beautiful creatures are local prawns, and would have been the greatest prawns I've ever tasted in my life were it not for a dish at El Bulli (sorry) 9 years ago which I presume used the same species. Anyway yes, they were superb - sweet, perfectly cooked to a gentle bounce without a hint of woodiness - and with that all-important lick of solid fuel. As a further example of the kind of detail that goes into the food here, we were told that the chef uses different types of wood for different dishes, depending on the flavour the smoke imparts.

One of these giant red prawns (from Palamós, on the Catalonian coast) would have been more than generous, but Etxebarri gave us two each to get stuck into. The body had that same sweet, smoky flavour as the local variety but being bigger there was far more delicious seafoody "bisque" in the heads, which I'm afraid we ended up sucking up quite noisily. Still, we did at least notice some other people doing it so we weren't the only ostentatious food wankers in the room.

Baby squid was another expert bit of grilling, presented on a slick of its own ink and arriving with that ever-present waft of woodsmoke. I feel like I'm running out of things to say about yet another nice bit of seafood on a plate. In many other restaurants I'd be able to at least talk about a sauce or accompanying vegetables but that's not the Etxebarri way - every dish is thoughtful and precise but absolutely stripped back to the literal main ingredient itself.

Perhaps our least favourite course, in fact the only thing even coming close to a 'dud', was this "cod kokotxa & pil-pil". Feeling desperately out of place amongst the robust grilling and fire-touched protein elsewhere, this sad, soggy lump of mystery fried fish would have been odd enough by itself, but presented with a slick of a mayonnaise-type sauce with all the personality of wallpaper paste, it was remarkably unsettling. However, in the interests of balance and given the not insignificant possibility I'm too much of a pleb to appreciate the complexities of what Etxebarri were trying to do here, I should probably point out that a group of people we met at Bar Nestor in town on Saturday (more on that later of course) thought this was a very clever play on the gelatinous texture of kokotxa and really enjoyed it. So take your pick.

You'd have to be a pretty odd individual not to enjoy scrambled egg and wild mushroom with a load of white truffle shaved on top, and every bit of this dish, from the silky smooth egg which was barely one moment away from raw yolk, to the punchy foraged fungi and the generous pile of heady truffle, was a laser-guided assault on all my pleasure points. This was utterly wonderful in every way, and very Etxebarri - good ingredients treated well, licked with smoke and presented with an almost flattering simplicity.

The smoke levels were turned up a notch for the next course of aubergine and mushroom. We were to come across king bolete (not to mention the cantharellus of the previous dish) in the markets of San Sebastian the day after, so it seems this is a good time of year for foraged fungi. Vegetarians wouldn't be the most obvious target audience for Etxebarri (in fact you'd be a bit of an idiot to try) but you certainly didn't miss the meat in this dish.

The next course was a bowl of elvers. These were interesting for two reasons. Firstly, they were incredibly tasty little things, almost like buttery spaghetti, each one fresh and slippery and (of course) holding a gentle smokiness. But we couldn't help also notice that this dish was marked on the menu as an 'extra' for a whopping €120. A brief panic set in. Would we be charged an extra €120 a head for this dish? If so, why didn't they ask if we were OK with that first? And if they weren't going to charge us, why list them on the menu for €120? All very mysterious. In the end, they didn't appear on the bill, so perhaps they were some kind of impromptu bonus, but I'd still like to know if anyone else in the room that day were charged extra for them.

Red sea bream (urta) arrived next, cooked whole over charcoal (I probably don't need to keep saying that), filleted tableside and served with a genuinely lovely selection of seasonal veg glossy with butter. I'm not as huge a fan of the gelatinous "kokotxa" style as you might need to be to completely fall for this dish, but there was no denying the depth of flavour and the effort that had gone into it.

I'm worried that I'm going to tell you that this is the greatest bit of beef I've ever eaten in my life, and you're going to read as another one of my bouts of hyperbole, assume I just meant it's "very good" and move on. No. That is not the case. This is the best bit of beef I've ever eaten in my life and if I ever come across a better one anywhere in the remaining years I have on this earth (which won't be too long if I keep eating beef like this) then I will be very surprised indeed. Let me explain - everything about it was perfect. Deeply marbled and meltingly tender inside, it somehow also had the most delicate of dark crusts, thick enough to provide a crunch but not so much to be bitter or carry too much of the flavour of the coals. It had a dense, mineral taste of a life well lived, but was not over-aged or funky – just 3 weeks we were told, compared to certain restaurants that seem to take pride in ageing their beef well past the point of edibility. It was presented simply sliced, not over-rested so the juices were still running, and it was in every way the very best steak can be, possibly can ever be. I will never forget it.

And I'll never forget Etxebarri. Yes, I've found fault with some bits and pieces, but that same atmosphere of feverish anticipation I spoke about earlier carried us through the whole meal, through certain elements we didn't like and worries over €120 elvers, and I wouldn't change any of it for the world. Desserts were just as accomplished as the mains, this ice cream having a fantastic smooth texture and buttery taste, mixing with the metallic tang of beetroot to great effect...

...this little walnut soufflé, tasting of autumn forests and wet leaves...

...and finally this breathtaking cheesecake, so light it practically dissolved in the mouth, poised, balanced and beautiful.

I'll say - again - that we loved our lunch at Etxebarri, and if you've already skipped to the end to read the score and are disappointed it didn't score higher then perhaps a short explanation is in order. The thing is, Extebarri's whole schtick is to take already very good produce, treat them sensitively and present them simply so that nothing distracts from the quality of the raw ingredient. Which is a laudable and perfectly sensible way of going about things but all said and done, it is, to be blunt, just cooking things and putting them on a plate. To pluck an example out of mid-air, lunch at Can Roca involves twice (possibly three times) as many chefs as diners, a bewildering variety of techniques and textures, and a backbreaking amount of prep. And costs an almost identical amount of money (€280 a head including wines, since you ask). So it's not like I didn't love my lunch at Etxebarri, it's just that there was that niggling feeling it wasn't quite value.

Still, I'd like to end this on a high so I'll say that, given the opportunity, I would go back, even for another €280, because there really isn't anywhere else in the world like it. Sitting down to a lunch like this, in a place like this, and to have a succession of stunning plates of unusual seafood - and the World's Greatest Beef - paraded in front of you is to experience joy itself, and is after all these years the reason why I still consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to be able to experience it all. One day, the moment it stops being fun, I'll pack it all in and find something else to do. I'll certainly have more than enough memories to treasure. But until that day, there's more eating to be done.



Andy K said...

I've been to Etxebarri (a few years ago - I think it's got marginally more fancy these days) and Can Roca and, whilst I kinda agree that there may be more effort involved at the latter, I know which one I would go back to in a heartbeat. Weekly if I could. I think the Asador was probably the best/most memorable meal of my life - even though I was driving!

John Levon said...

Loved this place, except one of the desserts had picked up some prawn smoke (I'm hoping by accident). A dessert tasting of smoky seafood was ... weird.

Lizzie said...

I'm afraid I entirely disagree with your summation of the cooking, of just cooking and putting on a plate. There's so much technique and skill in there which, sure, might not be a fancy GEL (lol) or foam or spherification but is restrained from over-working, and bears simplicity in respect for the ingredients. It's there though, and the fact that I couldn't recall you a single dish from Can Roca (bar that prawn....) whereas I will never ever forget that beef chop, swings it massively for me. I would go back + pay again in a flash!

Alex C said...

Thanks Chris - as ever ford porn of the highest quality.
On the subject of elvers I wasn't sure what they even were so turned up this article from last year which might explain the curious pricing:
It seems it's alright within Europe but no shipping the little eel pups to the far east. I wonder if they charge you the full amount if you're oriental in origin, where upon you'd not bat an eyelid.

Anonymous said...

So, what you’re saying is you rather pay for gelatin and foam, as opposed to actual good food cooked well.