In the 13th century, the Basques were the main agents behind the oceanic expansion and the small town of Getaria is known for being the hometown of Juan Sebastián Elkano, a seaman well-known for being the first man to circumnavigate the earth. He was captain of the Nao Victoria, the one ship in Magellan’s ill-fated fleet which completed the voyage.
It is here along the shores of Getaria on the Bay of Biscay, there is a small Asador (grill) where char-grilling a turbot on a grill is done masterfully. It’s here at Elkano Pedro Arregui changed the status quo, and instead of baking prized Atlantic turbot in sauce or in the oven, he grilled them over the basic grill commonly called Asador.
But Turbot in Getaria isn’t something new, many people speak about it, and there are several references in the same port town. One in particular named Kaipe is just around the corner, another well-known fish restaurant grilling turbot on the open grill. We tried Kaipe, and the atmosphere and approach are not the same. In Elkano all orders are taken by Aitor who knows more about the sea than anyone we’ve ever met working in a restaurant.
Things have been done the same way since the 1960s and today Elkano is run by Pedro’s son Aitor and his Mom both who are both still effortlessly dedicated to respecting mother nature and having clients feel satisfied.
This story reminds me of master Sen no Rikyū who changed the way of tea, he was the first to emphasize the importance of rustic simplicity, the directness of approach, and honesty of oneself. This helps describe the Elkano way of life, honesty first, the importance of the fishermen, clients, and their utmost respect for sea terroir. Aitor is one of the most unpretentious restauranteurs I’ve met, he shows his pride by his products, offering the best possible experience for his clients. Aitor has been well educated about his ocean and the micro-climates, the ocean’s effect is lessened here and you find higher temperatures and less rainfall.
What surprised me more than anything in the Basque region are the owners and chef’s attitude about the raw materials as they are fanatical about details. I couldn’t help thinking about how strong a sense of culture they have, and the diversity of foods, pickled, preserved, smoked, etc. They have a wealth of raw materials and not only in the sea but on the shore as well. I have a deep sense of respect for the Basque, all what they do shows how strong they are in respecting their culture and tradition – and they stick to what they know best without any pretention.
When I stand in front of the Asador, I couldn’t help thinking about Yakitori when the chef stands over a fiercely hot charcoal grill moving with his fingers the Kushi.
That kind of chef takes it from the start to the finish and he knows inside out his product and feels it with his eyes. Here too I saw the same smoke and fire and heat. Elkano does what they do in the best possible way, they do not pretend at all, they simply bring the best possible fish and cook it over glowing embers. It takes no time to respect the passion for Elkano’s tradition and their devotion to serving and educating clients. When you step into Elkano, you feel the magic, the enthusiasm for the local fishermen and respect for his work. Aitor speaks about ocean terroir and he means it, there is no show here, you eat fish which is untouched and comes straight from the boat to the restaurant. He decided to grill the whole fish baking fish, the fishermen’s way, a technique now readily adapted to the wonders of the sea.
I watch in awe, and I ask myself how can a fish be cooked this way and still be so perfectly cooked. I guess they have over the years figured out the distance from the fire, their sweet spot where you have even heat transfer, and the gelatinous skin of the turbot acts like a shell keeping all the juices from running out.
One of those restaurants you cannot find anywhere else, here they are very serious about what they do and this is the fundamental difference between here and most other places. Making money is not a good enough reason to own Elkano, it is a temple of Basque seafood culture.
The lobster here is incredible and definitely very different from the lobster I had eaten. Maybe because it’s the first time I understood the concept of sea terroir as Aitor describes two types of grouper, or shows his lobsters, the males who are scrapping with their feet the bottom of the rocky bottom and the females who are tender and wider with larger swimming fins.
Aitor takes us to the basement where they have large tanks of lobsters all ready selected, divided between males and females. He shows us meticulously about the various details, and we choose our lobster. The eggs are crunchy and salty and these are eggs on the exterior, eggs are inside and outside on the lobster.
It is the first time I am served lobster caviar, and the lobster is succulent, cooked perfectly over the grill, a test of expert eyes and many years of experience with fire and fish. In a matter of seconds, overcooking destroys the body making it gummy, but here lobster is godly. It looks undercooked but in fact, it is just right, the meat is tender and Elkano uses a light oil and vinegar “secret” sauce which gives it a rich contrast to the umami taste.
The experience at Elkano is second to none, I could tell from the minute we walked into the restaurant it is our type of place, the idea of fresh fish starts here, little interference and maximum. consideration for mother nature, the sea, and Basque culture. The charm of Aitor, his mom who works endlessly with intense enthusiasm and the calm of the people, the air, the fishing boats, a small village port dedicated to their way of life and sharing it with people who care. I loved Elkano and Aitor who lives to love his culture and those who visit him at Elkano. I cannot wait to return for a spark of his passion, it easily wears off on seafood lovers, I call it the soul system Elkano.
Elkano, 13, 20808 Getaria, Spain
T +34 943 14 00 24