“After 4 kms, you will pass through Abadino, and should look out for a sign on the right marked "ATXONDO" and "Axpe". Taking this road, you will pass through Apatamonasterio and after 1 km, you will notice another turning for "Axpe" on your right. Following this winding road for another 1 km, you will arrive into the village.”
The trip to Asador Etxebarri is an experience on itself. Sometimes, even turn-by-turn GPS doesn’t seem to find its way. But with a bit of patience (and luck), you’ll spot the 70 people village of Axpe; and right in the main square–between the church and the bocce ball court, stands the one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. Number 39 in fact, ahead of NYC’s Daniel and Paris’ Louis XV.
The quaint 18th century building blends in with the peaceful scenery of green pasture and Basque mountains around it. From outside, you hear the sound of sheep and running spring water. As you get closer, you notice the crackle hiss and aromas of the restaurant’s signature charcoal grill.
It’s said that nowhere else in the world you can experience such sophistication in what is the oldest form of cooking. Thanks to Victor Arguinzoniz, who since 1989 commands the kitchen at Etxebarri.
By his side is a personable Australian sous chef who built his career in Michelin starred restaurants before moving to Axpe for 6 moths and never leaving. Lennox is as passionate about his craft as his mentor. With scorched hands, he speaks about their culinary innovations with great excitement; and for a good reason. Victor has not only redefined charcoal grilling, he has reinvented it. He designed and built from scratch a state of the art kitchen, complete with 2 wood-fired ovens and a sleek customizable grill.
Only the 2 chefs run the grill during service hours giving each order their undivided attention. There’s a small prep kitchen in the back where a tank provides them with fresh oysters, prawns, eels, lobsters and other live seafood ingredients. And this is really what it’s all about; the ingredients.
Fresh seafood, local meat from neighborhood farms, eggs from passersby chicken; even the water comes from the local springs. Each ingredient is treated with utmost respect and prepared on the grill until just cooked. The chef uses different types of wood for each protein and each order gets its own batch of charcoal. It takes the concept of “grilled to perfection” to a whole new level.
The chef has designed custom tools that allow him to grill things not usually put over charcoal. Caviar and risotto come to mind. And the result will blow you away (more on that later).
In the main dining room, about 10 well-spaced tables dressed in pristine white linens fill the quaint, minimalist space. A few scattered plants and that's it for interior design. The atmosphere reflects the simplicity of the restaurant’s cuisine. Through the windows, you can see the pastures outside. Victor’s wife runs the front of the house. The feeling is of eating in a rustic home in a small Basque village. Very different from Arzak's sleek atmosphere. To complete, no English is spoken by the wait staff.
The wood bound menu is presented in Spanish, Euskara and English. It is printed every morning based on what’s available that day. Twenty dishes are listed with no categorization of appetizers or entrées. Descriptions are brief, often just pointing out the main ingredient. The prices may intimidate the unadvised tourist that stopped here without knowing what to expect. One curious thing is that, of all the items on the menu, there’s not a single vegetable dish, not even a side dish. But this is Spain after all.
To start, house made Chorizo. Delicate and buttery, the deep red of pimentón bleeding on the plate.
Next, Caviar Assado. Etxebarri’s signature dish is a result of several years of experience on the grill. A special pan was designed with a thin wire mesh as the base where the roe is carefully laid. The pan is placed over seaweed and grilled on applewood charcoal. It took some trial and error to find the ideal caviar as it requires a higher natural fat content to survive the grilling process. The answer came from Iran. Every other week, a fresh batch of unpasteurized organic beluga comes from the Middle East and stays on the menu just for a few days thereafter.
The grilled caviar is simply served on a white porcelain dish. The appearance doesn’t differ much from its raw state but when you put it in your mouth, the flavor is jaw dropping. Warm, lightly smoky, sweet and buttery. Fantastic, unlike anything I ever had. About a tablespoon of it goes for 50 Euros; it’s worth every cent.
As an appetizer, Grilled baby octopus. Perfectly cooked, moist and tasty.
For entrée, Grilled salt-cod. A generous cut of cod grilled until just cooked to keep the flesh moist and tender. Served with roasted sweet onions, red peppers and a dash of pil pil sauce–an emulsion of fish juices, olive oil and garlic.
Desserts at Etxebarri are also surprisingly good. Curiously, the dessert menu is not available in English so some deciphering may be necessary. If in doubt, let the wait staff choose or you.
Flan de queso fresco. A delicious custard made with fresh cheese and local eggs. Creamy and lightly tart.
Rulo crujiente relleno de helado de queso Idiazabal granizado de txakolí. Like a canolli, but thinner, it’s filled with sheep’s cheese ice cream, topped with sparkling white wine granita and served with whipped cream.
To finish, house made milk and honey muffins.
In one of the most inventive culinary regions in the world, at a time where avant garde cooking is more popular than ever, there’s something to be said about Victor Arguinzoniz’s choice to perfect to the simplest form of cooking. The chef is a friend of Ferran Adrià who often comes here to enjoy the simplicity of “la brasa” cuisine. Etxebarri’s innovations are focused on making the most out of each ingredient with respect and perfectionism. Even though spheres, foams and airs won’t be found here, Etxebarri’s sophisticated simplicity will likely take you by surprise.
Asador Etxebarri is at Plaza San Juan, 48291 Axpe