Etxebarri: transforming the Iberian seas and mountains through fire, live coal and ember wood into a gourmet escapade worth a detour
Etxebarri invites you to its “new house” for simple, perfectly grilled produce from the Spanish marine waters and sustainable mountain farms. In a contemporary rustic, rural Basque stone housing with small windows yet unrivalled views, your taste buds will journey through “fire, live coal, ember” entering the signature dishes.
Over the three decades since the stone house was bought by the chef Victor Arguinzoniz, his impeccable, locally sourced food has evolved from its humble yumminess to an elevated purist perfection. His mastery of the grill is lauded by seasoned foodies, and Michelin has awarded one star for the “high quality cooking, worth a stop!“. Tradition and perfection do not chime in the contemporary guide’s ranks in Europe (in Asia, simplicity scores with the Michelin inspectors), yet the food at Etxebarri is better than at most two and three star restaurants.
The taste experience is worth more than the visually rewarding detour, but a trip with its own mission – the superbly prepared local gastronomy. My most recent birthday was ideally set on the paved San Juan square in the naturally breath-grasping Axpe Valley. A half an hour journey from Bilbao to the Atxondo village leads through lush meadows waving gently upwards, sharing the land with dense forests and spiking rocky peaks dusted with snow in winter. You can drive (or take a taxi) from San Sebastian, but reserve at least two hours cruising on highways and rural roads. Once you exit the motored disgrace to natural landscapes to a smaller road, passing stone farmhouses with horses, buffalos or cows grazing in tranquility on the pastures, you will tune into the culinary mindset of “the new house” (well, old by now), in the Basque dialect Etxebarri.
While the stone church bells facing Etxebarri nodded to our timely arrival, the afternoon sun tickled our hands as we were eagerly forking out the sublime morsels. Peaking out through the window to the azure tinted day, the snow-capped Mount Anboto painted the fairy rural canvas with a surreal wintery mood. Being seated by the window for the five-hours lasting lunch, I was in a different mood than during the typical festive family gatherings, so loud and gluttonous, I was in a calm state of being in the moment, amused by the pristine beauty surrounding me.
Food at Etxebarri:
Perfect texture, intense balanced flavour between the produce and the grill, peak seasonality and simplicity
A generous slice of crumbly rustic white bread landed with a goat’s milk butter sprinkled with black lava flaky Hawaiian salt, and lips-licking slightly char-grilled fresh buffalo cheese (from their farm) with a sweet streak of Txacoli wine reduction. Followed by seasonal foraged chanterelle mushrooms sensibly sautéed served on a cracker patted with fresh cheese and a shot of an intense clear broth to warm you up for the endless string of edible local pride, that slowly coiled into a wildfire of gastronomic gluttony. I like to challenge my palate, and being extremely picky with charcuterie, the house-cured sliced smoky chorizo was a serious mind opener, in fact, the deepest and smoothest morsels of chorizo I have had to date! The only pork I occasionally enjoy is the impeccably humanely raised Jamon Iberico de Bellota, now joined by this chorizo from the black pig breed. Spoiled taste buds I have!
The series of pintxo bites continued with Salted anchovies stretched atop toasted bread generously bronzed with olive oil and minced herbs. Their balanced saltiness allowed for the small fish steal the show. In winter, sea shells glow, yet the Cockles boiled in local beans jus were casually served in a tin. Tweezing them out with a generous dipping in the succulent jus they were gems to us. A rare, local firm scallop Chlamys varia was not our favourite since it tasted very marine briny. Bulking out as an interesting discovery, yet I much preferred the cockles.
The bounty of the Bay of Biscay is not the only source of culinary marvelling at Etxebarri. The Prawns of Palamós, caught in the Mediterranean waters on Costa Brava but renown across Spain, were served simply buttered but cooked perfectly to show their unique finesse, firm flesh and natural deep coral tint. The Spanish believe that keeping the guts in adds flavour, but I am more inclined to the Japanese cleanliness, therefore I did not love the gutsy black streaks inside.
More seafood rolled in. The utmost tender grilled Baby squid and it’s ink with chopped caramelised onion is another superb staple on the menu. Cod kokotxa is the Basque speciality. At Etxebarri the delicate Atlantic cod cheeks were wrapped like a tempura in an egg, the two pair wonderfully, and served atop a herbed cracker. The finest execution of kokotxa I have had to date (Martin Beratasegui near San Sebastian was a close tie).
An intermezzo of Scrambled egg yolks, ceps and tartufo bianco (in season between November and December) was just too rich as we started to feel full. More wine! Still, the truffles lost themselves in the dense yolk sauce. Before that we got wrong, but better dish from the menu day earlier: charred smoky eggplants were peeled so not to overshadow the superb cep mushrooms.
Back to fish with a small serving of Swim bladder cooked in olive oil and butter, served on house preserved red pepper sheet. Eating the bladder of cod fish en premiere, perhaps not as hotly anticipated, but try and enjoy the delicately tender texture.
Baby eels (50g) served in a can for an extra €70 charge are worth the splurge, even more than the truffles. The marvellous, squid-like spaghetti bites cooked al dente, were chargrilled with butter that further polished the creatures into pearl soft mouthfeel. Exquisite!
At this point, our bellies felt like there is no more storage left, but the tasting menu reminded us of the main courses in the degustation (€176 person). More wine, please! Red cork was pulled out. The former à la carte switched into the lengthy tasting menu only recently. They will adapt your dietary restrictions like crossing off “pears” for me.
The main servings were presented to the whole table and then portioned. A whole grilled Red sea bream accompanied by simmered leeks with potatoes in their juice with olive oil melted in your mouth like a piece of chocolate. Very well prepared.
Pre-dessert icy granita transferred our palates further into the sweet realm. The desserts at Etxebarri include Reduced milk ice cream with beetroot juice, traditionally served before the seasonal dessert, which was Pear baba in the winter. In the gluttonous delirium, my husband liked it. I got the most elegantly airy cheese flan instead (I do not digest pears well). The grand finale approached. Almost not sweet, the ultra condensed dark chocolate cream sticking to your spoon and happy palate came with a charred muffin to accompany coffee (good global selection) or herbal tisane. We went for the later, a blend of anise, linden and verbena to aid with digestion of the gargantuan meal. The brown cane sugar is organic like most of the sustainably planted or raised ingredients served at Etxebarri. Cryo filtered tap water keeps thirst at bay (the mountains above whisper about the vanity of shipping bottled water from Fiji and the like).
The wine list highlights biodynamic, organic as well as the bottles coming straight from the respective winery. The later guarantee the best condition of the wine due to minimum traveling. Spain grows some fascinating indigenous grape varietals and the savvy young Spanish sommelier was helpful, so I went for a native discovery. First, a bottle of the biodynamic Selma de Nin by Família Nin-Ortiz from Catalunya. The deep, dried fruit and resinous bomb or aromas is an uncommon white blend of barrel aged Spanish indigenous grape varietal Parellada montonega and Rhone whites – Roussanne, Marsanne, and Chenin Blanc. Later, the single vineyard organic blend of luscious Mencia Falcoeira A Capilla from Valdeoras in Galicia by one of the greatest wine makers in Spain Telmo Rodriguez accompanied our main courses. Both wines were produced in tiny quantities. With the steak the Artadi Rioja could be marvellous, said the sommelier, next time.
Leaving by dusk slightly after the wintery sunset, we did not fancy a dinner, but walked off the afternoon of eating inside the Bilbao’s Gugenheim museum. Do not plan much else for the evening. We slept like the sheep grazing the surrounding mountains. The Spanish style siesta merged with the food at Etxebarri!
The reservation policy is adamant that minimum two and maximum six people can reserved. A €100 “ticket” per person must be purchased ahead to guarantee your table (deduced from the final bill), children from the age of six can join. Cancellation without charge min 15 days prior to your confirmed reservation. Additional requests are communicated via email at email@example.com
Lunch on Tue-Sat from 1pm; dinner on Saturdays only from 8:30pm. Closed August & December 24-January 9th
+34 9465 83042
Plaza San Juan, 1 Axpe-Marzana, Atxondo- Bizkaia, 48291, Spain