Cloaked in smoke. Revered for its authenticity. Famed for it’s charcoal scented beef. Etxebarri is ahead of its time. And wonderfully behind the times. Wedged in the mountains above Bilboa it’s a beacon of gastronomy in a village where time doesn’t just stand still, but runs still.
It’s hard to describe how beautiful the setting is. This photo gives you a glimpse. But doesn’t do it justice. Having driven through the industrialised valleys out of Bilboa, the hills around Etxebarri are an Elysian Alpine Meadow of dramatic and humbling views.
Etxebarri has been at the top of our list for years. Sure, we’ve wanted to eat at other fancy restaurants, but this is different. It’s iconic. It’s a one of a kind. Smokey. Authentic. Victor Arguinzoniz runs it with exquisite skill and startling affinity to the ingredients from the area and taste. Whilst other smart, progressive restaurants are all exciting, it’s Etxebarri that has stood above - wooing us via sending smoke signals.
Much like eating at El Bulli – this was a seminal experience. With each course building on the last. Sure, there were a couple of courses which weren’t as exciting, but the majority were immense. Here are the highlights.
Freshly made, rare (almost raw) smoked chorizo was one of the very best things I’ve ever eaten. It is also probably the least pregnancy friendly thing you’ll ever come across – apart from maybe sushi from xxxx. It had the soft texture of beef tartar. But with layers of smoky sweetness and a punch of chilli. It would make for an excellent starter for your final meal on death row.
Wild mushrooms with artichoke hearts was another smoky delight. Lighter in flavour and texture than the chorizo, it had an earthy, woody sweetness that was offset by a very fresh vinaigrette. I had been expecting bit hits of smoke, but the smoke was used far more subtly as a flavour enhancer.
A single oyster, smoked and re-housed back inside its shell was sublime. I can imagine it would have been easy to have lost the texture of the oyster – for it to have been turned into mush. But no. It was delicious.
Then came another highlight. Two enormous prawns. Wow. This was massive. The flavour smashed like an Evander Holyfield punch and kept on hitting. And biting. And nibbling. Messy. My heart missed a few beats. And my breath quickened. These enormous, juicy prawns had been given the best send off you can possibly imagine. Biting into the heads was like creating your own crab bisque. But better. I can taste it all now, just writing about it. It’s worth the price of the menu on its own. And the airfare. And the car hire too. I love that they weren’t messed around with. No dipping sauce. No lemon. No herbs. No garnish. Just. Two. Perfect. Prawns. Cooked over coals.
Tiny octopus were served with a slick of their own ink and a sweet and sour chutney. If it hadn’t been for the prawns I’d be waxing hysterically lyrical about them. Again, the smoke was subtle, but there. Giving them an ethereal tang that enhanced their natural flavour.
Scrambled egg with black truffles was another heart racer. It reminded me of a meal in Croatia where I ate so many truffles on a steak that I had to be pushed up a hill by Cowie back to our hotel. The truffles had that petrol like power that makes you appreciate that you are eating the very best. The egg was warm. Liquid. And hilariously un-PC for Cowie’s pregnant state! Sorry Zennor.
A wedge of salt cod came next – glistening with its own juices, like a glacier trickling away in the spring sun. I’ve been trying to instill a love for salt cod into Cowie for quite some time, but to no effect, but this dish was a revelation. A bacaloa epiphany. Soft, yielding, silky and moist – it was perfect. And the red pepper sauce a cracking counterfoil.
And then. The big show. The main event. The beef. Iconic. Beautifully caremelised over coals. Stunningly rare. But still warm and juicy. With all the fat rendered. Each mouthful seemed to get better. The firm flesh was almost waxy in texture, but with a flavour that tasted intensely beefy. Perfectly seasoned. It’s interesting to only be served protein and no vegetables or sauces. The beef is allowed so moo for itself. The beasts are 7 year old dairy cows – which is very unusual. But it works. There’s something brilliantly primeval about this dish. So uncomplicated. So reductive. It’s a journey back in time to the first time humans ever ate meat.
A beetroot sorbet with freshly made buffalo milk ice cream was a fitting finish. The sweet earthy notes of the beetroot balancing out the sharp freshness of the ice cream.
Interestingly, it was the discovery of fire and cooking meat over coals, that led to humans evolving far bigger brains. You could almost taste this sociology lesson on the plate. Eating is about experiences. And this experience, for me, had deep cultural significance. This trend away from molecular gastronomy towards a more authentic, primeval form of cooking is worth keeping an eye on. And as much as I loved all the fun of gels, foams and spheres, there’s something deep and life affirming about the experience and philosophy of Etxebarri.
We loved Etxebarri. We’d love to go back. And we’d love to explore the valleys and mountains further as well. On our 40 minute drive back to Bilboa airport I couldn’t help wondering whether there were any English speaking ad agencies in the area who needed a planner! It’s such a beautiful part of the world that we can’t wait to return to. Isn’t it nice when a dream turns out to be real?