The Basque region: fun and fire in Spain’s top restaurants

In my last post I focused on the pintxo, what I might consider the most fun food to eat. The playfulness and social hospitality of Basque cuisine is found beyond the pintxo bar and in some of the most revered restaurants in the world. I was lucky (and crazy) enough to eat a three of these restaurants, with seven Michelin stars between them.

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Many of the more serious restaurants in the world feel a bit performative. There is a carefully managed detachment between the servers and the patrons, and the actual cooking of the food is hidden from view so that we are left to marvel at the uncanny genius of the chefs from a distance.

At both Arzak and Azurmendi, the relationship between those who cook the food and those who eat the food is very un-serious. Juan Mari Arzak is largely credited with putting haute Basque cuisine on the map in the 1970s. The building out of which Arzak operates has been owned by the Arzak family since 1897 and was originally a winehouse and tavern. His daughter, Elena, is now the head chef and recognized as one of the best in the world.

Despite the accolades that are unmatched by most chefs, the father-daughter duo seems as accessible as ever. My guess is that some of this stems from the restaurant’s humble beginnings as a neighborhood tavern. Both Juan Mari and Elena stopped at our table at different points to chat, as they did at every table in the restaurant. We were urged multiple times to feel as if we were at home and told that if we didn’t like something a substitute would happily be provided. Of course, I couldn’t even entertain the idea of sending something back to that kitchen.

Every dish that came out was creative, interesting, and beautiful. Though I did feel that some aspects of the food missed the mark. Namely, the lobster that was served on a tablet with gif-like videos of the sea and the tendency for very precious plating.

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Like Arzak, Azurmendi is also a family affair, though with a much younger history. Azurmendi was started by Eneko Atxa, who was easily convinced by his wine-making uncle to go in on a property outside of Bilbao after years of working in some of the best restaurants in Spain. The winery, Gorka Izagirre, managed by Atxa’s uncle can be easily seen from the dining room of Azurmendi and the Gorka wines are featured at the restaurant.

And also like at Arzak, traditional rules don’t apply. Before even being seated, you are led to a literal green room for some starters. I felt a bit like I had slipped through the looking glass at first. Each bite looked magical and too precious to have been created by human hands. As if to quell any doubts that a person had indeed made this food, we were then led to the kitchen, where we greeted the chefs and then were served another tiny course, this time prepared in front of us. One of the chefs also explained the different stations in the kitchen, which was gently humming like a Swiss watch.

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Afterward we were whisked to yet another location that was not a dining table. In a small glass room evoking a greenhouse, filled with small plants and spices, another chef explained the philosophy behind Azurmendi. Azurmendi has been called “the most sustainable restaurant in the world” – the building produces almost all its own energy and water and the restaurant focuses on sustainable produce and agriculture, even working with a University in the area on sustainability efforts and research. Respect for nature and for ingredients permeates every aspect of the restaurant.

Hidden among the plants were several small treats. The most fun was what appeared to be a miniature apple hanging from a tiny tree. The apple was in fact a cachaça-based sorbet enrobed in chocolate. The disbelief and delight continued throughout the main part of the meal, each course offering a whimsical surprise.

The mushroom “noodles” was one of my favorite dishes, and weeks later I still can’t stop wondering what technique was used to create the noodles. Another unforgettable course was the castañeta of Iberian pork. I think the decision to leave castañeta untranslated was deliberate, so as not to frighten less adventurous customers, as castañetas are salivary glands. I love variety meats like this but am convinced that even if you don’t there is no way to refuse the savory tenderness of this dish.

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If Azurmendi is a dream, Asador Etxebarri is a trance. There is not an ounce of artifice at Etxebarri, a grill house in a small village tucked between mountains that will make you rethink the capabilities of fire. Victor Arguinzoniz is the humble self-taught chef and former logger behind Etxebarri. Nearly 30 years ago he rescued a 200 year old building in Atxondo, Spain from abandonment, and converted it into an asador, or grill house. Passion for the grill and for simplicity comes through in every aspect, including the setting. Exposed wood beams from the original structure are set between soft, unadorned white walls. Rustic minimalism is the dominant theme.

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Arguinzoniz has honed his grilling technique to perfection, devising an elaborate set up of grills which can be lowered and raised on pulleys to adjust the flavor and heat as needed.   Every course is somehow prepared using a grill, even the gently smoked sea urchin and milk used in the ice cream. They are served without much fanfare on simple dishes. The food is both direct and evocative.

Perhaps no dish is more associated with Basque barbequing than the txuleta. I referenced the txuleta in the previous post on pintxos, but it is deserving of more than a momentary mention. A txuleta is a beef chop, and in the Basque region almost certainly comes from local cows that graze on green grass for upwards of 10 years before meeting their maker.

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As Arguinzoniz is the master of the grill, he is also master of the txuleta. Seasoned I think only with salt, the distinctive earthy, meatier-than-meat flavor of mature Basque cattle was unadulterated. Though every dish at Extebarri celebrates simplicity, the txuleta was probably the purest expression of Basque grilling.

A similarly incomparable dish was the supple and subltey smokey gambas, which were simply the best shrimp I’ve ever eaten.

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There are so many top restaurants to choose from in northern Spain, and time and budgets are limited. If anyone is facing the same challenge I was in making reservations, perhaps the notes below will help you out.

In summary:

Azurmendi – beautifully located restaurant that is part science museum. Offers more than a tasting menu and I thought was the most creative.
Legina Auzoa, s/n, 48195 Larrabetzu, Vizcaya, Spain
+34 944 55 83 59

Asador Extebarri – quiet, serene, and more casual setting. Unique for the menu’s complete deference to the grill and the best value for money.
San Juan Plaza, 1, 48291 Atxondo, Bizkaia, Spain
+34 946 58 30 42

Arzak – a timeless powerhouse of haute Basque cuisine. Very good, but a bit fussy. 20-40% more expensive than Azurmendi and Extebarri (though on par with Mugaritz and Berasategui).
Av Alcalde Elósegui, 273, 20015 San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa, Spain
+34 943 27 84 65

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