I’ll keep this brief, just did a few days in the Basque country and ate at some pretty awesome places. Here’s what I thought of them. I’m not really the type of person to take notes on specific dishes, but I’ll try to remember as best as I can.
Accolades: 10 in the world by San Pellegrino/one michelin star. Price: 135 euros. Experience: Asador Etxebarri is about forty minutes outside Bilbao (where we came from) in a little hamlet called Axpe nestled in the foothills of some fairly substantial mountains. It’s an absolutely gorgeous setting, very bucolic and stunningly green. (Side note, it rains a lot in the Basque country. It means two things: Carry an umbrella/everything looks like Kauai.) There is an outdoor terrace, but it was raining pretty hard so we were inside.
Food As you may know, Etxebarri is the grill spot. Almost everything is grilled on one of chef Victor Arguinzoniz’s custom grill set ups. I’ve thought a good deal about this meal; it’s almost most comparable to sushi. The focus on ingredients is truly stunning. Each dish is almost austere. It tastes of smoke and a dash of salt and maybe a little butter and then some of the most high quality seafood/meats of your life. If you want anything more than that, Etxebarri ain’t the place for you. Notable dishes The famous prawns were everything you could ever ask for. The grilled oyster was so simple yet so good. Chorizo bite was perfect. And the steak, a massive beast if there ever was any, was transcendent. Unfortunately, by that point I may have been too full to enjoy all of it.
Accolades 16 in the world per San Pellegrino/Three Michelin stars Price: 175 euros Experience: About fifteen minutes outside of Bilbao, Azurmendi is on a hilltop overlooking more hills/a freeway. I promise you it’s much more stunning then it sounds. Service here was incredible. The meal starts with a “picnic” in their garden. They give you a glass of txakoli (super dry white wine made in their own vineyard) and three small bites. Then they gave us a tour of the kitchen and then showed us their greenhouse, where we had more small bites.
The cooking was less molecular than I expected, which I enjoyed. There were a few exploding bites that were reminiscent of a XLB, as well as a truffle infused egg that was sensational. Otherwise, it was pretty straightforward. As far as execution, this was arguably the most flawless meal I’ve ever had. (Troisgros in Roanne may have been as well executed…) Everything was perfect. The bread service was fantastic. They served some take on Basque farmhouse bread that was maybe the most ethereal bite of bread I’ve ever had. An oyster dish was superb. Basically a raw oyster served on top of an oyster tartar mixed with seaweed. Fried hake was perhaps the best fried fish dish of my life. The pigeon was also spectacular.
Now I’m gonna be honest, the food here was quite challenging at times, especially in regards to some of their local dishes. I had no problem with tomatoes and anchovies, the wife didn’t fare quite as well. Koktxas was another fantastic and slightly intimidating dish. Basically, this is a Basque specialty consisting of the chin of a cod, whatever that is. Wikipedia suggests it is the flesh under the jaw. Regardless, it was so gelatinous, it was almost like eating fish jello, in the best way possible. There was also a pork jowl dish that was similar in texture and exploding with flavor. At the time, these dishes were really great. Upon reflection, after seeing how common they were in the pintxos bars, they were even better. Really extraordinary stuff.
Oh ya, and the desserts were sublime. I will say with confidence they were the best desserts of my life.
Notable dishes I’ve covered nearly all of the standouts. Oysters, truffle egg, cod chin, fried hake were all remarkable.
All in all, Azurmendi was the best meal of my trip. Incredibly creative, technically flawless, locally-driven. Go here.
To be continued… still need to review Akelarre as well as the pintxos bars. And I think I’ll do a quick review on the cities themselves.