I doubted The World’s 50 Best Restaurants genuineness, the idea of a top restaurant in the middle of the Basque countryside (Atxondo, Spain) initially seemed chary. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, is a famous list known for its sponsorship by San Pellegrino, historic exclusion of top female chefs, and for not requiring judges to pay for their meals. But I couldn’t have been more wrong, and if you can get a reservation at Etxebarri don’t think twice, it is more than worthy of the wait.
Until I made a trip to Etxebarri and met Victor Arguinzoniz I would never have believed it was real. He is very impressive, and the food there is sublime; sea, fire, and earth are unique all over the globe, he says when I ask him about his cooking, “primitive” and he means it. A humble man who is very skillful, focused on sensational quality, his flavors are intense and his technique impeccable. I was fortunate enough to meet Victor several times in his kitchen, he is unstoppable despite having a hip replacement, his smile says it all, if there is one word to describe him, I guess it’s his intense passion. His disciplined approach, his hard work has paid off, and he has accomplished what he deserves and much more. What I liked about Victor is, his food speaks for itself, his approach to food is all about limited interference in cooking, a theme here I believe is well proven.
Xabier from Casa Nicolas told me Victor’s food is great, he described the fundamental difference between what he does and what they do, and he said no one cooks like Victor. Any chef should tear a page from his book, especially those Michelin chefs trying to outdo themselves with a fatal gastronomical fantasy of over-complication. When you eat at Victor’s you begin to understand the meaning of the world’s finest raw materials, simplicity, vibrant colors, and the intensity and the importance of a culinary journey without any pretention.
The kitchen is small and well organized, a series of grills lined up, his fire area is exclusively his territory, and no one dares to grill. Carlos the sommelier told me his boss (Victor) is there before he arrives and stays until everyone leaves, a chef dedicated to his way of life, he does not compromise on what he believes in. And I am told if Victor is sick the restaurant closes, and when he traveled to Singapore for the ceremony of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, it was for one day only.
Like many Basque chefs, he cooks with charcoal or small wood, and Victor makes his own charcoal by taking huge logs and burning them for hours in his kiln styled ovens (600°C) until he has small coals, a process continually stoked to keep it going.
Victor is not new to cooking, he has been doing this for decades and together with other Basque colleagues, and you quickly realize the meaning of salt, and “salt Bae” is nothing more than a sensational copycat. The salt here salt is true to their habitat the Atlantic ocean and the treasures off the coast of Spain and the bay. This is not as simple as it looks, and careful selection and attention to detail, his process is key to his survival.
Victor and his wife Martha are both top-level professionals, meticulous is the best word to describe their actions, and they run a serious ship with the help of Mohamed, who is simply genius. He is the head sommelier, wine buyer and much more. If you meet him, it is easy to see why he works there, why he enjoys it, he has a qualified sensitivity and experience that says it all.
The setting is magnificent, a large picturesque peak, the sounds of children could be heard, there was a small fiesta in the village, it is the full moon, and the activities were ending and the light was nearing to the day’s end. It couldn’t make me think about the foothills of Mt. Anboto, the legend of Mari the Lady of Anboto and her cave; on days of good weather she was seen combing her pretty blond hair with a comb of gold in the sunshine. It is not rare either to see her spend nights as a great ball of fire in the sky above Anboto or toward other places of the Basque Country where she possesses dwellings like the nearby. (source internet)
In any restaurant, you need to watch for telltale signs of significant quality and here there are many. The aperitif on the terrace was magical as we watched the sun go down and we were seated at our table inside their elegant-chic countryside rustic farmhouse. The room seats up to 40 but it isn’t filled to the brim, every table is occupied by a variety of guests from all over the globe. There are plenty of Spanish, some Japanese, Australians, and Swiss and everyone looked intensely focused.
The first dish is chanterelle with egg, and I was floored. It reminded me of Troia in Florence, a simple restaurant with an egg omelet, a signature dish: https://mesubim.com/2018/06/10/tortino-di-carciofi-sostanza/
This is made with lower temperatures on the grill and a slow stewing, stirring of the egg until is has the density and viscosity needed, then it is ready – I loved this dish, it is incredible.
The dinner started right and we waited for our other courses, eggplant, and boletus mushrooms.
The shrimps were so mighty fresh and cooked perfectly, and now imagine if you eat large shrimp anywhere else 99% is frozen. I couldn’t imagine the crispness of the outer shell, rose colors and umami flavors, you cannot find this quality easily, and here fresh means super high quality, and you realize immediately the chef’s focus is in using nothing but the very best possible.
But then the lobster was served and it blew our minds. I have been eating lobster for 40 years and my wife calls me a kitty-cat, I eat the shell, and whatever else is edible. This time the roe and the coral and you cannot get better. These raw materials can make you cry, the cooking was perfect and when it comes to lobster if you cook it wrong, it becomes a disaster instantly.
The flavor of the lobster caught us by surprise, and our son who is one of the pickiest eaters, used to Japanese standards, couldn’t stop. This was one of the most memorable lobsters we have ever had, it cannot get better.
The next course was the beef, a 1.6kg steak cooked over the flaming charcoal it was one of the best steaks we have ever tasted outside Japan. The beef is raw and so very tender, the fat fascinated my son and we both knawed at the beef and bone. But what changed my opinion about beef, in general, is the fact that in Spain cows used for beef are often more than 10 years old. Milk cows as Mohamed explains are well taken care of by farmers until they are laid to rest. This is the meaning of how it should be done, and in most countries, beef is slaughtered too young.
The food is simply incredible, unpretentious, to the point, and accompanied by a passionate sommelier, a great wine list we seriously enjoyed the opportunity of tasting a Valentini 2004. This is one of the best examples of aging white wine from Italy, it doesn’t get better when it comes to food pairing.
But we couldn’t resist trying a 2016 Richebourg, a baby, intense-dense fruit, we tried it to see the quality of the vintage something we always do in order to access our buying. And if you go to Asador Etxebarri, which translates as a new house, make sure to take a driver, or drive slowly and drink very little. I sipped my wine and paced myself, and we decided to take the DRC home to our hotel an hour away. I couldn’t resist writing this posting sipping 2016, it had opened up and showed its true potential, thanks to my wife, who also carries a Zalto glasses with her at all times, she is the world’s greatest sommelier.
What can you say about a restaurant experience like this, finishing with world class dolce, it s proof how things work here. The quality doesn’t stop, Victor and his team are all focused on quality from the start until the finish, and when you take your spoon and taste the perfection of the chocolate souffle, it all becomes so obvious – Jesus it was incredible.
If this restaurant isn’t the World’s 50 Best Restaurants number one choice next year, it should be! /Bravo-Bravo/
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