Dining in Spain: Etxebarri*

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Etxebarri is a restaurant unlike any other restaurant I’ve ever eaten at before. It located in the Atxondo valley in the Basque country between San Sebastian and Bilbao. Etxebarri is an “asador”, a grill restaurant that cooks on a wood-fired grill. But Etxebarri is more about the quality of the ingredients than about being an asador. I’ve been to many trattorie in Italy that offer good, often humble, produce that is prepared simply and delicious, but Etxebarri is in a league of its own because it offers at 125 euros (excluding 10% tax) tasting menu of produce that is prepared expertly but humbly, but the produce itself is far from humble. The tasting menu changes daily based upon what is available.

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Etexebarri offers outside seating with a view on the surrounding mountainous landscape as well as inside (airconditioned). It is only open for lunch (except for Saturdays). No wine pairing is provided, but given the simplicity of the cooking a good local white wine will match with almost everything except for the beef. We enjoyed an excellent local white for 25 euros. The tasting menu includes small appetizers, 10 courses, and mignardises (petit fours).

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The tone is set by the first appetizer: the chorizo is homemade by Victor (the chef, Victor Arguinzoniz) using his grandmother’s recipe. It was easily the best chorizo I’ve ever tasted (also because I don’t eat chorizo often) with great depth and balance of flavor, and tender as well.

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The aperitif is on the right — we expected something alcoholic but it was actually some kind of vegetable juice with a whisp of smokiness and very nice indeed.

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The butter of goat’s milk with black salt was outstanding, very goaty.

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The anchovies, obviously salted at the restaurant, served on toasted bread.

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Simply a tomato, with nothing else (apart from a tiny leaf as decoration) had a wonderful tomato flavor. It had only been skinned.

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Etxebarri have their own buffalos, whose milk they use to make their own daily fresh buffalo mozzarella. I’ve tasted day-fresh buffalo mozzarella in Campania, so I immediately recognized the texture of truly fresh buffalo mozzarella. (When he had bought it fresh from a cheese maker in Campania and didn’t finish all of it, the next day the special texture had already disappeared). The texture is more chewy and interesting than buffalo mozzarella that is from the previous day or older.

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The final appetizer: very thin crackers with raw, extremely fresh, porcini mushrooms!

This set of appetizers clearly show what Etxebarri is all about: humble cooking and presentation of noble ingredients. 10/10

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The first ‘course’: a chicken croquette. What’s special about it compared to the croquetas you’ll find as tapas all over Spain is that this one was cooked on the grill. Nice with a very delicate chicken flavor. 8/10

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The oyster was cooked and served with a single leaf of spinach. 8/10

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The prawns from Palamós (Costa Brava) were grilled and served with coarse sea salt. They were grilled perfectly and still tender and juicy. 9/10

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Baby squid (grilled of course) served on a bed of caramelized onion and its ink. The squid worked nicely with the onion and again perfectly grilled. 9/10

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King bolete with eggplant, again perfectly cooked. 9/10

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White tuna with tomato. The tuna still rare inside and the tomato was skinned. Served with very good olive oil. 9/10

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We shared a red sea bream between the four of us. It was grilled with just a bit of fresh herbs, garlic, salt, and olive oil. The fish was exceptionally fresh and cooked just right. An important touch was that the fish was served on warm plates.

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The whole fish was shown at the table before serving on separate plates.

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The fish came with steamed seasonal vegetables: leeks, fennel, beetroot, carrots, onion, and some kind of squash.  9/10

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We also shared the ‘beef chop’ (bone-in rib eye) between the four of us. It was more than plenty.

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The beef had just the right amount of charring (without any burnt flavor) and was served with coarse sea salt only. Very flavorful and tender. 10/10

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The first dessert: reduced milk ice cream with beetroot juice. A good combination of flavors, very nice. 9/10

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The puff pastry was nice, but the apple was not a nice apple at all. Very little flavor at all, and what flavor it had was bitterness. We didn’t finish our apples and noticed that the other tables didn’t either. 5/10

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The almond magdalenas that were served with the coffee were nice.

The service was okay, at the level of an ordinary restaurant with some waiting (e.g. when we asked for another bottle of water) and only minimal English spoken. The pace of the meal however was just right.

The food is one of a kind: noble produce served in a humble manner. The quality of the produce is that of a three-star restaurant or perhaps even better, as the humble preparation does nothing but letting the inherent quality of the produce shine. When I say the preparation is humble that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t expertly performed, because everything was consistently grilled just right and that is not such an easy thing to do. Berasategui was a tough act to follow, especially as we were having lunch at Etxebarri right after having had dinner at Berasategui the night before. I think it very well deserved that Etxebarri is ranked as 34th on the list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. I’m rating 9.5/10 for the food, which is a rating even a three-starred restaurant doesn’t have to be ashamed of, and only a touch lower than Berasategui.

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13 thoughts on “Dining in Spain: Etxebarri*

  1. I so wanted to go here! Just completed a culinary tour of northern spain: arzak, mugaritz, can roca and bo.tic in 10 days but on my next trip will be checking this one out…. looks incredible.

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    1. We only had time for two restaurants on this trip to the Basque country, so we had to skip Arzak and Mugaritz. How did you like them? And what did you think of Can Roca? We were there 2 years ago.

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  2. Can Roca is almost like the middle ground between Arzak and Mugaritz. Arzak’s cooking was phenomenal, technically nothing could be faulted. Whereas, Mugaritz was obviously still skilled but the balance of flavour and texture wasn’t always there. However, I had a much better time at Mugaritz because it was inventive and fun. Arzak was a little less so… it’s slightly ridiculous nitpicking these places when both were incredible meals but basically arzak is technically excellent, certainly delicious but not very whimsical. Mugaritz is so incredibly fun, every dish had us laughing… one of the courses came with a game, another course was a few things in a pestle and mortar that you had to grind yourself… it was very interactive. Mugaritz are also trying to push boundaries, when I went they were experimenting with glutinous rice and you could tell it was a big new thing for them which is great but also some of their dishes didn’t really feel like finished products… some of them seemed more like an in-joke or current obsession rather than perfectly composed food. I loved Can Roca and thought it was the best of the three because it was playful yet everything was perfectly judged. To be fair, it wasn’t as playful as Mugaritz and potentially not as accurate with the food as Arzak but I think maybe that’s because we ate 20 or so courses at Can Roca and only 5 at Arzak so there are bound to be a few that don’t cut the mustard. My favourite thing I ate during the trip was at Can Roca, the whole langoustine, and the worst thing I at was also at Can Roca, a sardine with pork belly. But if I could go back to one again it would be Can Roca closely followed by Mugaritz, I think. I went to Can Roca two years ago and I think I had a slightly better meal. What was your opinion of it? By the way, Bo.Tic, which has one michelin star, and isn’t really in the same league as the aforementioned, has an incredible foie gras course if you’re into that kind of thing…!

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    1. Thanks for your interesting comments, which will help me pick where to go next time. I loved Can Roca and thought it was one of our best dinners ever because they do not only have great food with (like you said) just the right balance between original/interesting and delicious, but also great wine pairings. The latter unfortunately is very rare and adds a whole dimension to the dinner if you like wine. You can read my review here: https://stefangourmet.com/2012/11/20/dining-in-spain-el-celler-de-can-roca/
      I went to Etxebarri and Berasategui (see yesterday’s post) with a friend who loves foie gras (and we like it too), so we should check out Bo.Tic too!

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      1. Ah! Your dinner looks rather different to mine but glad that we’ve both experience the delights of the whole prawn…! Really wish we’d got to try the red mullet! Did you ever make it to Ibai? I’ve heard it’s incredible… In the same vein as Etxebarri and Berasategui… Also of the two, which would you recommend?

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