The real excuse for us to come to San Sebastian with Sara and Jim and the clan was to go to one of the most famous restaurants in the world – Asador Etxebarri. Somehow Sara had managed to secure a reservation, which is seriously one of the most difficult ones to get anywhere. Seriously, anywhere. We jumped on the chance to go.
After our big day with Sara and Rafa the day before, I needed a bit more “exercise”, this time I called it Heine-walls …
And we needed a bit of a walk down the beautiful San Sebastian beach …
… on the way to, yup, even more glorious food! This time at Bodega Donostiarra, another recommendation from Rafa …
… where we snacked on great food like this pig snout dish. God, it was sooooo good.
But we didn’t want to stuff ourselves because we wanted to save ourselves for the main event – Etxebarri!!!
Arriving at Etxebarri was a bit of a surprise. We had heard it was a simple farmhouse but it was really really simple. But that was just the downstairs “bar” entryway. Once we got upstairs it was super elegant and beautiful, just like us! 😉
We had a lovely greeting and evening from the wine director, Agusti. He had real fun with us, knowing we were wine people, and brought out some killer rare Spanish wines.
We sipped some champagne while perusing the tasting menu …
Then the games began! I won’t post a picture of every single dish, but rather just the highlights.
And an etheral squid. It was just a baby squid. We’ve all had squid in our life, often just chewy flavorless rings dipped in batter and deep fried. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some fried calamari (especially the baby ones at Cal Pep in Barcelona!), but this was say different. Super simply prepared, touched with heat over charcoal and served unadorned, except for some squid ink. The texture was perfect, the taste pure and powerful, unlike any other squid I’ve ever had.
And then gambas rojas from the Mediterranean!
There is a method to eating these. First you break off the head, gently and upside down so as to preserve the liquid inside. Then you tilt the head into your mouth and suck out all the goodness. It tastes like truffles! Then you attack the bodies. I have to include an “after” shot here. Down to bones! I’ll never be able to eat another crappy Thai/Vietnamese shrimp again, and may not even be able to eat another great South Carolina one again even! These were so damn good.
But the two highlights were the anguiles and the steak. Two ultra ultra simple preparations, that could only be made to that quality with the utmost of care and attention to, well, pretty much everything.
The anguiles are tiny little eels, a super rarity, especially fresh like these were, just touched with heat over charcoal. A super delicate flavor, fresh from the water but also with some earthy character. Oh god, I’ll never forget these.
And then there was the steak. Ooh, the steak! I’ve always thought the best beef came from the USA, but after this steak, I totally agree the best steak comes from Galicia!
But the level of detail chef put into this is crazy. First he determined the best beef comes from Galicia, then he had to find out which breed he wants. Then he had to find a farmer who raises that breed the way he wants it to be raised. Also to get it slaughtered and butchered to his desires. Then to age it just the right amount of time for that cow. And then to determine which of the multitude of choices of wood he wants to cook it over. Then to figure out what is the best temperature for cooking of that piece of beef, and for how long. The result is this glorious glorious piece of beef. Amazing.
The dessert courses weren’t the highlight unfortunately, except for this beautiful reduced ice cream with beet. Two unlikely flavors to go together, but it worked so so well.
So what did we think of the experience? Well, I’ve always thought that a good sign is if the diners talk about the meal on the way home afterwards, which we did. We also talked about it the next day. And later that week too. Part of it was we were trying to understand it. What did it all mean? What was this restaurant really about? Well, here’s my take.
Many restaurants try to source the best ingredients and cook them simply and try to get the most pure flavour out of each ingredient. Think Chez Panisse. You could also even think of the top molecular places in a similar way – while they might not be simply prepared, they are trying to coax out as much pure flavour as they can from each ingredient.
Etxebarri is different. The dishes are indeed very simple, often with a very small number of ingredients (i.e. the eels were made with just eels and smoke). But I think chef is doing something different. I think he’s trying to take away ingredients, rather than just use a small number. Think of it like the modern art of the 1950s, where artists reduced the canvas to simple colours, or just one colour, or a single straight line. They weren’t making that art that way because they didn’t want to put more on the canvas. Rather they removed everything else they thought that would interfere. I think Etxebarri is doing the same thing. They are taking the best, I mean absolute best, quality ingredients and then making sure they take away every possible option that would not emphasize that single quality ingredient. Sometimes that means taking away alot, and sometimes it means taking away only a little.
Anyway, that’s my take on the place. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Stunning food, great wines, beautiful company! Thanks for making the reservation, Sara!