As soon as we settled on going to Spain for my mother’s 70th birthday, I immediately started booking the restaurants I really wanted to try, including Asador Etxebarri and Celler Can Rocca. I, of course, initially booked several more, including Arzak and Mugaritz, but then decided that eating 20-course meals almost every other day was a bit extreme…
I did a lot of research and asked lots of people about their favourite San Sebastian spots and, almost unanimously, people said Asador Etxebarri was a must. So I settled on that and cancelled Arzak and Mugaritz.
We planned Asador Etxebarri for a Sunday lunch, as a 15 course including steak seemed better suited for a midday meal. I actually have realized that I much prefer having long meals at lunch–dinners can go really late, and then the last thing you feel like doing is sleeping after a massive multi-course meal. The only challenge with the lunch strategy is that it sometimes involves driving and then the assigned driver (a.k.a., Stewart) usually can’t fully benefit from wine pairings.
Asador Etxebarri is located an hour or so from San Sebastian (closer to Bilbao) in a tiny village (Atxondo, pronounced “ah-chon-doh”).
The downstairs area is their casual pintxos counter and the upstairs is the more elegant dining room where we had our booking and decided to go crazy and order the 15-course tasting menu.
Augustin, the manager, welcomed us with the warmest smile and was the service highlight of our lunch.
The other servers didn’t seem as “on the ball”, but maybe it was because we are not fluent in Spanish or they were shy because of their more rudimentary English. But sometimes service was just not that impressive as dishes would just get placed on the table without any details or explanation (unless done by Augustin).
I won’t bore you with the details of every single dish… but here are the pictures…
Chorizo sandwich: surprisingly one of our favourite dishes. Perfect bread, nice chorizo with a good spicy kick.
Butter: OMG this was insane. We got delicious butter and also soft, buffalo cheese with a lovely smoky hint. We couldn’t stop eating it.
Salted anchovy: I am not a fan usually, but this was not the tinned, nasty one obviously and I ate 75% of it, which means it was actually the best anchovy I’ve ever had!
Asparagus: I grew up with white asparagus always being associated with ones that came from a jar, but as an adult I learned that they can be fresh, and great, and these were fabulous proof of that – only issue was they were served in a silly bowl that was unstable and every time you reached for it, it tumbled…
Chlamys: from the name this was not too exciting (jk,) but we actually weren’t crazy for these scallops at all as they had a chewy texture – and we are massive scallops fans, primarily my mom and me.
Prawns: the most gorgeous and tasty prawns ever; massive and fantastic. I even (somewhat) enjoyed sucking the heads!
Baby octopus: another dish I wasn’t crazy for. I prefer my octopus grilled and these were mildly slimy.
Aubergine: I have really come around on aubergine and these were delicious, not soggy or slimy, and were tossed with succulent mushrooms.
Scrambled eggs: these were gorgeous, but way too runny and actually none of us loved them. Mom and Stewart even left some on the plate…
Peas: in its juice. One of the brightest and tastiest dishes. SO simple and so fresh and great.
Red tuna belly: a perfectly cooked tuna belly served with a small smear of vizcaina sauce which is very similar to a romesco (red peppers and almonds).
Beef! I couldn’t believe we got a massive beef chop as our last course. At this point we were absolutely full, but it was one of the best beefs I’ve ever had–which is hard for me to admit as I am Brazilian and tend to be very biased towards our native cuts like picanha. But this was tender, perfectly flavoured and seared, and addictive.
The main dessert was a milk ice cream with beetroot juice. Forgettable, but we also got some pumpkin bonbons and then a thick hot chocolate that was too die for, that was served when we ordered coffees.
In sum: Asador just was promoted from number 13 to number 10 on the list of the World’s 50 best (http://www.theworlds50best.com/). I really appreciate they are doing something much simpler than many of the others on the list, preserving and respecting each ingredient and showcasing its flavours. But, in a way, so is Blue Hill at Stone Barns. They are very different concepts, but with some commonalities and Blue Hill got #48 (a very unfair ranking in my opinion). Blue Hill should be top 10! And even though we had a good meal at Asador Etxebarri, and the beef was exceptional, we would suggest people order a la carte instead, and just focus on the dishes that are truly spectacular and mix in the things they crave (the grilled lobster at another table looked insane!). But Augustin was one of the most entertaining and fun people I’ve met in ages and he could help you craft a magical meal.
My friend Kris went to visit Asador Etxebarri a couple of weeks after we did and was invited to see the kitchen (so were we and then we ended up forgetting) so I asked him to take a couple of pictures….
I also ran into Augustin and Chef at the 50 Best awards in NY. I swear Augustin looked a lot happier when he saw me than this picture represents…….