Last winter, as I was planning days of eating and drinking in Spain’s Basque Country, I salivated at the thought of Asador Etxebarri, the world’s most lauded barbecue joint.
Etxebarri nestles in a tiny, rural, green hamlet deep in the Axtondo Valley, about 25 miles southeast of Bilbao. Native son and self-taught grill master Victor Arguinzoniz, 59, has presided over the wood-fired asadors here for 30 years—cooking up the bounty of the local landscape and seafood from the nearby coast—with sublime results.
I once considered myself something of a barbecue aficionado, having scaled the carnivorous heights of rural Texas decades ago. But clearly, Etxebarri was a whole different cut. Moreover, it wasn’t so much about a chef, as it was about connection with local terroirs.
“Earth, ocean or fire.” Etxebarri’s website proclaims. “The decision is made each day, based upon which seasonal products are most freshly available. The result is a home-grown menu, beating in time with nature’s rhythm, humbly served and carefully and consistently put together with respect and a delicate touch.”
Just below this poetic pitch is the price tag for the daily seasonal menu: a whopping €180 (about $200) per person, beverage excluded. It’s only open for lunch except Saturdays, when it also serves dinner.
When I mentioned Etxebarri as a destination to colleagues, there were doubts—not that the place was unworthy, but about the availability of reservations:
“Is it even possible for someone to get a table there?”
I wasn’t going to try to network my way in the door, but was determined to follow standard procedure. Three days a year—the first of March, July and November—at exactly 4 p.m. Spain time, reservations open online for the months ahead.
So on March 1, I planned to reserve lunch for two during the first week of May. At 3:55 that day, I was saddled up and ready to go at my computer. I refreshed the website repeatedly to catch it the instant the calendar opened up.
Exactly at 4 p.m., my computer screen flashed, and the site disappeared. Etxebarri’s website had crashed!
I persisted. Minutes later, the site was back, and I made my lunch selection for Saturday afternoon. But before I could enter my card details (they require a €100 per head deposit), the date was gone. I then frantically picked a Tuesday afternoon and, bingo, I was in!
As the date approached, I wondered what would motivate a restaurant to strive for excellence if it had sold out months in advance. But then, it only takes a day in the Basque Country to realize food isn’t just business here. It’s practically religion.
On the day of our lunch, we drove up from the coast through verdant hills dotted with grazing sheep, goats and cattle to pastoral Axpe, where Etxebarri is housed in a farmhouse loft above the local bar.
The welcome was warm and relaxed. My wife and I sat on the terrace for an aperitif. When we asked for something “local,” we were brought glasses of Arguinzoniz’s own brewed beer—a refreshing zesty red IPA—along with a platter of house-cured chorizo.
Then we adjourned to the loft for lunch for four hours and a dozen courses, beginning with a burrata-like cheese made from Arguinzoniz’s own buffaloes. The oozing cheese was warm and fresh and as good as anything from Puglia, but there was a signature whiff of smokiness derived, we were told, from scalding the buffalo milk using hot stones off the grill.
As the next small plates rolled out, I was more and more awed by the grillwork. Cockles were served in asparagus sauce, followed by razor clams, juicy Palamós prawns and sea bream, along with accompaniments of spring mushrooms, red pepper and peas. There wasn’t a single grill mark on anything, though it all had the lightest scent left by embers of various woods.
For wines, we followed the staff suggestions by the glass, starting with a tiny-production 2015 white blend of Godello and Treixadura fermented in acacia wood; called Anadelia, it came from Adega Algueira in Ribeira Sacra. We then journeyed to Rioja for the 2016 Miguel Merino white and to Ribera del Duero for the 2016 Finca Villacreces red.
Even before the arrival of the T-bone steak—cooked to the finest black crust outside and a red inside so tender you could cut it with a butter knife—everything I thought about barbecuing had been upended.
Barbecue for me (not counting my own backyard burning) had come to mean a few techniques of braising, smoking and grilling that tend to dominate the food. At Etxebarri, the range of techniques is so varied and nuanced, it opened up a new world.
Restaurant experiences can be good or great—or revelations that change your conception of things you thought you knew. That’s what I’d call culture.
As grills everywhere fire up this summer, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this one.