The Epicurean's Atlas: Asador Etxebarri
ADDRESS San Juan Plaza, 1, 48291 Axpe, Bizkaia, Spain
T o call Victor Arguinzoniz’s food barbecue is a little like referring to Buckingham Palace as a townhouse: the description is true as far as it goes, but it leaves out a lot. Arguinzoniz is a genius with a grill. His ingredients may be familiar, but the extraordinary results have charmed and impressed gastronomes around the world, to the extent that this small restaurant in an obscure part of rural Spain now receives around 1,000 emails a day enquiring about a lunchtime booking (it is not open in the evening).
Since 2010, Arguinzoniz’s restaurant, Asador Etxebarri, has held a Michelin star, but he does not come from a starry background. He grew up in the village of Axpe, just around the corner from the restaurant where he has made his name. His childhood home had neither electricity nor gas and Arguinzoniz has said that as a boy he became fascinated by the flames of the open fire that his mother and grandmother would use to cook their meals.
Located between Bilbao and San Sebastián, one of the world’s finest dining cities, the Atxondo Valley is a green place surrounded by mountains. Its peaceful, offthe-beaten-track ambiance is disturbed only by the hungry international travellers who now come in to dine – and to drink, with the assistance of Arguinzoniz’s Sommelier Mohamed Benabdallah, an Algerian-born, Swiss-trained phenomenon, who arrived at the restaurant in 2017. Benabdallah, who is 39, truly learned his trade during the six years he spent at Mugaritz, Andoni Luis Aduriz’s renowned restaurant outside San Sebastián. At Asador Etxebarri he presides over a list that he considers to be “short but precise” – although by short he means 20 pages, half of them Spanish labels. (This division carries over into the very top tier, a special section devoted to Vega Sicilia and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.)
“It takes a lifetime of dedication to pare things back to these kinds of delicious essentials”
Here, in a kitchen only big enough for two people, on grills he customised himself (before becoming a restaurateur he used to work with timber), Arguinzoniz turns seemingly simple, if exemplary components – an oyster, a baby octopus, a beef chop from a Galician cow – into exceptional dishes by grilling on wood that he chooses specifically for the flavours it imparts: apple to complement shellfish, holm oak for tuna. Most of the wood comes from the beautiful surrounding valley. Simplicity, a touchstone of Basque cooking, is key, but it is also deceptive, because it takes a lifetime of dedication to pare things back to these kinds of delicious essentials.
Benabdallah has commented admiringly on his employer’s quest for perfection: “His dedication is obsessive. For him, Asador Etxebarri is not so much his restaurant as his child.”
Arguinzoniz’s perfectionism comes up whenever fellow chefs, food critics or gastronomes talk about him. It is always intended as a compliment. “There is no secret,” says Arguinzoniz. “It’s all about hard work, day in and day out, having patience and taking time.”
There is a saying that you fight fire with fire, but flames are not Arguinzoniz’s antagonists – quite the contrary. When it comes to fire, he doesn’t fight, he dances. “Fire is my medium and my method of communication,” he says. “For me, the dishes I serve are my way to convey what I feel.”
The results – served à la carte or in a tasting menu of around 14 courses – are a memorable melange of earth, sea and flame. Everything is grilled or seared, from the luscious Palamós prawns in their shells to the mozzarella made with milk from his own buffalo herd and the vegetables from his kitchen garden. Even the ice-cream is concocted with milk smoked in a bespoke contraption made to his own design. There are no recipes: it is all in Arguinzoniz’s head and imagination. It is that inventiveness, as well as the quality of the ingredients and the refinement of his grilling techniques, that renders this simplicity so spectacular. He has been known to use a laser to drill holes in asparagus, which he then covers with moss, so that on the grill the plant dries out while the vegetable retains its moisture, as well as acquiring a beguilingly subtle smoky flavour. On the plate, it is only the succulent perfection of the spears that is obvious; all that work becomes invisible.
The 63-year-old chef, who has never had a formal lesson but has been learning on the job since he opened his restaurant more than 30 years ago, plays with cooking times in order to give each element of a meal the precise texture, aroma and flavour he seeks. Benabdallah, meanwhile, relishes the challenge of sourcing boutique labels as well as world-famous names in order to pair those dishes with wines that can complement or even enhance their perfection.
Photos by Óscar Oliva