A couple of months back I had lunch at Asador Etxebarri, infamous for the best grilled meats in all of Basque Country, boasting one Michelin Star and the number 44 spot on Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Quite a drive from where I am staying here in Basque Country, we pulled into the small town of Axpe. Down the road towards the restaurant was the most amazing backdrop of mountains, hills, sheep, and gorgeous homes. The mountains were so close and enormous it felt almost as if you were face to face with a large painting. It didn’t seem real.
We were a bit early for our reservation which gave us just enough time to snap a ton of photos of the landscape and of course the sheep. The town was still and peaceful. I’m sure the gloomy weather had something to do with it, but it felt very mystical.
The restaurant blended right in as it looks like just another gorgeous country home. Although it was a bit chilly, we chose to sit out on the terrace. Frankly, I don’t think there is any other way to do it at this place. The terrace is lovely. Open on all sides with wispy moss hanging from the translucent ceiling, it offers a tremendous view of the mountains and hills dotted with sheep and horses. Cold glass of cava in hand, we cheered to what would be an amazing meal.
Our first course started off with a refreshing carrot juice cleanser. Then, to warm things up came the Iberico chorizo plate (need I say more?), creamy and tangy buffalo mozzarella (made by a man in town who just so happens to own a buffalo), silky smooth goats butter sprinkled with black salt, salty anchovies on toast, and of course bread to help bring it all together.
The second course was Goose Barnacles from Galicia. These things were huge! I had never seen or tasted barnacles until I came to Basque Country and had tried them only one other time prior to this experience, although much smaller ones, at Restaurante Elkano in Getaria.
To eat them, you have to first remove the leathery outer skin (with your teeth or by hand) to get to the succulent, slightly chewy meat. Their flavor can be described in one word: sea. The only downside to eating them is that in removing the skin they tend to squirt. Our lovely waitress also made a point to warn us about the squirting, but after our Elkano experience, we were confident that we could handle it. Little did we know! Poor Cliff sure learned his lesson.
Our third course, my absolute favorite of the entire meal, Gambas de Palamós. Two beautiful, bright red, head-on shrimp, cooked to absolute perfection. Just barely cooked, they melted in your mouth. Not to mention all that deliciousness in the heads. I don’t think they put anything on them but some salt, maybe a bit of olive oil, and a minute or two on the grill for that infamous Etxebarri smoke. Easily the best shrimp I’ve ever had in my life.
Fourth course was a first for me, grilled sea cucumber on baby fava beans. It had an interesting texture. It was nothing out of this world but very tasty. Fifth course we had baby octopus which were absolutely adorable. You almost don’t want to eat them! They were perfectly tender and the caramelized onion and ink sauces were a delicious accompaniment.
Sixth course was a Chorizo tartar, which wasn’t actually chorizo because it was raw, but was basically a meat tartar that tasted exactly like Chorizo, on a crispy base. It was a little odd because your brain is thinking chorizo, but the mouthfeel is nothing like it. Not bad, but not my favorite. Our next course was a play on a mushroom omlette. It was straight up raw, warmed egg yolks with shaved black truffles. Decadence at its best. After that we had a much lighter dish of mushrooms, Hygrophorus Marzuolus to be exact, in a clean and light mushroom broth. Simple and straightforward.
Our ninth course was a Red Sea Bream that was deboned table-side and served with a colorful side of vegetables. The fish came in an emulsified olive oil sauce with a touch of garlic and the veggies were also nicely done.
And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for! The tenth and final savory course and the Etxebarri crowned jewel, Chuleta de vaca Gallega. It’s nothing more than exceptional meat, cooked over their special blend of wood charcoals, and finished with sea salt. Cooked to rare, with just the right amount of smoke and char, super grassy, I mean what more can you ask for?
Our desserts included a blood orange sorbet, tostada de crema which is like a fried bread custard, Reduced milk ice cream with red fruit coulis, and finally a financier. The ice cream was my favorite. It had such an intense milk flavor.
I had such a great experience at Etxebarri, the meal, the atmosphere, the town, the whole package. I really admire what they are doing there. Every dish is deceptively simple, with a focus on seasonality, taking an already amazing product and making it shine. They’ve managed to take something as primal as cooking a piece of protein over an open fire to the next level. They are extremely thoughtful in creating the right blend of charcoal, choosing the right type of wood for the product being grilled. It’s that subtle smokey, grilled flavor that sets Etxebarri apart.