Atxondo, Spain / July 21, 2009 / lunch
Winederlust Rating (details below): 7.5 out of 10 / Winederlust Worthy: Yes
Jay had been looking forward to this restaurant most on the trip after reading about it in Gourmet a couple months back and seeing Anthony Bourdain’s visit last year on No Reservations. I was also excited because it seemed like it would offer much simpler fare than many of the other places we visited, with lots of grilled seafood! So we really made a special excursion to reach Etxebarri, backtracking north toward San Sebastian and Bilbao from Rioja rather than heading directly southeast to Barcelona.
Once we followed lots of small, twisty Basque country mountain roads to get there, the restaurant itself was very unassuming – rather like a Scout camp dining hall, with sloped wood ceilings and stone tiles.
Interior of Etxebarri.
Though the diners included a good mix of foreigners, including a couple from Japan who had obviously come on a foodie pilgrimage and were snapping pictures of all of their plates (as we were!), there were also a surprising number of locals dining there, either on loud, extended business lunches or even on their own (one older gentleman dining alone, obviously a regular, was even served off-menu dishes like French fries).
The somewhat local feel extended to the waitstaff – this was the first place so far in Spain where they spoke to us in Spanish instead of English, though the menu was translated into English, along with Spanish and Basque. We ordered a rosado from Rioja to accompany our lunch, a 2008 Marques de Caceres, a bright and fruity tempranillo/grenache blend.
Marques de Caceres Rosado.
We were started off with a shotglass of tomato water with olive oil and garlic – light and refreshing and tasting of fresh tomatoes.
Tomato Water with Olive Oil and Garlic.
Next came a dish I would not ordinarily have ordered, but considering it was one of the specialties of the house, I decided to give it a try – handmade smoked butter with bread crumbs, served with slight charred wood pieces on top. Though it was a little bizarre to eat butter with a spoon appetizer-style, it did have a delicious creamy and smoky flavor.
Handmade Smoked Butter.
For our next dish, we ordered the Palamos prawns, very lightly grilled with salt on top. The meat was very tender, almost sushi-like, with a slight smoky flavor. We finished them off by sucking out the meat (and other assorted items) in the heads, which had more of a briny seafood flavor but still tasted nice and smoky. We could have eaten dozens more of these.
Grilled Palamos Prawn.
Then came the grilled oysters with foam on top and seaweed bits underneath. The plump, creamy oysters melted in our mouths, though Jay’s one (minor) criticism was that he wished more of the oyster’s natural flavor came through.
Our next dish was the grilled baby squid, served on top of grilled onions with onion relish and a squirt of black squid ink. They were tender and delicious, with a slight smoky flavor.
Grilled Baby Squid.
Next came the grilled belly of white tuna with grilled tomato, zucchini, and baby spinach – delicious accompaniments that made us wish there were more grilled veggies offered on the menu (there was only seafood, fish, meat, and the butter). It was a beautiful cut of tuna, lightly seared and flavorful.
Grilled Belly of White Tuna.
Our final dish was grilled Galician beef on the bone, which Jay had to try because Gary, the Canadian wine and food expert/writer we’d met the night before at the Frank Gehry-designed hotel in Rioja (more on Gary and the fabulous hotel later), had said he had rated it the best steak in Spain for an article he’d written. The well-aged meat had a heavy salt and smoky flavor and the texture of Kobe (so said Jay – I tried only a very small bite). The piece was huge – way more than Jay could eat on his own – so he suggested to our server that she offer it to someone else. We think she gave it to a hungry gathering of businessmen in one of the back rooms.
Grilled Galician Beef on the Bone.
We thought we’d read about smoked ice cream for dessert, but seemed to be mistaken. However, we did try the goat cheese ice cream in raspberry sauce – rich and delicious, like frozen cheesecake, though decidedly not grilled.
Goat Cheese Ice Cream in Raspberry Sauce.
The lunch ended up taking about three hours – just under the time of one of our long tasting menu meals – and was actually much less expensive than we thought it would be when we looked at the menu. (Tip to future diners: Most of the menu prices appear to be by kilogram, even though that’s not stated, and apparently the chef/waitstaff decide what portion you get and pay for. All of the portions were – thankfully – much less than a kilogram! If we had known that to begin with, we would have ordered more of the shrimp.)
Overall, we greatly enjoyed our meal here, though we had extremely high expectations because of all of the great press we read beforehand, and Etxebarri didn’t quite live up to the hype. Though everything was good and well-prepared, it wasn’t quite the transcendent grilled seafood experience we had hoped for; we have had dishes that were just as good at places that weren’t so difficult to reach. Still, we would go back and order more of those shrimp! (And maybe the grilled lobster and octopus too…)
- by Liz Humphreys, Winederlust Eater in Chief
Winederlust Rating Details (out of 10):
Food: 8.0 (preparation, presentation & taste)
Wine: 7.0 (selection, recommendations, pairings & taste)
Service: 7.5 (helpfulness, attentiveness, knowledge & pacing)
Place: 7.5 (location, view, decor & vibe)
Price Range: $$ (Moderate)
Asador Etxebarri / Plaza San Juan, 1 Axpe-Marzana 48291 Atxondo-Bizkaia, Spain [map]
Direct Line: (34) 946 583 042
Website: http://www.asadoretxebarri.com/ (email directly or through the Website for reservations)
Open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch from 1-3pm; open Saturday for dinner from 8:30-10:30pm. Closed Monday. Reservations essential.