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.


Tuesday 27 November 2018

La Despensa del Etxanobe, Bilbao

We flew to Bilbao the day the 2019 Michelin awards for Spain and Portugal were released. As much as I wish it wasn't sometimes (in fact make that most of the time), the Red Guide is unquestionably the most significant and prestigious recognition a chef working today can achieve, and quite understandably the head chef at Etxanobe, our first stop of a four-day trip to the Basque country, was not in the kitchen in Bilbao as he would be normally but in Lisbon, where the flashy announcement ceremony was taking place.

This worried me on two accounts. Firstly, would a kitchen be firing on all cylinders not only without its chef Fernando Canales absent, but with the threat of a demotion from Bibendum hanging over the day's work? Secondly, what if the worst happened and they did lose a place? Imagine turning up for work and having to pretend everything was fine whilst serving a table of freeloading bloggers. Nightmare.

Anyway, we needn't have worried. Atelier del Etxanobe (the slightly posher sister restaurant next door) kept their star, chef Canales eventually returned from Lisbon triumphant, and said table of freeloading bloggers had a very lovely lunch indeed in this cool, clubby space, thanks to a team of the nicest and most enthusiastic front of house in a part of the world not short of such things, and dishes that made the absolute best of the astonishing quality of local produce.

Mindful of the serious amount of eating and drinking we were planning on doing over the next few days, we had more or less decided to take it easy at Etxanobe and just order three courses each. Unfortunately, having being presented with a menu of the kind of bewildering and beguiling choice that the Basque Country is rightly famous for, we ended up constructing a bit of a mini tasting menu anyway, beginning with this white asparagus and truffle "ajo blanco" with prawns. As beautiful to look at as it was delightful to eat, this dish - full of silky asparagus flavour with just enough garlic to provide a gentle heat - set the bar sky-high on what was to be about as good a first meal as we could ever have hoped.

Next came a dish so good that it actually made one of our group cry. Something about the combination of pickled anchovy and salmorejo (a purée of tomato and bread) brought to mind childhood holidays in Andalucia, and having spent my own childhood in L'Escala in Catalonia, who specialise in the oiled & salted kind, I can confirm that there's nothing more likely to provoke an emotional reaction than the combination of nostalgia and anchovies. With big, powerful flavours to accompany them - an incredibly good, bright green olive oil and a neat square of hard cheese under the fish which rounded things out with dairy, this was a seriously impressive bit of work.

Then, the sweetest of local "scallops" (they had another name for them which I'm afraid escapes me), smaller than you may have seen before, these were apparently quite rare and strictly seasonal. Ostensibly simply prepared, with a golden crust and with coral still attached, which always wins points from me, they were lovely little things in of themselves but the real stroke of genius was to serve them on fresh seaweed, which brought with it the smell of the ocean, lending the whole thing a dreamily evocative atmosphere.

Next up, anchovies again, this time smoked and grilled to a remarkably soft texture somewhat akin to good eel. They were dense with flavour, each of them a bitesize bundle of meaty, oily goodness, and another example of Extanobe's ability to take one star ingredient and subtly enhance it with judicious use of spice and seasoning.

The next course was squid. We were told one would be smaller and more tender, and one larger and firmer with a sweeter, more rounded flavour. And they were absolutely right, of course, as you might expect, but it was still a nice surprise to contrast the younger animal to the older - good veal to aged beef, you could say. Each were cooked just so, well seasoned and with nice crunchy tentacles.

A plate piled high with langoustine tails was, very weirdly, the only dish that didn't completely impress. I can't quite put my finger on what could have gone wrong, but the beasties themselves were a bit soily and flabby - maybe slightly under, although that could have just been the style - and the blobs of grassy sauce (parsley?) weren't a great accompaniment. Still, we did finish them off so they can't have been too bad.

We had a similar issue with the blobs of sauce that came with the turbot, but fortunately the protein itself was an absolute masterclass in fish cooking - firm and meaty, with a gorgeous browning on top - and next to it sat a fantastic buttery potato hassleback style thing, which we fought over to finish. It's perhaps tempting to look at the bounty of the ocean and land that Bilbao has to choose from and conclude there's nothing much more they need to do than not cock anything up too much and you'd still end up with a decent feed. But even if cooking turbot like this was easy (it's not, and I've had plenty of bad turbot experiences to prove it), even sourcing such stunning ingredients is a praiseworthy enough skill.

Desserts were similarly full of life and vibrancy. A "pineapple cream gratinate" may be the most pineapply thing involving pineapple that's ever pineappled before (it was very pineapply) and a kind of layered apple-cinnamon cake was rich and comforting like the finest winter pud...

...and despite its rather unfortunate appearance this gently spiced chocolate mousse was lovely, covering chunks of jammy passionfruit and studded with little golden sugar crunches. Finally, a cute blob of smooth ice cream topped with powdered beetroot chocolate sent us on our way.

People tell you that Bilbao and San Sebastian are some of the best eating cities in the world, but as much as you want to believe it (and as much as our little trip relied up on it), it's not until you sit down at your first lunch on the first day, and the food starts arriving, that you really begin to understand what's so special about this part of the world. I'm prepared to believe you can eat badly in Bilbao - there's a KFC by the train station - but the inescapable fact is most restaurants and bars, from the rickety bar perched on the corner of a traffic-choked street to the most elaborate Michelin-soaked gastronomic temple, everyone here eats well. And everyone here eats well because not only are the ingredients available in every fish counter and butcher (oh lord, the beef - more on that later) absolutely stunning but everyone seems to know how to make the most of them.

Anyway, I imagine most of you more interested in learning how we got on at a certain Number-10-In-The-World spot in the mountains the following day than reading any more about Etxanobe, so I'll just say a big thank you to Marta of Mateo&Co, who organised not only lunch but also overnight at the extremely comfortable Ercilla Hotel (about 15 min from the Guggenheim and right in the middle of it all, and is a bargainous £62/night at the moment according to Google) and get back to sorting my Etxebarri photos. Watch this space.


Lunch at La Despensa del Extanobe and overnight at Hotel Ercilla were kindly organised by Mateo&Co, and we didn't see a bill. I'd be tempted to do both again, though, if I ever went back.

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Fordwich Arms (revisited), Canterbury

If the idea this month was to revisit a few "old" favourites, the year-old Fordwich Arms shouldn't really qualify. But I've been determined to do another lunch at this incredible place ever since the dust settled from my first visit in February, and if my 40th Birthday Month is about anything, it's about doing what the hell I like and blogging about big boozy lunches on Saturday afternoons even though I wrote about the same place barely 9 months ago and everything I wrote about it back then largely still stands.

But then, there's more to say about the Fordwich Arms than one visit (no matter how big or boozy) could ever hope to cover. Like so many of the best restaurants, the menus are seasonal and change regularly, but aside from the availability of oysters and a superficial similarity in a couple of the snacks, very few of the dishes from this weekend bore even a passing resemblance to any served in February. This is a kitchen that is relentlessly experimenting and refining - in fact perhaps "refining" is a poor choice of word as it tends to suggest they're tweaking things towards some kind of imagined version of perfection. Instead, Guy, Dan and Tasha (I'm allowed to be on first name terms as that's how they signed my birthday card) are doing what every great restaurant should do - boldly reimagining dishes from the ground up, based on what's good that day, rather than simply replacing the protein element and doing all the same swirls and tricks around it.

Of course, an attitude like this, which would (and does) quite rightly scare the bejeezus out of lesser kitchens, only works if you have an obscene amount of confidence and a sickening amount of talent to back it up. Other than perhaps the Ledbury or Roganic, I can't think of another restaurant that sticks so loosely to anything approaching a formula or dreaded "comfort zone" but where the results are so astonishingly successful, time and time again. I won't give the usual blow-by-blow breakdown of my most recent meal; instead, I'll pick a few highlights from Saturday that hopefully illustrate just how clever these guys are at what they do, and why they deserve to be spoken of as amongst the very best restaurants in the country.

Firstly, the snacks. Out went the foie gras doughnuts, the pickles in cod's roe and Westcombe Cheddar tartlets topped with (from memory) puffed oats of some kind, and in their place gloriously flavoursome chickpea fritters topped with beetroot and parmesan, poached Whitstable rock oyster with caviar and apple, and little cheese tartlets topped with chalk river salmon, seasoned over a block of warm Himalayan salt. Clearly from the same family as the snacks from last time, they were now that much more bold and interesting, with the salmon served on salt brick providing a lovely bit of theatre. Even the charcuterie had stepped up a level - two different types this time, both great.

The bread course, too, had had a makeover. Here are a soda bread and sourdough to replace the fairly uninspiring foccacia from last time, presented with some nice normal salted butter but also "pork fat whipped with Marmite" which is the kind of idea an evil kitchen genius would come up with before cackling maniacally and being lit from beneath with an eerie green light.

Where what on paper looks straightforward - duck liver parfait - the Fordwich simply make sure it's the greatest duck liver parfait this side of Paris. Almost overwhelmingly smooth and rich it was saved from being too much with some zingy pickled berries, which were as vibrant visually as they were to eat. And as if they were worried we'd miss the foie gras doughnuts from last time (they know me too well), here they became an accompaniment to the parfait, golden brown and straight out of the fryer.

Perhaps it's also worth mentioning what didn't appear this time around, rather than all the things that did. What didn't appear on the table was a bowl of pickles - nice pickles, sure, but not special enough to make an effort over and the meal was better off without them. Similarly, a side of "confit potato" which was one of the few bits that less than impressed in February, and had been quietly dropped. For a restaurant to grow and improve you need to identify and realistically address your weaknesses rather than just work around them - this requires not only confidence, but a complete lack of ego. Something lacking in quite a few kitchens, but not this one.

I'm a sucker for a fancy presentation, and while last time it was sucker - sorry, suckling - pig, nestled in hay and smoking away tableside, this time some plump langoustine tails arrived on their own little bonfire, before being plated and served alongside little soda crackers topped with mediculously extracted claw meat. These were beautiful.

Oh God, I've ended up describing everything we ate again, haven't I? The problem is, food like this demands to be talked about. I mean, if you'd eaten something like this line-caught sea bass, with a delightful chestnut purée and sherry sauce, I guarantee you'd want to tell the whole world too, about how crisp and delicate the skin, how meaty and bright the flesh, and how it was a genuinely innovative combination of flavours that worked incredibly well.

Local venison managed to be the most powerfully-flavoured bit of protein I'd had in a while even before they covered it in an astonishing bone marrow gravy, which managed to be deeply umamified and robust without being cloying or overly salty. Quite a clever thing indeed. With that, a little pot of slow-cooked haunch in a frothy sauce, another effortless display of cooking technique and seasoning.

Yes, I often go on about seasoning on this blog, usually to moan about the lack of it. Everything was perfectly seasoned at Fordwich, which I suppose is the least you could expect, except how often is that really the case? Nothing I ate - literally nothing in god knows how many individual bits and pieces - could have been improved on at all, an attention to detail bordering on fanatical.

Desserts were similarly knockout. All completely different in style and form to last time yet still clearly the work of a top pastry artist, we began with luminous yellow macaroons where even the little cylinders of meringue had citrus flavour pumped into them, followed by a dark chocolate cake with about 10 different ways with chocolate all going on at once. Topped with gold leaf, because everything's better with gold leaf.

Perhaps, all said and done, it's a bit pointless going on about Fordwich Arms again so soon after the first review, which was still a rave. But I suppose I want to give as many of you as possible the opportunity to go for yourselves and discover a restaurant in that golden sweet spot of aiming for the highest gastronomic pinnacles whilst still remaining incredibly good value. Sure, the Michelin star spoiled a bit of our fun but even I, a committed Michelin-hater, would hardly deny such a talented team a star (or two) to shout about even if the prices have inched up a couple of quid.

So I'm happy for their recognition from Michelin (honestly), and here's a recognition from me. That outside of the mad-scientist international-toy-food three starrers, here and abroad, there are very few places doing this kind of food as well as the Fordwich Arms, while boasting service this polished, and in most other places you'd pay a hell of a lot more for it, as well. So as I said on Twitter, slightly tipsy from a final Armagnac and hurtling back to London on the Javelin train, there's an argument to be made that the Fordwich Arms is the best restaurant in the country right now. And I've just done my best to make it.