In 2008, a humble Basque restaurant that few had heard of, with a name few could pronounce and a chef who is not even a trained cook, ended up on Restaurant Magazine’s list of the 50 best restaurants in the world.
Asador Etxebarri (ET-che-bah-ree), in the quiet village of Axpe, a 45-minute drive from Bilbao, Spain, has little in the way of white linen or other trappings of fine dining. What it has that most other restaurants don’t, though, is a well-stocked woodshed and a kitchen with seven grills, which have secured its continued presence on the 50-best list, a Michelin star and a reputation as the mecca of grilling.
It took an electrician to lift grilling into the upper echelon of fine cooking. Victor Arguinzoniz couldn’t find work in the field he was trained in, so he worked a stint as a lumberjack. When the local restaurant came up for rent, he discovered his true calling. With wood — and the near abandonment of electrical cooking — the large, friendly 51-year-old chef-restaurateur found the key to Etxebarri’s success.
Even once you make your way to Axpe, it is hard to find the restaurant, squeezed between a parking lot and a playground. There are no people around to ask. But the smell of burning wood gives the place away.
The food is simple, sometimes so much so that it makes you wonder: Is that it?
A single shrimp is a dish in itself. No sauce, and not even a lemon wedge. Is this possible? I exclaim in enjoyment and wonder after I bite into it. It is like eating pizza in Naples for the first time; something I think I know all too well is suddenly new. A single oyster is also served by itself, warm and creamy, kissed by smoke. Three clams come with one small piece of citrus each; lemon, orange and grapefruit. And then there are the baby octopuses, tender and perfectly cooked, served with a little of their own ink as a sauce.
There is very little new in the technique. Arguinzoniz’s custom-made grills with adjustable grates are impressive. But the only reason he has so many is so he can handle several different dishes for many guests during service.
The basic concept is simple and as old as cooking itself: Fire plus food equals deliciousness. There is not really much of the cooking at Etxebarri that could not have been conducted by our ancestors 40 or 1,000 years ago. Yet it seems revolutionary, like nothing else I have tasted.
The novelty is in the execution and the attention — not so much to detail as to the fundamental elements of grill cooking. When I spend time early in the day with Arguinzoniz, both in the kitchen and in the woodshed, it all starts with the selection of wood. He uses oak for most of his cooking, selecting different-size pieces of wood for different uses. Old, slow-burning oaks that have grown in the mountains are preferred for most foods. The exception is some of the red meats, for which he finds the intense heat from vines useful, and salmon, which he cooks over citrus wood.
The day I visit, it is an all-oak day. The wood is burned in baking ovens to ensure clean, evenly burning embers, then moved to the grills when needed. The first thing that strikes me is how few burning embers he uses.
“Many people think that grilling is about a lot of heat,” Arguinzoniz says in Spanish. “It is not. It is about control of heat.”
He is a man of few words, and that is the closest he comes to articulating his approach to cooking. Most of my time in the kitchen is spent in silence, watching him prepare a number of plates at great speed without ever seeming to hurry. Occasionally he collects more burning embers, making sure to take only those that have no visible remnants of raw wood.
“Many think that it is about producing a lot of smoke,” he says. “It is not.”
What is it, then? To most, people grilling is about singeing your eyebrows while lighting the grill and then punishing the food for the mishap. When Arguinzoniz grills, it is mostly about gentleness.
Take those baby octopuses, for example. He tosses a handful of them in a little oil with some herbs. Then he grills them in a metal mesh basket, shaking them constantly to keep them dancing on the grill. When a drop of fat or cooking juices hits the coals, a flame flickers, or a whiff of smoke is released. That flavors the dish, and the result is incredibly tender flesh that is not charred at all. Still, the octopus has more grill flavor than I thought possible without overpowering its mildness.
Some chefs are generals in the kitchen; others are magicians. Arguinzoniz looks more like a musician, playing a grand piano of seven grills, with the mesh basket creating a distinct rhythm of its own.
The cliche about grilling is that it is a caveman activity. Much of the time when we think of a grilled piece of steak, we think of a hunk of meat with a burnt crust. One of the things I learn from watching Arguinzoniz is that fire allows for a host of interesting processes, not just charring. One is the searing you get from contact with the hot grates; another is the browning produced by the radiant heat from the coals. And then there are the aromas released when a few of the herbs from a marinade are burned, or when a drop of cooking juice is transformed into aromatic smoke. At Etxebarri, Arguinzoniz moderates intense heat through careful handling.
Much of modern cuisine is about textures. That is also the case with the cooking at Etxebarri: the light chewiness of barely cooked mollusks; the raw but warm and fall-apart tenderness of homemade skinless chorizo; the simple yet anything-but-classical bone-in rib-eye steak.
That thick slab of meat is cooked next to the octopuses, with a completely different technique: Arguinzoniz leaves it untouched on the grate for several minutes with only a thin layer of coals underneath. At one point I fear that he has forgotten it, distracted by my presence. He does not keep track of the fire’s temperature.
After what seems like an eternity, Arguinzoniz flips it and cooks it for a short time on the second side. The point, I am told, is to enhance flavor; to get the deepest, most profound taste of beef. It is not the most tender piece of meat I have tasted; one part is still somewhat undercooked, another a little overdone.
But it is one of the best. And the texture changes with every bite: It’s a stark contrast with modern sous-vide cooking, where each bite is perfect and each one tastes and feels the same.
Viestad will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon.