By day four of my trip I had already eaten one of the all time greatest meals of my entire life. The place was Asador Etxebarri, which simply means 'new house restaurant', and the food almost universally comes a la brasa, from the grill.
This was no chance visit, however. The virtues of Asador Etxebarri have been extolled by everyone from global taste makers, such as Time Magazine and OFM, to the lowliest of amateur food bloggers - not least me! In fact, I had heard and read so many incredible things about this restaurant, that it alone played a big part in me choosing the Basque Country as the starting point for my travels.
Having arranged to discuss the principles and approach of Asador Etxebarri with sous chef Lennox Hastie (head Chef Bittor Arguinzoniz doesn't like interviews, and doesn't speak English anyway), after I'd eaten, I was lucky enough to be given an insightful and in depth tour of the place, including the wood store, filtration tanks, where live fish are kept, the prep kitchen, and of course, la brasa.
The full feature will follow in part two of this post, but for now, it's time for the food. I had intended to be brief in my descriptions, but it appears that gastro-hyperbole has since got the better of me. It's obviously my sub-conscious forcing me to relive this meal in full. And what a meal it was...
A second appetiser of jamon iberico. The sliver of toast underneath the jamon crisp from the grill and just warm enough to release the sweet, nutty flavours of the fat. This dish thankfully keeps my tally of jamon per day at 100%.
Bonbón de mantequilla casera. Smoked handmade butter, truffle shavings, and little bread crumb 'snow flakes'. The butter itself is unsalted, although the dish is seasoned with crushed sea salt and, believe it or not, ash. The butter has a deeply smoky flavour which seems to intensify as it moves from the front to the back of your mouth. It's rich, indulgent, and utterly divine. So good, in fact, I ordered seconds.
Gambas de Palamós a la brasa. A single prawn, perfectly grilled. A pinch of salt. And that's it. These prawns actually come form a little fishing village on the East coast of Spain, where they're fished from a shelf so deep, that when the pots are brought up, the change in pressure causes the prawn's brains and wot-not (I'm not being very technical, here, I realise) to instantly implode. For the prawn, it's a tough way to go, but the result for the lucky diner, is much more pleasurable. When you pull it's head off, you are met by splurge of sea green prawn juice that taste so good you just have to slurp it all up. I found myself sucking on it's legs, tail, antenna and eye balls just to make sure I didn't miss a single drop. The plump, firm meat beneath the shell is also just about as good as you're going to get.
Iranian Beluga caviar, again, a la brasa. Now, apparently, it's a heaneous crime against gastronomy to even think about warming caviar, let alone putting it on top of a grill. In actual fact, Bittor and Lennox experimented with this dish for months before finding a suitable method of cooking... A mesh-based pan is lined with seaweed, then laid over smouldering nuggets of applewood, and covered. The caviar steams and smokes for just long enough to get it up to blood temperature. The feeling of tiny warm fish eggs popping in your mouth really is something special.
Yema de huevo a la brasa con trufa negra. Slices of black Perigord truffle, which had an almost overwhelming 'woodland' flavour, until you mixed them with the grilled egg which lay underneath. To complete this earthy dish, at the base there was a spoonful of potato puree, sitting in it's own stock. As the yolk ran down into the juices, everything suddenly came together. Never has potato water tasted so good.
Bacalao a la brasa. In my limited experience, I have so far been distinctly underwhelmed by salt cod. This dish, however, certainly raised the bar. Despite having been grilled, the fish was moist and juicy, and the flesh was somehow still translucent. On it's own, it was easily the best salt cod I've ever tasted (I don't claim to have tasted much), but when eaten with the butter sauce, and a slice of the smoked pimiento pepper, it made for a faultlessly balanced combination.
Chistorra a la brasa. This time of year is chorizo-making time, and the beginnings of the batch, where the smallest part of the lower intestine is used as the casing is, in these parts, known as the chistorra. Often, chorizo is made using a mix of offcuts and fat from any old porker that's to hand, before being seasoned with paprika. There's nothing wrong with this, although at Asador Etxebarri, where they make their own chorizo, they do things slightly differently. Instead of using lean meat and adding fat, they choose cuts which are fatty already. The cut in question is the cachucha - or the head - from none other than the famed Iberian black pig. Now that's my kind of chorizo... Instead of using paprika powder, they also dry their own pimiento peppers when they have an abundance in summer, before re-soaking them in winter and using the flesh to give a far more subtle pepper flavour. It's served somewhere between raw and very, very rare, with a couple of tiny bread sticks, and guess what? It tasted completely amazing.
Chuleta de vaca a la brasa. The finest Galician Blonde beef steak, hung for at least four weeks, trimmed of most of the fat, grilled until charred on the outside, yet rare-as-you-like deep, dark red on the inside, served on the bone, with nothing more than a bit of rock salt as a garnish. The thing that sets the Galician Blonde meat apart from a lot of the meat we're used to is it's age. The cattle are bred for working the fields, and that's exactly what they do for at least the first eight years of their lives. After that, they go into retirement, and spend the next six years or more living the easy life, getting fattened up ready for their eventual fate on the dinner table. In the UK, cows for eating are sent to slaughter at around three years, if they're lucky. In North America, they're a lot younger. The Galician way means the cow gets a good life, the farmer gets his field ploughed, and we get a steak that's got the perfect combination of strong flavours from the work out, and marbling from the leisure time. In researching my visit to Asador Etxebarri, I read an awful lot about this steak, and expected very big things. I can honestly say it was without doubt, by far and away, no word of a lie, the most incredible piece of meat I've ever sunk my jaws into. Out of this world.
Infusión de fruitos silvestres con helado de queso. The sweetness of the wild fruits, less a puree, and more a syrup, just on the softer side of tart. Creamy, almost sour cheese ice cream, gradually fusing with the wild fruit flavours as it melted. Clean and lip-smackingly fresh. There could not be a better dish to follow that steak... I'm running out of superlatives here, but with this, I think they found perfection.
Torrija con helado de leche reducida. If the meal hasn't done so already, this dish confirms Bittor's status as a genius. The torrija is a Basque speciality – a kind of warm custard cake – brilliantly executed, but in my book it could only play a supporting role to it's accompaniment on the plate - a singular quinnell of smoked milk ice cream. The deep, rich, intensely smoky flavour literally blew my taste buds. “Unreal” I muttered to myself as I came to, having been in a daze since the first mouthful.