This is Bittor Arguinzoniz’s "smoke and miracles" restaurant, Asador Etxebarri, located in an eighteenth-century stone house in the small town of Axpe (~1,700 people) in northern Spain
“Mom, when you die I’m not going through all those file cabinets of travel articles in your garage,” Lynn (an “only”) told me one day years ago when we were sorting through stuff before moving.
But consider two articles, “The Grilling Genius of Spain” and “Smoke and Miracles.”
Without them, how would Magellan and I have tasted the fire-smoked food, delicious and unique, at Bittor Arguinzoniz’s restaurant, Asador Etxebarri? (Isn’t that a mouthful to pronounce?)
Bittor (Victor in English) grew up in in the Basque mountain village of Axpe (pronounced Ath-pay) in a farmhouse suffused with the primordial fragrance of wood smoke. The family had no electricity or gas—his mother cooked everything over a hearth fire. When he finished school, Bittor worked as an electrician and in a paper mill. Then in 1989, he bought an abandoned three-storey limestone building dating back to the eighteenth century on the town’s main plaza. Like many Spanish guys, he enjoyed grilling—but he also wanted to create a restaurant, a social hub to keep the village alive. In 1990 at the age of 30, he opened Asador Etxebarri—it means new grill house in Spanish—and began serving grilled food, charred and delicious.
Curious, Bittor wondered what it would take to grill fragile foods like anchovies. He began experimenting and inventing, designing contrivances like stainless-steel grills with grates that move up and down with the turn of a wheel to control the food’s distance from the heat, as well as sieve-like baskets and laser-perforated saucepans. (We asked for a kitchen tour and got to see some of these ingenious tools.) Self taught, Bittor realized, as Colman Andrews wrote in the article stored in our garage, that “if he had the right equipment and could control the temperature accurately enough, there was almost no food that he couldn’t cook over coals and embers.”
Where there’s smoke there’s flavour. Bittor also began experimenting with burning different woods to enhance the flavours of individual ingredients. Oak for seafood and mushrooms. Grape-vine trunks, because they burn very hot, for beef. Colman explains the process:
Before every service, wood is burned inside the tightly sealed ovens, in an oxygen-deprived environment, so that it smolders slowly and doesn’t produce volatile impurities that might lend a charred flavor (and carcinogens) to foods. The results aren’t extinguished and then reignited like barbecue briquettes. They’re used directly from the oven, white-hot and burning at more than 900 degrees Fahrenheit, for foods like angulas and veal chops. Or, to cook more delicately textured foods like salt cod and oysters, the coals are allowed to cool to glowing embers.
Bittor even creates smoked ice cream and butter by reducing the cream in special containers on top of a coal-burning stove!
Notice the simple menu. No elaborate adjectives. No pedigrees of the produce. No Chef’s name at the top, just “Today we offer” (and they offered more than what was listed). Perfection without pretension.
I dream about Bittor’s butter. Goats’ milk was smoked over a fire, churned, then sprinkled with wood ash and black salt. We lavished it over Extebarri’s rustic bread cooked in a wood-fired oven—in the top ten of best dishes I’ve ever tasted
A little ball of fresh cheese made from smoked buffalo milk (which has twice the fat of cow milk) surprised my taste buds as unlike Magellan, this isn’t a cheese I’m enamoured with
Pinkish and moist, the smoky, fishy and salty taste of these salt-cured anchovies oozed into batons of Extebarri’s toasted bread
Raw porcini mushrooms, white-fresh, paper-thin and generously sea-salted, served on cream crackers
A tiny oyster lightly poached in its shell on the grill. For the presentation, it was hidden in the shell, resting in its own briny juice that had been whipped into a seaweed foam—no extraneous sauces here
Nestled together, a pair of Gamba red prawns from Palamós on the Costa Brava north of Barcelona, famous for their large size and firm texture were licked by the grill and sprinkled with sea salt. We devoured their sweet and succulent flesh from head to tail—the best prawns we’ve ever tasted
How did Bittor get a tomato to look and taste like this? Its dense texture complemented its ocean companion—a square of rare, lightly charred tuna—what a happy couple
The lightly charred sea cucumber was surprisingly tender (like the razor clams we ate in Spain) and the baby fava beans tasted like they’d soaked up the flavours of a summer garden
Look at those baby favas glistening with olive oil, elevated from a humble vegetable to queen of the plate
The oceanic taste of tender squid was punctuated by dots of its own concentrated ink and balanced with the sweetness of a little onion jam
Meaty porcini mushrooms and soft eggplant, a contrast of smokey textures, tasted like autumn in a bowl (Extebarri gives vegetables, fish and meat equal time on the stage)
The simplicity of perfection. Charred grouper, the skin a chewy explosion of salt and smoke and sea, with grilled baby vegetables
Magellan can cook a steak and we’ve had our share of Alberta ranchland beef—but nothing compares to Extebarri’s Galician rib eye cooked over la brasa (their word for barbeque). They call this steak a chuleton (it has a good chew). It has a smokey aroma, a caramelized crust and the primal, supple flavour of good meat—rare perfection. Is it the lush grass? The aging of the meat? The grilling?
Sheep’s milk was subtly smoked, reduced, churned into ice cream, shaped into a quenelle and served in a coulis made from wild red fruits
A spoonful of sensuality
A second dessert of grilled peaches on toasted bread—by now we were getting a little full (but not stuffed in an uncomfortable way; the portions are not huge and the service is perfectly paced)
Around 4 o’clock, the day’s light fading, we recharged for the night with mignardises of baby almond cakes and strong coffee (I forgot to ask if they smoke the coffee beans!)
In the other article in our garage about Asador Etxebarri, Anya von Bremzen quotes the description of Bittor’s grilling from the Catalan daily newspaper, La Vanguardia: “Imagine he’s gone back to the cave: meat and fire! This philosophy of humility before nature is revolutionary.”
The rural landscape around Axpe is intensely lush; like giant tubes of green paint were freshly squeezed over every field of thick grass. On those verdant fields as we went for a walk before our 1:00 lunch reservation, cattle and chickens free-ranged on their lunch, barely raising a glance. Cocina de producto for Bittor’s ingredient-driven cuisine.
Even with lat longs for Axpe, we almost missed the turnoff for Axpe
We've never seen anything quite so rural and beautiful as Axpe. In an uber-green, quiet, pastoral valley, Axpe is nestled in the Atxonda foothills of Mt. Anboto between San Sebastián and Bilbao.
Even the cattle seem surprised to see travellers like us wandering among their meadows of green before our big lunch at Extebarri
Extebarri, meaning new house in Spanish. A new style of grill cooking. A new twist on serving exceptional local ingredients. A new way to fire up ancient methods of simple cooking. A restaurant with red-hot results.
Using charcoal he makes from local woods (oak, grape, apple...) as the main heat source for food cooked on pulley-operated grills has enabled Bittor to raise grilling at Extebarri to unprecedented levels of sophistication, elevating the natural excellence of the region's bounty
Just water you think? Hey, it was our anniversary! There was taxaloi, a local sparkling wine, to start. And a nice red. And local brandy with this surprise anniversary cake.
Extebarri, as you can see from Magellan's face, is one of the best restaurants we've ever been to.
The best steak ever, gnawed to the bone—one of the three dishes at Extebarri in my top ten of best dishes ever eaten
Chatting over the course of lunch, we must have told one of the lovely staff that it was our anniversary—and surprise—a millefeuille cake layered with custard perfumed with discrete hints of smoke arrived—our third dessert. How could we resist?
At the Mendi Goikoa Hotel in Axpe up the hill from Extebarri, we were on the hayloft floor of two nineteenth-century Basque farmhouses that have been converted into a 10-room hotel. There's a restaurant in what was the barn and a breakfast veranda filled with antiques and the quietude of the valley's farms.
Food critics have stoked up their praise for Extebarri—and it’s hotter than ever before.
In 2013, when we celebrated our 44th anniversary there, Etxebarri ranked, coincidentally, 44th on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. This year, it’s moved up to 13th place! Magellan and I can see why. More than any restaurant we’ve been to, Etxebarri still fires up our taste buds and amygdalae every time we think about it. Which is quite often… My wish? One more taste of Bittor’s genius before those files in our garage go up in smoke.
Andrews, Colman. “Smoke and Miracles.” Gourmet: June 2009, p 98-101. Good luck finding this now that Gourmet magazine has gone up in smoke.
Asador Extebarri has a great website. Bittor’s wife Patricia runs the dining room, and when we were there, the servers were all local women. The main floor bar is still the heart of the Axpe community.
We booked a room for the night in the town’s charming Mendi Goika Hotel with its tagline, “Donde el silencio se oye”—Where silence is heard. (Long silences gently paused by the tinkling of cowbells.) “No hay problema,” the hotel replied to my email when we asked to check in early. Nestled in the Atxonda foothills of Mt. Anboto, the area is popular with hard-core cyclists who look like they’re training for the Tour de France.
This handy little widget allows you to easily click to our most recent stories, as well as our most popular posts and comments. You can also use the category widget to refine your search. Enjoy!
We’ve got lots more travel stories to come, so please sign up below to continue the journey. We'll notify you each time a new post is added to our site, more or less weekly. Your info is safe with us — we promise not to send it on any trips.
We have lots of categories and tags to help you easily refine your search in our stories, but feel free to use this feature to find unique items. Perhaps try something delicious like 'paella'.