My life has always been about finding great food and wine experiences. That quest recently brought me to San Sebastián on the north coast of Spain, a town reputed to be Spain's finest for modern cuisine.
People argue about the cooking style of the French against the Spanish. Personally, I find the Spanish to be superior. Though I have never been to El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s trend-setting restaurant on the Mediterranean coast, I think the cooking at El Cellar de Can Rocca and Can Fabes (both outside Barcelona) and Arzac and Martin Berasategui (both in the San Sebastián area) outdo such famous French restaurants as Guy Savoy, Troisgros, Ambroisie, L’Astrance and Le Cinq (which all have three Michelin stars).
Though I love those French restaurants, what I find compelling about modern Spanish cooking is its general lightness and reliance on the freshest local cuisine. Whereas France still relies heavily on the richness of luxury products like foie gras and truffles, Spain takes even the most humble of local ingredients and elevates them, sometimes through ingenuity, sometimes through sheer honesty.
This point was powerfully driven home to me at the most unexpected of restaurants. I decided to take an hour-long drive to this small place called Extebarri (in a town called Axpe). I had heard that it was simply a grill—great product-driven food done over flame. In the country that is the center of the futuristic movement of molecular gastronomy—and it is everywhere in Spain—here was something astonishing: cooking in its most primitive form. All I was expecting was a nice drive and a simple meal. Much to my surprise, it turned to be one of the greatest experiences I have had.
We were seated at 1 p.m. and were the only ones there. The order was taken by the Australian sous chef (who was the only one who spoke English). He recommended to let the chef, Victor Arguinzoniz cook for us.
The first course was a plate of chorizo, a fresh sausage. The succulent meat was juicy and, unlike most commercial versions, not too smoky and spicy. The chef followed that with slices of toast with homemade butter that he made in the oven. It was smoky and was seasoned with black salt.
Then came grilled red shrimp, whose heads somehow tasted like black truffle. Grilled oysters with crunchy seaweed worked like magic with a Txacoli (a light Basque white wine) that had aged an extra year (most are drunk extremely young). I have never had beluga caviar (triple zero) cooked on a grill, but it was one of the most interesting textures, the sweet and salty flavor really worked well with the smoke. There are no sauces here, the only embellishment is a few drops of olive oil here and there.
Next came a simple course of black porcini (my first taste of this rarity), green eggplant and baby garlic (all grilled separately). This dish brought out the sweetness in a Vega Sicilia Unico 1995 (which took over an hour to open up). Grilled tuna belly and tomato confit were perfectly cooked. And we finished with a simply grilled aged beef chop and some incredible sheep cheese from the Pyrenées with a Château Latour 1991. I think this wine is one of the secrets of Bordeaux. It was on the wine list at 150 euros. Quite a steal!
The quiet brilliance of this meal teaches us many things, but the most important is that cooking technique is not the answer to superior food. Just as in wine, if the raw materials are not great, greatness will not be made out of them. If the product is wonderful, then it will shine if it is cooked properly. In the land of the geniuses, the scientists and the artists, the most memorable food came from the blacksmith and his flames.
Off to Bordeaux now, will keep you posted.
Jesse Salazar — New York, New York — July 11, 2007 11:37am ET
Peter Chang — Hong Kong — July 11, 2007 12:03pm ET
James Molesworth — July 13, 2007 1:53pm ET
Bruce Schoenfeld — Boulder, Colorado — July 16, 2007 10:18am ET
Frank Ostini — Buellton, CA — July 19, 2007 11:12am ET
Rajat — July 19, 2007 12:47pm ET
Bill Folk — San Francisco — July 19, 2007 4:46pm ET
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