This simple asador in a restored farmhouse in Axpe, a tiny village tucked into a velvety green valley in the Cantabrian mountains near Bilbao, embodies everything I love about food.
The menu is just a list of ingredients: most local, some rare, all sourced to be the most exquisite examples of their kind.
All the cooking is done over a live fire. In fact, there are no stoves in the small, austere kitchen next to a woodshed filled with oak. Logs are tossed into a wall-sized brick oven to form coals, which are transferred, in varying stages of carbonization, to a bank of stainless steel grills on pulleys. Chef/owner Victor Arguinzoniz plays his grill with the precision and subtlety of a Maurizio Pollini, though in Etxebarri’s case, the keys shift because the coals are constantly changing.
This sad-eyed, long faced, gray haired master of the grill understands fire in an intuitive, tactile, experiential way. He knows the backstory of every log and every coal. He conjurs smoke with grapevine cuttings and aromatic kindling to create nuance. The result is cooking of such sensitivity and surprise, it makes the act of eating new again.
On a May visit, the 120 euro ($150) tasting menu ( you can also order a la carte) began with the world’s best anchovy, its silvery skin seemingly swimming on a rectangle of rippling glass. The white filet was so delicately cured with vinegar and invisible celery, parsley and red chile, you sensed it could have been alive five minutes before it landed on the plate.
Vibrancy, alive-ness and brightness transform familiar foods. Moist, sweet chorizo, in skinless oval slices, melted on our tongues. Pillowy mozzarella, licked by smoke and dotted with ash, exalted the essence of milk on the verge of fermentation.
We lifted off its top shell to find a warm oyster nestled on an opalescent floor with a few strands of seaweed and a dab of foamy oyster liquor, as if a receding wave had just left a pouf of it on the sand. The smokiness captured inside was as evocative as the remains of a driftwood fire.
Palamos prawns, from eastern Costa Brava on the Mediterranean, happen to be some of sweetest shrimp in the world. Cooked by the wizard here, their bright red, thin shells, lusciously crunchy spindly legs, and unctuous head meat, were all equally devour-able. The sheerest veil of butter, a few grains of rock salt and a whisper of smoke set off the juicy flesh.
Etxebarri quickly grills espardeñas, the abalone-like interior sheath or adductor muscle of sea cucumber from Catalunya, a toothsome layer that picks up tasty smoke–a revelation for those of us who have only had the dried, reconstituted, gelatinous Cantonese preparations. Somehow, this part of the sea cucumber and and tiny peeled favas were meant for each other.
Tender baby octopus, the whole animal the size of a thumbnail, formed a regimental line along a thin white ceramic saucer with a crease that catches their heady olive oil enriched ink.
Shaved raw local mushrooms called sisa released an almond fragrance reminiscent of the prized Japanese matsutake or pine mushroom, here captured by custardy scrambled eggs. Anyone who has shucked nascent peas knows they deserve to be their own course, as they were here. A few crunchy spoonfuls hinted at melted serrano ham fat.
Big portions at Etxebarri come at the end. A whole, red skinned sea bream for the table, steamed over the fire, draped with pan juice-emulsified olive oil, slices of gently browned garlic and grains of sea salt, was so voluptuous and satiny, we ate every edible part, including the eye balls.
So by the time the traditional Etxebarri last course hit the table, a thick beef chop with a refreshing iceberg salad on the side, no one was famished. But we had forgotten how extraordinary this steak is, bathed in lubricious fat yet with the chewiness and vividness of grass fed meat. Charred on the outside, purple and warm in, the thinly sliced beef exploded with flavor. We were eating the loin of a Galician dairy cow that had lived on pasture for fourteen years. When it stop producing, the animal was finished on grain for three months and after slaughter, its meat aged for three weeks. What an ecological use of domestic animals!
To end: reduced milk vanilla ice cream with smoked raspberry puree; and a second dessert of fir-scented ice cream with poached strawberries, both divine.
Two fast moving women handled the sparely furnished second floor dining room with windows that look out onto greenery and the mountains. Downstairs in the bar, locals drop in for a beer, and kids for an ice cream cone. If I lived in this village, you‘d find me there. My pre-lunch cafe con leche was the best coffee I had during a month in France and Spain.
Such simplicity; such rigor. There was no pretension. The cooking is all about texture, that most powerful–and elusive–quality behind the best eating, just as scale informs the best art. Arguinzoniz has been working on his vision for 22 years and I can attest that he has achieved greatness, at least during the last two. No meal could have been more honest. No meal could have given more pleasure.