I thought I had an idea of what I was getting myself into when I made a reservation at a restaurant called Ibai in San Sebastián. No menu. No prices. No English. No problem. I was born ready for this. But when I decided to read a little more into others’ experiences a day before our reservation, I psyched myself out. My mind was suddenly full of uncertainty: Was I ready for the eccentric chef and owner? Would he allow me to sit down and eat? How do I order without a menu? What is dover sole in Castilian? How much would I have to pay? How much cash should I bring? All of a sudden my courage disappeared. I began to get nervous. My stomach churned, and sleep was a luxury I did not have that evening.
When we arrived at the restaurant the next day, it was not yet open, and those next few minutes spent in the bar of Ibai felt like hours. Even a couple of glasses of Txomin Etxaniz could not quell my yearning for the comforts of the familiar. But sometime during those prolonged moments of agony, the man behind the bar began to talk to me. And as he attempted to open a bottle of txakoli he jokingly exasperated, “I’m a cook, not a server!!!” As I translated for my brother, it dawned on us both that this may be the eccentric chef and owner we heard so much about. But why would he be behind the bar serving patrons when restaurant service starts in five minutes? It definitely could not be him.
But when we finally sat as the lone diners of the restaurant that afternoon, in came that same man to explain what they had for the day. His name is Alicio Garro and turned out to be the chef and proprietor of the restaurant. Eccentric is not a word I would use to describe him. Instead I would say he was anything but. He was warm and comforting, and perhaps to a certain extent misunderstood.
As our conversation ended and he left to go to the kitchen, our orders were taken and four pieces of chorizo were promptly served. It’s not about the aesthetics here at Ibai, it’s simply about bringing out the most from a dish through traditional Basque cooking. The chorizos were a wonderful introduction to that. Arbitrarily placed on a single white plate, they were soft, smooth, tender, warm all the way through and had a kick of spice right at the end. I’ve eaten a lot of chorizo growing up and this may very well be one of the most satisfying ones I have ever had.
Then came the pochas, a Spanish white bean which Alicio made a point of telling me were freshly picked nearby (emphasizing nearby by pointing). Feeling my enthusiasm, the server wrote it down even before I told her I wanted it. And it more than lived up to my enthusiasm. Served in a vegetable broth with pieces of tomatoes, celery and carrots, the pochas were extremely creamy, soft and mushy. They required no effort to bite into. But in spite of that, they nicely held its form and against the lightness of the broth, it was heavenly.
A bowl of massive hongos (mushrooms) followed. Cooked solely with olive oil, I would never be able to fathom the simplicity yet meatiness of this dish if I had not tasted it myself. The pure earthiness of the mushrooms really shined through each piece and the softness of the cap and density of the stem provided a variety of textures.
The arroz caldo con almejas (rice soup with clams) that proceeded really hit home for me. Not only does my mother cook a similar dish on a consistent basis, but with the brininess of the sea permeating through each fat piece of short grain rice, I began to wonder whether I was in a basement restaurant or the depths of the Cantabrian Sea. I could have easily been in the latter as the dish had such profound ocean flavour.
Continuing on into the depths of the sea and a staple in the Basque Country are kokotxas de merluza (hake cheeks). With hake’s prevalence in this region, it was never a surprise to me that its cheeks were as celebrated as they were. At Ibai, this celebration translated to three preparations: sautéed, battered and fried, and served with a traditional pil-pil sauce. The sautéed version was its simplest form but also my favourite. With some salt and olive oil, the essence of the kokotxas through its meaty centre and gelatinous outer consistency really shined through. Although the battered and fried version was predominant eggy in flavour, the creamy texture of the kokotxas still remained. Lastly and usually served with bacalao (salted cod), the pil-pil sauce is another traditional Basque staple. It is created using garlic, olive oil, the fish, and a constant back and forth motion which emulsifies the oil in the fish’s natural collagen. This comparatively richer complement to the meaty and gelatinous kokotxas produced Sonny’s favourite preparation.
In keeping with seafood doused in their natural sauce was our final plate of the afternoon, chipirones en su tinta (squid in its ink). Visually, all I could see was a contrast of the pitch black squid ink against the white plate. Although monochrome in appearance, it tasted anything but. And as we cut through the perfectly tender and smooth piece of squid, we found its head to be stuffed with its own sweet meat. Even the thick ink that clung to the protein like they were never meant to be apart was a subtly sweet squid flavour. Overall it was a squid dish of unbeatable freshness and absolute natural taste.
Contemplating on this meal brought me through the pureness of the land to the pristine and untainted sea, and I was reminded of the region that I have grown to respect and admire. It is Alicio Garro’s dedication to Basque traditions and a staunch unwillingness to be influenced by external factors that allow him to bring out the flavour of the region’s natural bounty like no one else. A true rarity in this ever-changing world yielding one of the mot inspiring meals I have ever had.
To view pictures of our meal in its entirety, click through the photo set below. If you are using a mobile device, please click here for compatibility.
Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny