Spain has strongly influenced the global ‘fine’ food scene, and its restaurants continue to attract the attention of an international crowd. The secret to this success is the mastery and understanding of the idea that “less is more”. This phase has been repeating itself throughout demonstrations and conversations I have had with some of Spain’s best chefs. Yet, it was not until this past weekend that I experienced the full potential of this concept.
I took the winding road through the mountains outside Bilbao to the small, remote village of San Juan, where I ate at Asador Etxebarri on the town’s square. Here, I experienced something that was pure, simple, and incredibly delicious, prepared by a chef who doesn’t bother with the headache of an ever-changing dinning crowd.
Bittor Arguinzoniz (Victor) has created his own, unique craft of la brasa, or the grill. Putting American barbecue masters to shame, Bittor’s secret comes naturally from time and his surroundings. Modifying his grilling tools and sourcing only seasonal, fresh ingredients, he grills using local, oak wood. Its clean flavor allows these amazing products to shine.
The location enhances the experience. The restaurant is very remote, creating a sense of adventure and a feeling of excitement and anticipation that builds when making the journey. The dining room windows look out onto the village square, with the peak of Mount Anboto (Vizcaya) in the background.
Everything comes together to reflect this feeling of beauty within simplicity. Relaxed and comfortably enjoying a glass of wine, the first few light courses arrive quickly: a few slices of house-cured chorizo with a shot of pure carrot juice; smoked goat’s butter with a large chunk of bread; an anchovy spread open.
When things slow down, a tin filled with small mussels and seasoned with pimenton (paprika) arrives on a red plate.
A smoked oyster with the texture of soft butter melts in my mouth, washed down with a seaweed broth.
I dirty my fingers ripping the heads off two red prawns and sucking their brains out before indulging in their sweet flesh.
My favorite dish is next: a row of three baby squids served on a bed of caramelized onions with a sauce made from the ink. Their meat is so tender that it is hard not to engulf the plate in one bite.
Tuna barley cooked and served with tomatoes and fresh oregano. A charred strip of sliced loin steak for two, with a crisp salad on the side. Everything was so delicious, but for me it was the desserts that truly demonstrated the chef’s skill! Cooked over the coals they had a light, smokey flavor that was amazing!
An unforgettable experience that taught me something as both a chef and an eater!
Text: Miles Pundsack-Poe, participant in 2012 ICEX Young Chefs Culinary Scholarship in Spain.
Photos: Miles Pundasack-Poe, ICEX.
Restaurants: Echaurren (Ezcaray, La Rioja), from March 14 – June 14 and Nerua (Bilbao), from June 14 – September 14.