11 Dec, 2023 @ 10:45
4 mins read

REVIEW: Does the Basque region’s Asador Etxebarri really serve the best seafood dish in the world? 

IT’S a food pilgrimage that thousands of Americans, Japanese and Europeans make every year…but, as far as the French go, it’s nothing to get excited about.

Gallic food bible Michelin almost begrudgingly admits Asador Etxebarri is ‘worth a stop’, but only gives it one solitary star and then adds, with no sense of irony, you’ll need to book ‘a minimum two months ahead’.

Sacre Bleu! Is it any wonder the Spanish leapfrogged the French in the global cookery standings over a decade ago.

This rural retreat in the heart of the Basque Region has been in the world’s Top Ten best restaurants for a decade for its incredibly original and simple way of cooking.

Now firmly cemented in Spanish foodie folklore, Victor Arguinzoniz hasn’t fallen out of the prestigious World’s 50 Best list since entering in 2011 and, well, quite frankly he probably couldn’t care less. 

This chef’s chef launched his style of ‘fire cooking’ three decades ago in the small village of Axpe, where he grew up without electricity and gas and where his mother and grandmother would cook on an open hearth. 

He also cooks entirely on an open grill. Everything, including pudding, and the world’s top chefs rave about him and plan their annual holidays around a meal here.

It’s a romantic tale and this village, sitting on the GR-229 walking trail by the beautiful Urkiola natural park, is almost impossible to beat.

So I certainly wasn’t expecting to land a table when I found myself driving through the area on a weekday earlier this month.

But logging onto its website a couple of days before out of interest, I miraculously discovered a 1.30pm slot for two people on the very Tuesday we were passing.

After my heart missed a beat and I slammed the button to ‘book’, I heard nothing, except an email saying we would get another email asking for our credit card details. 

It wasn’t looking optimistic, but as the restaurant was shut on the Monday, I figured we’d just rock up and hope for the best. I also sent a personal email to Victor, congratulating him on, once again, making the Top Five, last month. With these things, you simply never know.

Of course, we arrived to find the booking was not confirmed and there was sadly no space… but, despite a disdainful look, Maitre d Mohamed, from Algeria, did understand the mix up and sat us down on an outside table and brought us a couple of cold beers.

He did insist there was ‘no space’, but he promised to see what he could do.

After a 30-minute wait, enjoying the peaceful surroundings, with views across the church spire towards faraway peaks and braying Monchina and Betizu cows, a delicious cold broth suddenly arrived. ‘Just to try,’ exclaimed a waitress, making sure we didn’t get our hopes up… and then suddenly a tablecloth came out and our table was dressed.

“We can’t do the full 15 courses, but we can offer you a lobster, a steak and a few starters,” ventured ‘Moha’, as he is known to his fellow staff.

Are you kidding? We bit his hand off and sat down to, arguably, the most authentic meal of our lives.

First things first, it might seem amiss to be reviewing a restaurant when you’re not sampling the full tasting menu. But the Asador does have an a la carte option and, in any case, it turned out Moha was under-selling.

The first thing that arrived was a plate of thinly-sliced chorizo, which I knew was a signature dish and made on the premises. And boy was it good, so unbelievably moist and melt in the mouth, despite being hung for just two months.

Next up were anchovies on toast with olive oil and tomato. They come from nearby Ondarroa, where Victor is a long-time buyer and salts them for six months in a special drying room. Again, the tenderness and flavour was the ticket.

I was really starting to relax, enjoying the leafy terrace with its oxidised iron feeders full of rhododendrons, bees and blue tits.

Sure, there was a sense of missing out by not eating in the buzzing main dining room, with its beams and double height ceiling, but we weren’t the only diners on the terrace and, by now, Moha was really starting to warm to us, explaining each dish and particularly wines (he’s the sommelier too, it turns out) with gusto.

We really loved his choice of flinty dry albarino, called ‘O Equilibrio’ by the bodega Fulcro, which was the perfect choice for what I can only describe as the best seafood dish I’ve ever eaten.

Quite simply, you will never try anything like it. And yes, I’ve dined on the amazing turbot up the road in Getaria, the bluefin tuna in Zahara and giant red shrimps in Sanlucar de Barrameda, but the lobster served at Etxebarri is simply remarkable.

Garnished with exactly nothing – it is simply cooked to a tender tee on Victor’s wood grill, its juices taking the plaudits.

It may seem hard to believe, but once you’ve mopped up the juice from its brains and ink with the local bread, the extraordinary richness will stay on your palate for weeks. Indeed it’s still helping me sleep.

But that wasn’t all. Next came out a veal chop, so beautifully cooked that, even though we were full, you wouldn’t dream of leaving a sliver.

And then came the climax: a bowl of smoky ice cream that was also smoked over the grill and then served with a beetroot coulis, so sweet I thought it was cherry.

Even better, all the ingredients come from the village, as does as much as Victor can get, including plenty of the vegetables that he grows in this garden.

All in all, an exceptional meal, one that – thanks to its unfussy staff and plain simplicity – actually deserves four stars. Now hop off, Pierre.

Header image credit: Guia Repsol

Jon Clarke (Publisher & Editor)

Jon Clarke is a Londoner who worked at the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday as an investigative journalist before moving permanently to Spain in 2003 where he helped set up the Olive Press. He is the author of three books; Costa Killer, Dining Secrets of Andalucia and My Search for Madeleine.

Do you have a story? Contact newsdesk@theolivepress.es

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