Asador Ripa & Elkano
Occasionally that magical food day comes along. In this instance it happened on my recent trip to the North of Spain. There were four restaurants on our itinerary: Elkano, which can stake a claim to being the best regional fish restaurant in the world, Etxebarri, which purportedly features a chef who can use a grill the way Joel Robuchon uses a saute pan, El Capricho, which Lydia Itoi and Jeffrey Steingarten claimed served world class beef, if not the best steaks in the world, and Casa Gerardo, a lonely restaurant in Asturias that serves a modernized version of the regional cuisine. They were all going to be new experiences for me, and my friend Scott and I (we were meeting two other hungry souls in Bilbao) boarded our Saturday morning flight at Gatwick excited about the next four days of eating. But four important meals over the next four days wasn't going to be enough for me - I had a trick up my sleeve. And while we were standing online in order to check in for our flight, I turned to Scott and said, "I booked a table at Asador Ripa for lunch at 3:00."
Asador Ripa, for as long as I can remember, was the highest rated asador, or was tied for being the highest rated, in Rafael Garcia Santos's Lo Mejor Guide. That was a recommendation that I didn't take lightly. In the past I had my differences with the way the guide rated fine dining establishments, but I always found their advice about regional dining to be valuable. But besides looking for one more delicious steak to eat, I had another even more important/secret motive. I wanted to lay down a marker and see how it stacked up against the asadors that had captured the imaginations of a number of people in the online community. Which in fact, ultimately led to the popularization of Etxebarri, and the articles about El Capricho which were written by Itoi and Steingarten.
We managed to get a taxi to our hotel, walk to the restaurant (on opposite ends of downtown Bilbao) and arrive just past 3:00. The ability to sit down and order a full lunch at that hour is one of the great features of Spain. In fact we weren't the last people to sit down with people arriving well after 3:30 (in fact our friend Gary who had traveled from York walked in at around 4:00 and the restaurant was happy to grill him up a steak.) Otherwise the restaurant was unexceptional in terms of how it looked -- it was a dead ringer for a few dozen tratorrias I've been to in Italy -- save for the delicious aroma of grilled meats that was wafting around the room.
As soon as we sat down, platters of everything from grilled peppers, mushrooms cooked ala plancha, large platters of fish cooked on the asador, including some magnificent specimens of turbot, and of course, huge steaks went flying past us. In fact there was one large table, possibly twelve people, who were celebrating an occassion and who had ordered one of the biggest feasts I had seen in a long time. It seemed like every dish the restaurant had on offer was being paraded to their table one at a time. Not surprisingly, it made us amazingly hungry and rather than ordering a light lunch (after all we were having dinner at Elkano a mere 6 hours later!) we added a few starters to our supposed to be "light meal for the purpose of tasting the steak at a highly rated asador."
A huge plus at the restaurant is the owner who is about 30 years old, and who despite his Basque heritage, speaks English with a British accent. I queried him on the phenomenon and he told me that his parents sent him to boarding school in Slough outside of London, hence the accent. His advanced ability to speak the language proved to be helpful right away, as I asked him for a plate of "Padrone peppers," which is what we call them in NYC, which made him launch into a long explanation about the differences between padrones and Gernikas, telling us that the occasional padrone is hot while the phenomenon never occurs with the locally raised Gernikas. We also went for a plate of Iberico ham, a bowl of the mushrooms, and then a steak for two which was served on a small hibachi grill which allowed the crust to continue to caramelize while we were eating it.
Explaining why something makes for a top quality steak is sort of a difficult task. But I can tell you that in the annals of the top steak restaurants in the world, Asador Ripa fits very nicely along with a group that includes Peter Luger's in New York City, L'Ami Louis in Paris and Sostanza in Florence. In fact I had dinner at L'Ami Louis back in February and I can tell you that the steak at Ripa was the superior of the two (for some reason, French beef has not yet fully recovered from the mad-cow crisis.) In fact I think it is superior to the other "best steak" I had sampled in Spain, which was at Casa Julien in Tolosa, a small town about 30 minutes south of San Sebastian. But if I were to give it a shot, I would say that it's most compelling features were that it was slightly chewy -- not tough -- the steak was quite tender. But it was fibrous in a way that created a need to chew it properly. But where the steak really shined was the finish, which was as long as the finish you can find in a good bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy. My it went on for ages.
My old friend Stuart Yanigar used to talk about something called "the Thunderbird test" which went like this. If you are at a wine tasting and there two dozen bottles of wine on the table that have all been opened, you can tell the best bottle because that's the one people can't stop drinking so it is the bottle that gets finished first. Well something similar happened to myself and Scott. Because we were having a big dinner only hours after our lunch, and because Gary was landing at 3:30 and we were hoping he was going to arrive at the restaurant close to 4:00, we saved him a few thick slices of steak and a rather large and meaty bone. But when Gary walked in, the cupboard was empty as the steak was so good we couldn't stop eating it -- in fact we even cut the meat away from the bone until it was bare.
Gary walked in and sat down to a platter that had nothing but a nice, thick, bare bone on it. We laughed and we began explaining to him that we tried to save him some steak, but that it was so delicious we couldn't stop eating it. Fortunately, Spain is a place where a restaurant is more than happy to throw another steak on the asador at 4:15, so he ordered a steak of his own. And I am happy to tell you that despite eating slightly more than a kilo and a half of steak on our own, we soon began nibbling at Gary's steak (1 kilo if I recall correctly.) In fact I am ashamed to say, Scott and I ate a good bit off it including cutting some of the meat from the bone. It was like eating potato chips - we couldn't stop. It was so delicious the taste lingered in my mouth almost until dinner.
Regional dining is fact based. Meaning, as opposed to fine dining where the technical skills of the chef play the single most important role in the experience, regional dining is driven by sourcing the best possible ingredients. This notion, promoted by some people, that the chef makes a whole lot of difference, is silly. I mean does anyone know the name of the person who cooks the steaks at Peter Lugers? Of course not. So after we demolished the second steak, I took the opportunity to ask the owner where he sources his steaks. "From a slaughterhouse in Gallicia" he told me while mentioning the name of the town which I will never be able to repeat. "That's the only place that we have bought steaks from since we opened the restaurant." It was an important piece of information to know as we had some serious steak eating ahead of us over the next few days and this disclosure would come in handy when we tried to makes heads or tails out of the steaks we were eating. Content, we took the long way back to our hotel on what was a beautiful, sunny day in Bilbao. We rested for a few hours and soon enough it was 8:00PM and our taxi was waiting to take us to Getaria.
The taxi ride from Bilbao to the unusual Basque fishing village of Getaria is a bit over an hour. I say the village is unusual because despite its exquisite location on a promontory that juts out along the Atlantic Ocean on the coast road between Zarautz and Zumaia (one of the few strips of road between San Sebastian and Bilbao that actually hugs the coast,) the town is surprisingly void of charm. First of all the road splits the town into an upper and lower portion and second, rather than a traditionally styled port that you often see in fishing villages all over Europe, Getaria has built a long asphalt pier where the types of warehouses that you will find in industrial parks the world over abound. That these particular warehouses hold magnificent specimens of turbot and other fish that have just come off the local fishing fleet is romantic in concept only as from the looks of it they might as well be selling used tires. Another feature of the town is the fronton that is right at the traffic light in the heart of town. For those of you who do not know what a fronton is, it's the court that is used to play Jai-Alai on and it sports a giant wall which one hits the ball against, and a side wall that has various lines marked on it which form the rules of the game. Unfortunately, despite having come across a number of different frontons over my years of travelling through the Basque region, I have yet to see one in use which is a great disappointment. Especially since I always carry a cesta (the basket used to catch and throw the ball) with me where ever I go, just so I can jump into a game if I happen to run across a fronton that is actually in use.
Surprisingly, Elkano is located just above the coast road rather than just above the pier which is where the other seafood specialists in town are located. The dining room is elegant for a restaurant serving regional cuisine, and it was an indication that the Arregui family takes their dining seriously. We arrived at 9:15 and they sat us at a large table in the main dinging room. Perdo Arregui came to our table to greet us. Sixty-Eight years old, he has been serving perfect specimens of the local catch to happy diners since 1964. I asked him if he spoke English and he shook his head while indicating that he would get someone who did. But before he left, I whipped a copy of the OA Survey out of my pocket and asked him if he had seen it (like other restaurants in the Top 100, I had mailed the restaurant a copy.) He peered down at it and then he smiled and his eyes opened wide while acknowledging that he had seen it. It didn't take him long to figure out that I was the guy who wrote the book and he hurried off to get us someone who spoke English.
Our English speaker turned out to be Pedro's son Aitor. Unlike his father who was stocky in build, Aitor was tall and thin and he appeared to be in his late 30's. On occasion his 11 year old son would turn up at the table in order to give his dad a hug and kiss. His proud daddy told us the kid loved helping out at the restaurant, especially when they let him work the grill. I wonder if they would let me borrow him and take him to the Hamptons for a weekend or two. Otherwise we put ourselves in Aitor's hands, and he turned out to be the perfect liaison between the glories one can find on the Basque Coast and four hungry diners. Not only did he choose what we should eat for dinner, but each course was accompanied by a discourse on what made the ingredient or preparation unusual as well as exactly how we should eat it.
We started our dinner with a platter of percebes, or sea barnacles as they are called in English. I got to sample them at Combarro in Madrid last April. They are an unusual creature, looking like an octopus finger with a nail on it, they grow on rocks in areas that are underwater when the tide is in, and are exposed to the air when the tide is out. This makes them difficult to harvest, as the divers have to wait until the tide recedes and then scrape them off the rocks, only to have to get out of the water when the tide rolls back in. You open them by ripping apart the soft skin that holds what appears like the tail of a soft belly clam, or the tail of a steamer if you pull away the dark membrane. Then Aitor suggested that we have "kokotxas three ways." Kokotxas are the cheeks of the Hake fish. Actually they are the gelatinous bits of meat from the area right below the fish's mouth. Aitor wanted us to experience three different preparations, claiming each one is representative of a different era of cuisine in the region. The first preparation was lightly dipped in a egg batter and sauteed. The second, a preparation Aitor claimed they invented, was grilled on the asador, and the third was prepared "in the style of my grandmother." The contrast between the three preparations was significant. My favorite was the first one, lightly dipped in egg. There was something about it that made it more modern than the others. I think it had to do with the egg absorbing the natural gelatin that is released from the cheek when it is cooked. Sort of the way egg whites are used to filter the solid trace elements in a barrel of wine. The result was like eating a clean and tasty seafood omelet that was filled with chucks of soft but meaty clams. Let's just say this preparation was exceptional and my favorite of the three. A few minutes later our waitress turned up with kokotas that were grilled, which Aitor described as his favorite amongst the three. They were slightly smoky and the grilling released a small amount of gelatin which gave the cheeks a bit of viscosity. They were good, but in second place for me when compared to the first preparation. Then Aitor appeared with the third preparation telling us, "this is how my Grandmother cooked kokotxes for my father." adding, "I hate this style." We laughed, and while I found the preperation enjoyable, I knew where he was coming from. These were cooked in way so that the maximum amount of gelatin would be released and the natural viscosity completely covered the inside of your mouth. It was old fashioned regional cooking at its best - tantamount to eating the calves foot stew that my Grandmother used to make.
Local lobster cooked on tha asador was next. I thought it had good flavor but the others felt it was overcooked. I will cede to their opinions but I have to say that I enjoyed it. Espeadenyes on the asador were next (no photo.) The sex organ of the sea cricket from what I understand were grilled over charcoal and then spiked with a bit of olive oil. Delicious although I must disclose that I am an espardenyes freak and I wish I didn't have to fly to Spain to eat them. Then the main event, a 3 1/2 kilo turbit that was cooked on the asador and then doused with the sauce of vinegar and lemon that thay like putting on fish in the Basque region. Aitor came to our table to filet the fish, separating the three different types of meat on each plate, while offering specific instruction on the best way to eat each different section of the fish. It was good advice because besides the delicious flavor, what sets these fish apart is the textire of the meat which varies from the firm meat from the body section to the gelatnous parts that you have to suck out from thee bones that are closer to the fins. He even went to great lengths to to dissect the fish's skull in order to serve us an unusual piece of meat that comes from between the eyes. At this point in the meal, normal diners would have been done but not us. All evening we had watched plates of what looked like peas being delivered to various tables and we were wondering why we weren't among the the chosen? We asked Aitor about it and he apologized profusely, saying he thought we didn't want vegetables. Soon enough a plate appeared, with a row of the first spring peas on one side and a row of the first spring fava beans on the other. Boy were they good and sweet as sugar, and they were actually better than the desserts that followed them.
Besides the delicious food, they have a nice cellar at Elkano which also happens to be reasonably priced. We began with a delicious bottle of 1996 Bollinger RD that was priced at 105 euros (in fact my friend Toby was in Venice the next week and Da Fiore had the same wine on their list for 400 euros!) and we down bottles of 1950 Cune Vina Real (charming but almost at the end of its useful life) and a 1974 Contino which was terrific. But the biggest surprise came when we asked our waitress for the bill. Aitor appeared a few minutes later and told us that his father left orders that the meal was on him. We all began to protest but he wouldn't hear of it saying that if we didn't like it we would have to take it up with his father, and he had gone home more than an hour earlier. Now I like a freebie as much as the next guy, but that isn't why we went to the restaurant and we all felt a bit awkward about it given the circumstances. But we weren't going to win the argument so we decided to give the wait staff that handled the various chores at our table (three people) a 200 euro tip which they were visibly happy with and which caused a special visit to our table to offer a sincere thank you.
There was a problem with the taxi they had called for us. It seems that the first taxi that was dispatched had some type of engine trouble and they had to send a second taxl all the way from San Sebastian. We didn't pull into Bilbao until 2:00AM, and after putting a bit of time into answering some emails, I slept until 11:00 the next morning which is unusual for me when I am jet lagged as I am typically up at 7:30 in the morning. It just shows you how content I was from the events of the prior day. And now, almost three weeks later, the memories of the day linger on. In fact I had forgotten to take my camera to Elkano so I emailed Scott to ask if I could use his photos. He replied saying he would send them the next morning, but he added that, "those meals were so good I could have them again today" to which I responded, "I know, that's exactly what my blog article is about."