Saturday, September 11, 2010
Asador Etxebarri was high on our list of places to eat on our recent trip to Spain. Even months prior, we had tried reserving a lunch spot - we sent e-mails, and tried the online reservation system with not much luck ... We were determined to get there nonetheless. Upon arriving in San Sebastian, we kindly asked the owner of the little guesthouse we were staying, if he would mind calling and booking us a lunch in just a few days time. Success !! We were super excited, and made our travel plans to Bilbao around our lunch reservation.
Upon arriving in Bilbao, we set out to find a rental car. We book online, and just have to go into the office to pick it up/settle payment. Seems easy enough, but the map given online was terrible ... We wandered around for a while, asking anyone and everyone for help. Finally a young girl points us to the 2nd floor of the main train station (why of course!). We take the car just for the day, and are very happy to pay the extra for the GPS. We are ready, pack into the car, iPhone maps and an internet printout as backup. Punching the address into the GPS is harder than we thought, as the address is in Basque, while the GPS input in Castelana. That proved to be the least of our worries, though, as when Kim starts the car we realise it's a manual. We are both confident driving manuals, but in an unfamilar city, on the wrong side of the road, not having to worry about changing gears is always a bonus. We set off, me of course doing a fine job of back-seat directing, even with all the maps & GPS ... We have allowed nearly 2 hours to arrive Atxondo, but find ourselves there within 45 minutes. Words can't describe the serenity that surrounds us, but this picture below will give you an idea of the mountains encasing this quaint little village that were looking upon us as we step out of the car ....
We hesitantly push our way through the closed doors, we're a few minutes early. Behind those doors is not what we expected at all, it's a rustic little bar top with wooden stools, some small tables and a set of stairs leading up in the back corner. We find one body behind the bar, who speaks very little English, but directs us upstairs. We announce our reservation and ushered over to a beautiful table right in the window, the afternoon sun bursting in behind us ... Beautiful wooden menu's are placed in front of us as so another 4.5 hour Spanish lunch begins.
Of course we choose the seasons tasting menu, which offers a vast selection of fine local produce. After we order, a small glass plate is placed in front of us with 2 pickled white anchovy fillets. They are so plump & full of life, with a young grassy olive oil lightly coating them.
The home made chorizo sits like a piece of fine art on the table in front of us ... 3 perfect rounds of the house made sausage, that shows so many different colors & textures. I bite each slice in half, savoring each mouthful of smokey, fatty sausage. It is so good ...
Smoked butter may seem like an odd 2nd course to some, but we were both very excited for this particular offering. A slab of the smoked butter sat on a thin slice of lightly toasted bread. Paper thin slices of a local mushroom are melting in to the butter, and a smokey ash salt finishes it off. I don't even have words to describe how happy this singular plate made me ... We sat on this one for a while, allowing every little bite to fill our mouths with the smokiness, as the ash salt dissolved on our tongues the flavor intensifies.
Our next course was an addition we made to the tasting menu, I mean who can resist foie gras? This one simplicity in all it's beauty, a fat slice of foie terrine with poached rhubarb & fruit toast.
Palamos prawns are a deep sea prawn caught of the Costa Brava. The color is vibrant, the taste intense. Salt & smoke coating the fingers with each bite ... a finger bowl & fresh towel allows these gems to be enjoyed by hand.
Grilled cockles with fresh pink grapefruit segments & a light foam excite the palate. I am captured by the gorgeous plated they are resting on, with 3 little cockle shell imprints in the ceramic perfectly holding the shells ....
Now, I have eaten some baby octopus in my time, but the little buggers that were served at this lunch were something else. Their bodies were size of my pinky nail ... they were plump & tasty, a black ink sauce, spinach & pickled shallots gave the dish a real earthiness ...
The angulas, or baby eels, is something I remember so vividly from Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. We knew these were seasonal, but were super excited to see them on the menu - we were in luck, they were coming into their last week of the season. The bowl of baby eels served with a mother-of-pearl spoon was aesthetically pleasing. My first mouthful was somewhat overwhelming though .... It was a scent that permeated all of my senses, and I wasn't quite sure if I liked it or not .... it mellowed out as I was trying to decide, and then I did quite enjoy the flavor. We later found out the eels are infused with tobacco. Once it had a chance to mellow out, the rich butter taste combined with the tobacco was divine. The little angulas were another favorite of the day.
Our fish course was Salt cod with roasted red peppers & butter sauce. The fish portion was massive for a tasting menu, and a little underwhelming. I would have been happy with a plate of roasted peppers, the flesh sweet with a robust smokey flavor. Yum!
The savory courses finish with a perfectly grilled piece of beef. Pink in the middle, a crusty salty exterior, each bite so full of flavor, leaving an intense charcoal taste in the mouth that is pleasant and not at all overpowering. A bowl of dressed butter lettuce leaves add a nice bit of acidity.
Nothing like cleansing the palate from a flavor intense meal full of differnt smokey flavors and charcoals then with a smoked ice-cream with fruit infusion. The smoked ice-cream coats the tongue and is velvet smooth, the fruit infusion refreshing & tart.
Milk cream is a bar of set custard cream, with a French toast-like coating and cinnamon ice-cream.
Coffee to finish with little financiers. The cafe con leche is is a fine cup of coffee, strong but not bitter coffee & creamy milk at just the right temperature ...
We sit pondering life & it's simple pleasures ... looking out the window behind us and feeling as though we are part of that picture. Nothing else matters .... I'm not sure how long we sat there, but all of a sudden I am hungry again.
We make an odd request, another portion of smoked butter. Think of it as a cheese course ....
Followed by a white & dark chocolate souffle. Bizarrely, the souffle comes to the table still with the metal ring around it ... as we crack into it the centre is still extremely wobbly, so may have been there to hold it all in?
As we are leaving we are lucky enough to get a tour of the kitchen ... Lennox, an Australian chef who came to Asador for a 6 month stage and still hasn't left, showed us around. He shows us the different ovens where the coal is being made, they types of wood, and the different sections of the grill .... and passionately talks about the local produce, and early morning drives across the border to France to pick up ingredients. As we talk we run into Morgy & Trish, who were having lunch this day as well and also getting a tour of the kitchen. Morgan McGlone is the Chef/Proprietor at Flinder's Inn in Sydney.
One of those lunches that inspired, enlightened & gave us a whole new appreciation for an ancient cooking technique.