I'm in the back of a cab – which I had to trek across half the city in the rain to catch - heading North by North East of Vitoria, deep into the Basque province of Durangeldea. It's miserable. It's wet. It's literally the middle of nowhere. And I'm running late. I feel like there's only so many times I can say 'tengo prisa' before the otherwise tranquil driver stops the car and threatens to make me walk.
I'm headed to the tiny hamlet of Axpe Marzana. There's not really much there... A dozen or so houses, a couple of ramshackle old barns, a charming enough little square, and today, it would seem, bucket loads of rain. But despite it's remote location, and sleepy disposition, gastro-pilgrims such as myself have been flocking to Axpe in their droves for the last few years. Why? A humble, middle aged chef, who has absolutely no formal training, a home-made grill, and some seriously high-end ingredients. I can't believe I'm going to be late for my reservation at Asador Etxebarri – the greatest grill restaurant in the entire world!
Thirteen courses, one beer, three glasses of wine and two coffees later, and I'm feeling just a little more relaxed. Almost everything I've eaten today has induced a near orgasmic state of ecstacy, with some of the purest, most unadulterated, intense flavours I've ever laid upon my taste buds. I'm in a kind of zen-like plato of fullness, where both body and mind have surpassed all foreseen expectations of stimulation. I'll let you draw your own comparisons...
But as well as coming to eat, I've also come to speak to sous chef Lennox Hastie, about his and head chef Bittor Arguinzoniz's approach to cooking at Asador Etxebarri; namely their complete and un-compromised commitment to la brasa – the grill. Never have I come across a restaurant that pays such attention not only to the ingredients they use, but the means by which they heat them.
To say the menu at Asador Etxebarri is simplistic would be an under statement of epic proportions, like saying El Bulli is a touch extravagant, or Bittor does a decent barbeque. In fact up until recently, there wasn't even a menu at all; just a list of ingredients, or 'products', as Lennox terms them. You could either have them grilled, or not have them at all. As a concept, it's paired down to it's absolute bare bones, but that doesn't mean it's in any way austere. Quite the opposite, in fact. On my menu today was jamon iberico, oysters (which I had to pass up because I'm allergic – I got cockles instead), black truffle, beluga caviar, and some of the finest beef I've ever tasted. I reckon that's about as decadent a selection as you can get.
Bittor is a native Basque countryman who grew up in this very village. An ex-electrician who turned to cooking 20 years ago because he never found his passion in the series of odd jobs he was doing before then. Lennox is an Anglo-Australian who learned his trade in the top-tier French places like Le Manoir and Le Gavrouche, before coming to Spain about four years ago in search of new inspiration. Sitting in a San Sebastian bar one quiet afternoon, he heard about “some guy out in the hills with a home made grill” and has since never looked back.
On paper, the two of them couldn't be more different. But get them together and there seems to be an almost telepathic mutual understanding between them; the kind that could only be the result of a genuine respect for one another, and having spent the last 1300 days or so alone together in a very cramped kitchen. And as well as a respect for one another, they also share a deeply-rooted respect for their ingredients. In Lennox's own words, they spend their working lives “enhancing the food by doing a little as possible”.
We discuss the food of the region and the globally acclaimed, so called new-Basque movement that has put San Sebastian so firmly on the culinary map. Un-surprisingly, both of the chefs in front of me would choose comider casera - simple, home made food prepared with love, over the experimental, avante garde, multi-sensory experiences created by some of their contemporaries. “You don't need to do anything spectacular in the cooking if your ingredients are spectacular already”, says Lennox. My meal today has proved him right.
The only flavour that was added to any of the thirteen dishes I have eaten today have come from the burning wood on top of which they were cooked. Apart from salt, the only seasoning at Asador Etxebarri is smoke.
For two decades, Bittor has been honing and refining his methodology, trying different fuels and temperatures, and has now developed the art of grilling into a science all of his own. The range - which he conceived, designed and built with his own bare hands – along with a whole set of custom-made pots and pans, allow him to both manipulate the heat and regulate the cooking of each and every ingredient.
All the wood is first heated in the stoves to temperatures well beyond 400 degrees C, before being transferred to the grill using a shovel during service. Wood from local acorn-bearing oak trees is used as the base fuel, which burns consistently at a high heat, and gives off only a subtly perfumed smoke. Orange wood from the groves up the side of the hill are used to give citrus background to fish and seafood, whilst applewood is used for dishes like the caviar, where only the lightest of smokey notes is needed. Meat is cooked using aromatic olive and grape vines, to enhance their already strong flavours.
But this isn't about changing the flavours. You're not supposed to sit at the dinner table thinking “mmm, tastes like tempranillo branches”, jokes Lennox... It's about bringing out the flavours that are already there. The two chefs exchange a few words in Spanish, before Lennox turns to me to interpret. “He says it's about the taste of the animal, the earth, the sea.” Bittor curls his bottom lip and shrugs, as if to say what else could you possibly need?
Lennox and I lean at the bar, looking out onto the restaurant. “Bittor has grown up with this”, he says. “It's nothing new to him, just an evolution of the cooking he has known since he was a kid”. For twenty years, whilst the big names in the region have spent their culinary careers making dishes ever more complex, Bittor has been quietly experimenting with simplicity.
“This place isn't about nouvelle creations... It's about refinement of everything that's always been great about Basque cooking.” Pulling a clenched fist towards his chest, he breaks into Spanish: “La comida y el sentido!” The food and the feeling... At Asador Etxebarri, they have found the best of both.
[This is the second part of a previously published post about Asador Etxebarri – sorry for the delay]