Etxebarri was the meal to which we were most looking forward in Spain -- at least before we had Eneko's food at Geranium -- so there was no way I was going to let us miss it, food poisoning be damned. Twelve hours after I first got sick, I was exhausted on only a few fitful hours of sleep but had kept down a banana and some dry toast. Armed with a bottle of Windex-blue Powerade, I dragged myself into the passenger seat for the drive to the picturesque hamlet of Axpe.
Everything cooked at Etxebarri is grilled in some way -- even dessert -- a style for which we're a super enthusiastic audience. As pescatarians, we're always eager for a hint of what we're missing, and grill smoke comes closest to filling the meat-shaped holes in our hearts (/stomachs).1
As a sub for chorizo, we got a plate of simply grilled and well-flaky salted padron peppers as good as any we've ever had. (Certainly better than the dish we'd had pintxos bar-hopping the night before.)
I've talked a lot about butter in connection with this vacation. If I were to make a list of the ten best butters I've ever eaten, I'm guessing Scandinavian restaurants would get at least half the spots. But Extebarri's butter, my God. Adam summed it up succinctly with the first bite: "This butter is unreal." A distinctly goaty butter -- teetering on the edge of being a creamy cheese -- it was perfectly salty-smokey from the sprinkling of black volcanic salt. So good that even while showing a bit of illness-induced restraint, I wouldn't let them clear the butter away until the very end of the meal so that I could pick at it for as long as my stomach would allow. The buffalo milk fresh cheese was also delicious -- almost yogurty in its tangy richness. Not the cheese's fault that it couldn't compare to its platemate.
|Butter goat's milk; Buffalo fresh cheese fine herbs and hazelnut|
We had eaten a lot of tasty anchovy-containing pintxos the night before, but this was my platonic ideal of a pintxo. A perfect sliver of grilled pan con tomate, a bit of onion, a beautifully briny anchovy -- crunchy, grill-charred, oily, salty, just enough acidity to balance everything.
|Salted anchovy toasted bread|
Oh, white asparagus, you found us in Spain. Here, it was grilled and topped with shaved raw mushrooms, baby favas (one guess on how they were cooked!), and an excellent fruity olive oil. Very nicely springy.
|Asparagus green leaves and St. George's mushrooms|
When we'd initially looked at the menu, I'd asked for a substitution for the oyster because I wasn't sure a raw oyster was such a good idea. It turns out it was cooked with spinach (but I still left it to Adam). As a replacement, I got these oceany, oily, tasty clams. (Recurring theme: very fresh seafood very simply but well done.)
|Oyster and spinach|
Pristine, sweet prawns. So tasty.
|Prawn of Palamos|
As a substitute for baby octopus, we got nicely charred sea cucumber and baby favas (a tad bitter). Adam: "Very earthy in a light way."
The oily, salty mushrooms were good, but the soft, smokey eggplant was excellent!
|King bolete and aubergine|
This dish made me realize for the first time what would become a sad theme over the next few days: thanks to my recovering stomach, I was put off by the idea of anything overly fatty or fishy. (I tried to separate my temporary aversions from dishes that just weren't my taste. Adam's similar reactions to some, including this one, helped to distinguish.) The mushrooms were a bit watery, and the eggs tasted like barely cooked yolks badly in need of salt. Too rich for my current state, I barely ate more than a bite or two, but even Adam wasn't tempted to finish it.
|Scrambled eggs of St. George's mushrooms|
Lovely, sweet baby peas and broth, punctuated with a bit of salty fish jerky. More springy deliciousness.
|Peas with its juice|
In lieu of a beef chop, we got our first taste of a regional specialty: kokotxas al pil pil. The almost heart-shaped hake jowls (for lack of a better description -- the cut comes from under the fish's jaw) are crowned by a gelatinous morsel (which you are apparently supposed to eat, given the waitress's reaction that we hadn't) and served in a sauce of garlic, oil, stock, and herbs, thickened with the fish's natural gelatin. I wasn't a fan of the slightly dense, slightly stringy texture of the cut, but Adam liked it. As with everything, the hake was nicely grilled, but I wanted salt in the sauce and found it too fishy for my vague queasiness. (It turns out, I think that I just don't like kokotxas much. I also didn't like them at Ibai, where I was feeling much better. Gelatinousness isn't my thing.)
I felt terrible leaving behind most of these beautiful pieces of grilled toro, but I never love the really fatty tuna so prized at sushi restaurants, so I wasn't the target audience even if I'd been feeling 100%. (And I was definitely lagging at this stage in the meal.) It was well salted and nicely accompanied by a delicious red pepper sauce and a mayonnaisey sauce, which felt very Spanish. Someone with slightly different preferences than I have would likely have loved it. (I consoled myself by picking on more of the goat butter.)
|Red tuna belly vizcaina sauce|
For all that I whined a bit about the lack of non-frozen desserts on this trip (especially in Copenhagen), we had some great ice creams. Extebarri's awesome milk ice cream was hands down the best. (Adam thinks it's the best he's ever had, and I haven't been able to come up with a counter-suggestion.) Gorgeously creamy, tantalizingly smokey, it was nicely offset by the beet juice but would have shone on its own. Adam's attempt to engage in Spanish conversation about ingredients with our only slightly English speaking main waitress got little more than "milk" in response. (Adam is admirably very game to try his Spanish -- which is much better than the dregs of my high school French -- but he is definitely far from fluent.) Luckily, an English-fluent waiter (who also kindly escorted us to tour the kitchen and meet the chef at the end of our meal) was able to explain that the chef makes his own wood charcoal in two ovens; when they're not in use, milk is left in a still-warm oven to reduce, where it picks up the charcoal flavor.
|Reduced milk ice cream beetroot juice|
Delicious bon bons had a very distinct pumpkin flavor, which I loved.
The chef grills cocoa beans and then makes a fabulously complex hot chocolate with honey, which was paired with excellent, moist little almond muffins.
|mignardise et eclats de cacao|
A waiter led us out onto the beautiful terrace, down through the woodshed, and into the kitchen to see the ovens and grills. It's amazing what the chef -- who was extremely friendly, with the help of the waiter's translation -- can do with a tiny space and minimal equipment. (Apparently they do weekly Sunday night pintxos for a euro a piece; I can only imagine how awesome they must be. The waiter told Adam that given the choice, his girlfriend asks to come to the restaurant for that.) Unfortunately, we had to decline the chef's offer of a gin & tonic -- another regional staple -- before we headed back to the hotel; I could barely wait to drag myself back to the car, where I napped for almost the entire return drive.
I'm not sure that we'll be rushing back to the region in general, but I hope that some future travel itinerary will bring us close enough to return here. Etxebarri is one of those rare restaurants that has a real sense of place. Even given how semi-awful I felt, there was a lot to enjoy and admire over the course of our lunch (although I would be inclined to order a la carte next time), and I would love to experience it at full gustatory strength.
And I'm still thinking about that butter.
1. Bacon's still delicious, right? Oh, it's even better than I remember? Yeah, that's what I figured.↩