End of Summer Retrospect: A Michelin Experience in Spain’s Basque Country

I recently started a 16-week “program” with my personal trainer; a program that is made up of a 6-day workout regimen alongside an intense (and strict!) meal plan. Why I decided to start this just before the official end of summer is still a mystery, even to me. But looking ahead knowing that week 16 of this program will be well into December, I’m hoping that the payoff will be the best Christmas gift that I can give myself: a better physical me. This better version of myself surely comes with a price, of course. And I’m not just talking about the money I paid my trainer. I’m referring to the fact that I can’t indulge in sugary confections, all things fried, and anything with an alcohol content –all of which are making me wonder where I’ll find my sanity in the next 15 weeks (1 week down… *whew*). And with all the talk around DC’s forthcoming Michelin guide (Which is another conversation in itself… Future blog post, perhaps?), I’m probably better off digging myself into an anti-social hole somewhere to save myself from any conversations that may make me #hangry. Save for the 1 or 2 “cheat meals” that I can allow myself each week, I’m pretty much not going to be a fun person to be around.

So before I go deeper down this rabbit hole, I wanted to share a post that I had written not too long ago as a guest contributor to one of my friends’ blogs, The Chick Who Eats. The post focuses one of my highly memorable dining experiences in Spain’s Basque region, where I went on holiday with friends this past June. Please give it a read below, or via Yoori’s blog, and I hope that my experience will inspire you to get out there and make the most of these last few weeks of summer.

While you’re at it, and if global food-scapades are of interest to you, then please give Yoori’s blog a follow! You’ll find everything from recipes (gluten free!) to travel logs from her very own exciting experiences which she has documented in the last few years.

Kicking-off a Culinary Excursion Through Basque Country

The summer vacation season is in full swing, in case you haven’t noticed. Social media feeds from Washington, DC to Warsaw are abuzz with everything from creative (and not-so-creative) selfies to unremitting showcases of food porn; so much food porn, in fact, that the deluge could encourage even the most deeply hidden inner fat kid to lobby for a prison break. Am I jealous? Perhaps. But just a week ago I was one of these incessant food porn stars Snapping and Instagramming my way through the gastronomic wonderland that is Spain.

Now this was not my first rodeo, err –bull fight in España. My first foray into the Iberian Peninsula was with Barçelona some years ago. Visiting the Catalan capital was an amazing experience, and the exposure to Catalan culture itself completely opened my eyes to the immense diversity of Spain in general. After Barçe, I made a quick stop through Sevilla with a friend. The experience I had in Andalusia was almost foreign in comparison to my experience in Catalunya. Both were amazing places to visit, with their own takes on culture, art and food. With that in mind, I expected that my next trip to Spain would be an entirely different ball game simply because of the varying cultural identities that come with each region, each province, or even each city and town.

My recent trip centered on Spain’s capital city of Madrid, the La Rioja (wine) region, and the storied Basque Country. It was the latter part of the trip (a Donostia-San Sebastián) that I had been looking forward to most, not only because San Sebastián is a 2016 European Capital of Culture (alongside Wroclaw in Poland), but because of the overwhelming popularity of the Basque region’s food ethos. While Ferran Adrià may be Spain’s (and more distinctly, Catalunya’s) most famous epicurean son, the sheer gastronomic talent that emanates from the Basque Country is not to be outdone. In fact, el Pais Vasco boasts the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world – enough to make food snobs in France and Italy green with envy.

friends_donostiaWith close friends in Donostia-San Sebastián

Like in Madrid and in Logroño, where my travels took me prior to traveling on to the Basque Country, San Sebastián has its own pintxo-lined calles where merrymaking lasts through the evening. Copa de tinto here, una caña there… there are plenty of eye-catching, and equally flavorful bites to have alongside your libation of choice. But the most memorable culinary experience, for me, didn’t happen in Donostia at all. In fact, it came earlier on during our journey through the Basque region.

asadoretxebarriEntering the hills of the Basque region from the lowland valleys of La Rioja was an experience in of itself. From the lush green valleys dotted with vineyards we entered the tree-topped mountain roads of the Atxondo valley. As we climbed the zig-zag road up the hills toward Axpe, I was more enamored by the vistas and views vs. thinking about the culinary experience that was to come. Our destination: Asador Etxebarri, a Michelin-starred restaurant located in an unassuming hill town at least 40-minutes outside of Bilbao. As we entered the little township, signs for the restaurant greeted us as if it were the prime (and only) reason to visit. Even so, you couldn’t help but feel like you were driving into a time warp: small town square (and I mean TINY) with a little school on one side, and what I assumed to be a “town hall” type of building on the other. The overwhelming backdrop of the scene was, clearly, the mountain tops. At first glance, I imagined myself walking down the mountain slope onto the town singing “The hills are alive, with the sound of music…” with full orchestration backing me up. But then I remembered that 1) I was in Spain, and not Austria, and 2) that as beautiful as the scenery was, there really seemed to be nothing else going on in this town, BUT this restaurant. Regardless of that, though, the sheer quaintness of the place was extremely peaceful and serene. As we drove up and down the hills of the town, we saw everything from chickens to oxen to guard dogs keeping watch over their respective properties. There were some townsfolk out and about tending to their daily business. Their curious gazes quickly turned to smiles and waves while we waved and smiled as we drove through. When we realized there was nothing else to do or see in the town (a mere 2 minutes later, and after we nimbly escaped from driving off the cliffs), we retreated back to the parking lot of the restaurant to prepare ourselves for the 14-course tasting menu.

Asador Etxebarri is helmed by Chef Victor Arguinzoniz, who was born in the village, and eventually taught himself to cook specializing in the art of grilling using multiple types of wood. Chef Victor opened the restaurant in 1990, and it remained as quiet as the town itself for about a decade or so before it was “discovered” by the likes of a New York Times correspondent. In 2008, Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” series featured the restaurant, which probably propelled it to food super-stardom. Just two years later, Michelin awarded Etxebarri a star in the 2010 guide for Portugal and Spain.

While my experience with Michelin-starred restaurants is quite limited, I pretty much knew what to expect: impeccable service, eye-catching delights, and flavorful bursts of deliciousness. I felt that I got all of that without the pretentiousness that usually comes along. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by overly careful treatment, nor did I find the presentation to be outrageously staged. What I did experience overall: simplicity, but simplicity in its finest form.

The restaurant itself looks to possibly be an old taberna which may have been updated through the years to accommodate the guests that come far and wide to experience the culinary magic of Chef Victor. Guests enter through the building’s lower level, which opens to a modern bar area which more or less gives off a “pub” type of atmosphere: vary casual and very local. Guests wait in the bar area until they are called upstairs to the main dining room. Once you descend the staircase you are brought into a very modern-styled dining area that is minimalist in style: square tables with white table cloths sporadically dot the room, and the old wooden walls of the structure are compounded by a modern, gray-colored panel that scales the mid-length of the walls throughout the space –which adds a clean, updated touch to the room. During lunch, there is ample light streaming in through the many windows, but there is also dramatic lighting that seems to be focused on the middle of the table. This, of course, made for some perfect lighting conditions for photographs of the dishes as they made their way to the table.

The 14-course tasting menu kicked-off with a homemade chorizo sandwich, which came off as classically Spanish. For some, it may have come off as a “so what” moment, given that chorizo sandwiches can be found in almost any food establishment across the country. But this particular sandwich was special: homemade bread was delicately crispy on the outside, but soft as pillows on the inside. And the chorizo (Iberico pork) was prepared with just the right amount of flavor. This was soon followed by some fresh buffalo milk cheese, after which we learned that the milk for the cheese was taken directly from the restaurant’s own oxen just up the road. (Which were probably the ones we saw as we drove around earlier.) Knowing this made me throw all caution to the wind, and any hints of processed preparations disappeared.

My friends and I were enthralled course after course. Though some of the dishes may have been underwhelming, we found the overall experience to be wonderful. Some of the standouts: a salty, cured anchovy over a grilled strip of toast, a carefully poached oyster (via grill) served with spinach, baby octopus grilled tenderly and served over an onion compote, an extremely flavorful serving of gelatinous Guisante Lagrima peas, and a grilled red mullet with salt-crusted skin intact.

pulpoGrilled Baby Pulpo

The main course was a gorgeous tomahawk chop which was grilled to perfection: salt encrusted outside giving way to a nicely cooked (with just enough hint of red) inside. The steak’s texture was beautiful and easy to chew, and full of flavors to cap off the main course in a nice way.

tomahawkGrilled Tomahawk Chop

To sweeten the experience were a couple of things including pumpkin-filled chocolate nuggets. But the clear winner was a smoky milk ice cream (which we all assumed to have come from the oxen as well) that “swam” in a loch of beetroot juice. The beetroot was pleasantly sweet and provided enough punch to perfectly blend with the creaminess of the ice cream. It was a delicious end to a nice, yet long (!) dining experience.

dessertSmoky Milk Ice Cream with Beetroot Juice

For me, this experience set the tone for the rest of my culinary journey through Pais Vasco and Donostia in particular. But what I loved about it was the simplicity of everything from the flavors, the textures, to even the presentation. In contrast to the 3-star service that we were to eventually experience at Martin Berasategui (which was also amazing in its own right), there was something so low-key about Asador Etxebarri that made our lunch experience there all the more memorable.

After settling our lunch with an espresso, and sobering up a bit from the perfectly appointed wine and beer pairings, we asked if we could visit the kitchen, which – at that point – was empty as the final lunch party for the day had ended their service just prior to ours. But to our surprise, the server brought out Chef Victor, who was more than happy to greet us in his little “work room.” Chef Victor was extremely charming and soft-spoken, and with his extremely limited English, he humbly showed us the various grills in the kitchen, and then hinted that what his team does in Axpe is quite simple. This simplicity manifests itself on so many levels, and we assured Chef Victor that what he and his team are doing at Asador Etxebarri is indeed very special.

me_asadoretxebarriPersonally, what I’ve come to expect at many fine dining establishments, or even at “starred” restaurants, is the pomp and circumstance alongside the “scientific” cookery that we’ve all come to know, expect and even love. But the experience that Chef Victor Arguinzoniz and his team delivers at Asador Etxebarri belies the restaurant’s overall intent: to serve up beautifully prepared food featuring Chef Victor’s specialized grill mastery. It is honest, it is simple, and in the end it is pure magic. It was the perfect opening to a great culinary excursion through Pais Vasco, and one of my most memorable vacations yet.

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