Tucked away within the majesty of the Basque mountains is a small unassuming town called Atxondo. Several years ago, my brother and I found ourselves dining at the hands of its famed grill master, Victor Arguinzoniz, where a couple of hours at his helm left an impression on me that was both humbling and unparalleled. Since then, our travels and culinary experiences have been filled with exciting adventures to distant lands, but the memory of his perfection was never supplanted. More than two years after our initial visit, a return to Asador Etxebarri was long overdue.
Our arrival in Atxondo was marked by a feeling of déjà vu. It was as if I had never left, and one hundred years later, this place may still very much look and feel the same way as it does today. This underlining theme of relative preservation manifests itself into every aspect of Victor’s work, including the mechanisms behind his cooking and the ingredients he employs, creating a simple uniqueness at Etxebarri embodying so much of what this town is all about.
In a world where menus can change daily, there is a beauty in leaving many menu items unchanged. Reflected most notably through the Palamos prawns (the cover photo of this blog for a reason) which have been a staple on the menu for some time. The prawns were just as perfect as they were more than two years ago. Smoky, firm but bordering that fine line of cooked and raw with its head full of sweet buttery goodness. The beef chop too, the signature dish of Etxebarri, was just as lean and rare as I remembered it to be, and was enclosed by a very prominent salted crust which housed the succulent meet inside. Once again, I felt the same wonder at the lack of myoglobin usually released from this scarlet rare piece of meat, and tasting it was just as remarkable as it was on our first visit.
Even other items previously served in a certain capacity were still present in another form. The butter of goat’s milk for example was once accompanied by mushrooms and salt, but during our last visit was modified to be an accompaniment to the bread. It was a minor change to its presentation that immediately changed the dynamic of the tasting menu. But on its own however, it still felt like silk in my mouth. The anchovies on toast as well, which were once paired with vegetables and leaned towards the acidic notes, were more salty than sour but still as smooth as the butter that was spread onto the bread.
There is a simpleness to the cooking at Etxebarri, and a depth that comes along with it that is incomparable. Brought about by Victor’s history with the hearth, his dedication to the use of the grill and his ability to wield the smoke that comes from it. But I would be remiss not to mention his understated use of salt that is as vital to his cooking as the heat that comes from the coals of his kitchen. Half a slice of a tomato ostensibly bathed in its own juice and topped off with just the right touch of salt could not speak any louder to testify to this statement. The combination yielded a succulence intensified beyond normality that it seemed beautifully overripe in flavour, although the tomato itself was firm to the touch.
And it is these qualities that live even within the newer dishes of the menu. Such as the sea cucumber with beans or the mushrooms served with eggplant which not only showcased a contrast of varying textures, but also served as the perfect vessels for Victor’s light smoky flavour. But the absolute climax of this meal and the epitome of what Etxebarri is all about came from a bowl composed solely of heated egg yolk and pan-fried white truffles. Although rich and remarkable as their own entities, I was amazed at the dish’s restraint in both conception and execution. Two ingredients in its most honest form were heated ever so slightly to create a slight viscosity in the egg yolk and a relatively muted white truffle aroma and flavour to produce an unparalleled combination of delight in my mouth. There are no words or pictures that can do this dish justice. Even the next day, when we had a similar item at Eneko Atxa’s Azurmendi, it could not even compare.
With the sun beginning to set and the end of the meal approaching, we concluded this beast of an afternoon with a feat rarely accomplished – desserts more than living up to the mains. And although these were the exact desserts we had in our previous visit, it will never get old. A smoked goat’s milk ice cream with hints on tangy flavour from a red fruit infusion was followed by flan. Accompanied by a thin bottom of caramelized sugar, the flan was an airy and cheesy concoction of creaminess that seemingly transformed into liquid at the touch of my tongue. A fitting end to my greatest meal of 2013.
After the meal, I stood outside the plaza in front of Extebarri and found myself once again mesmerized by the brilliance of this restaurant and the perfection of the meal I just had. Though time and space had separated us for two and half years, even some things foreign to this town never change.
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