Eating and drinking takes on a whole new meaning in the Basque countryside, most notably when enjoying wood-fired delicacies at village grill houses, known locally as “Asadores”.
During my recent adventures in Spain, I enjoyed an evening at what food and wine lovers believe to be the most celebrated of Asadores, Etxebarri, recently landing at #6 on the world’s best 50 restaurants of 2017.
Etxebarri is located in a picturesque farming village of Axpe, 40 minutes outside of San Sebastián, where cooking has always been done over a wood-burning hearth. Self-trained chef and proprietor Victor Arguinzoniz celebrates his love of fire by grilling everything (including ice cream) over smoldering, wood-chard embers, extracting flavors and aromas I never believed to be possible until that day!
The restaurant itself is charming. We were told it was once a home, purchased and refurbished by the Arguinzoniz family in 1990. We entered through the main entrance, a bar for the local village folk to gather. The formal dining room resides on the second floor. We ascended the stairs and were shown to our table with a stunning view of the green rolling hills dotted with farm animals full of sheep and cows.
Shortly after being seated, we were greeted by the Chef Sommelier, Agusti Peris, a colorful fellow who explained the wine program in delight. The wine list was peppered with gems from around the globe, all of which were listed at an outstanding value. We ordered a bottle of 2013 Jérôme Prévost Fac-Simile Rosé to toast the occasion. This is one of my favorite champagne bottlings, lively, energetic from 100% Pinot Meunier which we enjoyed with the amuse-bouche, a thin cracker topped with freshly gathered wildflowers and lettuce leaves.
For our second bottle, we ordered 2015 Bodegas y Vinedos Raul Perez 'Sketch' Blanco, an old vine Albariño from Rias Baixas with beautiful depth and salinity. A perfect compliment to the seafood courses to follow.
Chef Sommelier revealed a second wine menu with single vineyard bottlings keep aside for hand-sells. We eagerly pursued the list as our next dish arrived to the table, bringing with it a sultry perfume of smoke.
With only sea salt, olive oil and his grill, Chef Victor is able to concoct aromas and flavors that are out of this world. The mastery of his craft relies on his ability to pair the aromatics of wood specimen with the protein being prepared. Not unlike pairing food and wine. Softer and nuanced aromas pair best with seafood and more robust and full aroma for meat. I have even heard that chef has used vine cuttings from Rioja in his cooking.
For the final savory dish, we were served a beef chop, a signature dish of Etxebarri. A twelve year old dairy cow, salt cured and dry-aged for 45 days then slowly cooked over a thin layer of charcoal embers. The final product is like butter with every sinew broken down and heightened by the caramelized crust. A perfect pairing with the 2012 Nepoort Turris Douro, Portugal produced from 130 year old vines offering sexy peppery and black cherry notes and a lovely minerality. 2012 was the first year this cuvee was produced, and it is still very lively and fresh.
Through this experience, I was reminded of the power of scent has upon us. I am so grateful for the lessons I have learned through my love of wine. The most important of which is living life through all five senses.