Is it a coincidence that some of the world’s most renowned restaurants are located in some of the most remote corners of our world?
Of course not. Special journeys make for special occasions.
But does food taste better, or seem to taste better, when it’s harder to reach?
I don’t think so.
I’ve had great meals in far-flung places, and I’ve had great meals in ordinary, everyday places. I’ve had disappointing meals in far-flung places, and I’ve had disappointing meals in ordinary, everyday places.
But I’ll tell you what, if I’m going to have a great meal, I’d rather have one in a far-flung place. Asador Etxebarri delivered on both.
You will hear stories – some terrifying, others amusing – of people getting lost on their way to Asador Etxebarri.
It is not easy to find.
And yet, by some stroke of navigating genius, we managed to make the drive from San Sebastián to the restaurant without missing a turn.
Axtondo, the Basque village where Etxebarri is located, is small and quiet. There is a town square, a church, and one or two other buildings. Otherwise, the restaurant is surrounded by what appeared to be farmland, with a range of mountains rising in the near distance.
The restaurant is an old, stone structure with a farmhouse feel. You can sit inside or outside. We sat outside on the deck, a lovely space on a lovely day, hung with Spanish moss and fenced with foliage. If you go, and if the weather is nice, I recommend it.
Asador Etxebarri is the ultimate barbecue restaurant.
The chef-owner, Victor Arguinzoniz, uses a blend of different woods to cook and smoke his food over a custom-built, wood-fire grill. What comes off of it is truly amazing.
You’ll find a list of what we ate and drank at the bottom of this post. But let me give you a quick summary and tour of the highlights.
Two things about the food at Etxebarri were outstanding.
First, everything was cooked exceedingly well. Vegetables, meat, and seafood alike arrived at our table tender and succulent. Prawns, head-on, were silky and soft, teasing me from that magical place that’s far closer to raw than cooked. The same could be said of a rainbow of vegetables – cabbage, leeks, beets, and more – that were served dressed with little more than a spot of oil and a dash of salt.
And, despite the fact that almost everything came off the grill, Arguinzoniz’s smoking was very gentle, a masterful infusion that resulted in a hint rather than a flavor.
Second, the food was simple. In fact, it was so simple that, as I described it in my blog post about my recent trip to San Sebastián, it was thrilling.
Food that’s this simple (and good) relies on two things: high-quality ingredients, and, more importantly, a chef who is confident enough in his or her cooking skills to showcase that quality by letting the ingredients stand with little more. Our meal began with a shot of carrot juice, pure and straight. That was followed by slices of chorizo, and lengths of oily, salted anchovies on buttered toast. Then a tender strip of sea cucumber arrived atop a few white beans, nicely cooked and full of flavor. And, at the end, there was a scoop of condensed milk ice cream in a magenta pool of fruit juice, rich and refreshing at once.
In our modern world of tricked-out kitchen equipment, additives, and egos, sadly, ingredient quality often gets lost in the over-handled and over-manipulated transit that sends ingredients from element to artifact. Not at Etxebarri. Here, what you see and taste is what you get.
I want to spend a moment on the rib eye at Asador Etxebarri.
It is perfect.
The meat was grilled on the bone, resulting in a charred crust and a scarlet middle that was marbled with fat that had yellowed with age. It stained the air with a mustiness that only dry-aged meat can. And it coated my mouth with a waxy layer of fat that was so flavorful, so complex, so wonderful, and so thick that only a vinegary lettuce salad, served on the side, could thin.
Why can’t American beef be this tender, this flavorful, this amazing? Why? I live in the one of the great steak and barbecue capitals of America, and have eaten dry-aged meat from San Francisco to New York, and even a freakish, eleven-month dry-aged steak in Las Vegas. And I have never met meat in America that comes close in quality, flavor, or texture to the best, dry-aged meat I have had in Europe. Is it terroir? Is it the breed? Is it animal husbandry? Is it the aging process?
I also want to devote a few words here to Etxebarri’s flan de queso fresco.
I underestimated this dessert.
Unmolded from a metal ring, this flan was not like any flan I’ve had elsewhere. This flan was magical, a warm, fluffy cloud of air suffused with tangy fat, bilging slightly at the sides from the weight of its own magnificence. It sat atop a thin, soft base (like a genoise, but probably not a genoise) and was garnished with orange marmalade. A few of us finished it quickly in two or three swipes, but not before ordering another.
Etxebarri has one Michelin star. If you take the restaurant in its totality, perhaps that’s a fair rating. It lacks many of the traditional trappings that come with high-end, multi-starred restaurants. There are cigarette holes in the table cloth and silverware is slapped down with little care, for example.
But, the Michelin Guide claims to rate restaurants based only on what arrives on the plate. For the food I was served, I would say that Asador Etxebarri is not simply serving “very good cuisine in its category.” Based on my meal, it is serving “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”
If you have the time and the resources to make the journey to Axtondo in the Basque mountains, I highly recommend Asador Etxebarri. Order the beef. Order the flan. Order anything that strikes your fancy. And enjoy a great meal in a far-flung place.
Plaza San Juan, I
All but one in our party ordered the tasting menu (120€). Stella decided she would rather pick and choose her meal from the short list of dishes prepared in larger portions. Some of them were so great that we ordered an additional plate for the table to share. Here is what we had (click on each dish below to see the photo, or click here to see the entire album):
Butter of Goat’s Milk
With white onions.
Porcini and Eggplant
With root vegetables
Reduced Milk Ice Cream
With fruit infusion
Beef Filet (Chuleta)
Feuilleté and Poached Pear
Spruce ice cream.
Jacques Selosse “Initial” Brut Champagne, Blanc de Blancs
Domaine Blain-Gagnarrd Chassagne-Montrachet, Premier Cru, 2009
Domaine des Comtes Lafon, Volnay Santenots-du-Milieu, Premier Cru, 2009
Franck Pascal “Harmonie” Blanc de Noirs, 2005
Photos: Sea cucumber with fresh beans; the Axpe town square, Asador Etxebarri is to the right; Atxondo, Spain; grilled rib eye; flan de queso fresco; gateaux Basque; and wines.