What truly makes a great restaurant and dining experience? How can a Chef take his restaurant to that exceptional level and really excite in people an experience to remember for years to come? To be precise, what is the IT factor when it comes to the creation of an exceptional place to eat? Is it even something you can pinpoint or articulate? Could it be having a distinct “sense of place” feel in the restaurant? I was asking myself these questions as I traveled Spain in my first months of the ICEX Introduction to Spanish Gastronomy program. We visited many restaurants, almost all of which were exceptional and they all were great experiences but to me there was one I visited that was on stood out from the crowd.
To introduce myself: I am a Canadian-born cook with a passion for adventure, authenticity, synergy and unbridled, shameless enjoyment, all of which I like to feel a sense of when preparing food … and eating it. Whether working throughout my home country–taking advantage of the diverse local goodies of French Quebec, Ontario’s Green Belt, west coast seafood mecca: Vancouver. Or whether I find myself cooking in Japan, Italy, Denmark or currently, Spain, I’m coming to appreciate the richness of drawing from and connecting to ‘a sense of place’.
What do I mean by a sense of place? Well to me a truly great restaurant starts with location. A restaurant whose chef does not dictate the menu but the location and season decide what he will cook. While many chefs choose a product or flavor grouping they want to feature in a plate some choose what is best at the moment to focus the plates. To quote my favourite American Chef David Kinch “All great restaurants have two things in common, one person’s vision — a passionate view — and a sense of place, a reflection of where they are.” Take for example the quality, integrity and the single-minded vision of Restaurant Noma, a leading edge restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark cooking strictly Nordic cuisine. You could not move this restaurant to another part of the world; it would no longer be what it is. The place–the location–is completely integral to the restaurant’s identity. To the experience it offers. To the distinction it’s carved out.
Now that you have the fundamental idea of what a sense of place is, I would like to share my experience of a road-trip to a small, off-the-beaten-path dining establishment in Basque Country just outside Bilbao. This restaurant is so woven into its rustic country village setting that we that simultaneously experienced history, culture, nature, and a highly intuited, personally evolved culinary artistry through just one outrageously delicious, all-encompassing feast… a place with a true sense of place.
In mid April I along with several of my co-workers at El Bohío decided to join a few other chefs and head to the small town of Axpe to visit Asador Etxebarri. We left Illescas (Toledo) at about 9am and had a five hour drive ahead of us. Five hours for lunch?? Yes I repeat a five hour drive… for lunch. I rode with Sergio Hernández a budding young Spanish Chef. Currently training under Chef Andoni L. Aduriz at Mugaritz Sergio is a young passionate cook that did his practice in El Celler de Can Roca. Both of these restaurants are rated in the top 5 in the world (2 and 3) so he was the perfect companion for me. On the way we talked about Chefs, food, products, places and cooking. The time flew by and before you knew it I noticed something was changing. We were no longer in Castile, we had entered Basque Country. Green, lush, fresh growth and a beautiful clean air led the way to Etxebarri. If you choose to visit Etxebarri get directions first or perhaps a GPS or you will get lost. Had it not been for my driver I surely would have missed my 2:30pm reservation. As we got closer to the restaurant I realized there was something different here. Something I had not seen in the rest of Spain. I do not know if it was rolling hills, the trees, the animals or the Basque style buildings but I really felt as if this was a new part of Spain for me (and with the help of ICEX I have seen most of Spain’s regions and traveled extensively).
We got to Etxebarri at about 2pm. Two more cooks from Mugaritz and two of my fellow co-workers from El Bohío were waiting for us. We approached the two story brick building that is directly in the center of the village square (there are at most 10 buildings here so it’s easy to find the center!).
Before I tell you about the food which I am sure you want to hear about I want to tell you about the style of cuisine. The Chefs name is Bittor Arginzoniz. He has no formal training just a passion for the best meat, freshest seafood and organically grown (picked daily) produce. Although I have never met him he does not seem to care about the worlds restaurant trends, latest equipment and technology but I can tell you… this man can cook! He produces his own charcoal out of different woods depending on the season and has created his own unique kitchen one which is made entirely for cooking “a la brasa”. A la brasa essentially means that all the food is cooked on wood coals. The chef cooks just about everything and never misses a service anything you can trust when you eat here he is cooking your food.
The dining room was very rustic but still pristine and had an incredible view of the mountains behind… at this point I already knew this would be one of the best meals of my life.
All of us being cooks and hungry after a five hour drive we went for the tasting menu. The menu is a great value compared to many other places and is 120 euro a person. The meal started out with house made bread and a starter of white anchovy on toast with olive oil. The quality of the fish impeccable while only a few bites I could have eaten a tray of them. The next course was house made butter on grilled sourdough. I have made my own cultured butter for years and after eating this I realized I had a lot of work to do. It was so light and gently smoked served with a local mushroom (from the mountains behind us) shaved on top, absolutely stunning.
Following the toast we were served gambas a la brasa. On the plate were two perfectly cooked fresh as if they were alive minutes ago (I am pretty sure they were) with nothing but a few flecks of salt. This was without a doubt the freshest best shrimps I have ever had and better than any BC spot prawns I have ever tasted. A true highlight of the meal was sucking out the heads of the still warm gambas a moment I will never forget. Next plate pepino del mar or sea cucumber. Served on fresh split peas the sea cucumber had a light smokiness of course from being cooked a la brasa. Perfect texture another hit. This dish really showcased the chefs ability. They were so delicately smokey that it did not take anything away from the pristine flavor of the sea. Shortly after they cleared our plates another stunning plate arrived. Perfectly aligned pulpitos or baby octopus served on a bed of caramelized onions with squid ink. Bite for bite I was trying to savor every moment this was the first time I have eaten these and really enjoyed them. Everyone at the table was stunned at how excellent the food was thus far.
Moving on from seafood for a moment the waitress (also the chefs wife who runs the front of house) brought out our next plate and announced yema or egg yolk a la brasa with the same mushroom we had with our smoked butter again picked this morning from the mountains behind us. She told us the mushrooms had been exceptionally good at this time due to the weather and let me tell you they were. I think this should be served in bars with a beer and a hockey game it could not get better. We ate this one fast and before you knew it txistorra a la brasa with polenta arrived. The txistorra we were told was made from four cuts of pork and seasonings no nitrates just the freshest best txistorra I have had (don’t tell my friends in Pamplona where txistorra originates).
Moving back to seafood our next plate was divided amongst the table. Half of us opted for cod and the other half grouper a la brasa. The cod was perfectly cooked and served with piquillo pepper, a cream of cod sauce and spinach a la brasa, stunning bite for bite. The grouper came with spring vegetables and again was cooked perfectly. Both were excellent. Next came the star of the show… chuleta a la brasa. Made from 8-10 year old Galician cows that are hand selected by the chef. Also of note the chef cuts the steaks to order. Nothing cut before service, no vacuum sealing, no saran wrap pure a la minute cooking. At this point everyone at the table was going crazy. My new friends and I seemed to have started a boys eating and drinking club. You could hear everyone’s roar as the chuleta landed on the table.
Before we indulged in the sweets we all needed to go outside and undo our belts. A moment to breath and then on to the pastries…
The first was a cheese ice cream with a red fruit sauce. A good start not too heavy and just enough sweetness to cut the richness we had in the chuleta for our previous course. Next up a trio of desserts a smoked milk ice cream, torrijas and the third sadly I just cannot remember. It may be because the torrijas were so good or that the ice cream was revolutionary… nothing like any ice cream I have ever tasted. Somebody call Ben and Jerry’s I have a new flavor profile for them!
We were all stuffed and ready for a nap when a flan de queso (cheese caramel custard) was brought to our table. This was great. We discussed the potential recipe but I think this is another example of a dish where the product is star. Other cheeses just would not cut it… the yellow colour from the farm fresh eggs and the sharp cheese flavor just cannot be reproduced with grocery store products.
After we finished eating we went outside for a gin and tonic. This is when I had the quintessential “you are in Basque Country” moment. A farmer with his herd of oveja (sheep) floated past us right in the main street of Axpe. This is something reaffirming my sense of place thoughts. You just cannot get this anywhere else. I have never in my life seen this happen at any restaurant. You truly know where you are when you eat at Etxebarri.
In closing I want to tell you (if you have not already figured it out) that this is a special place. The Michelin guide describes a three star restaurant as a place “worth a special journey” well I can assure you that this restaurant (currently holding 1 star) is worth a special journey. All 6 of us had just had the lunch of our lives. The journey, the location, the food… exceptional!
Many thanks to Chef Bittor, his wife and all of the staff at Etxebarri for the meal of a lifetime.