It's not easy finding a place that serves breakfast in Bilbao on a Sunday morning. Okay it was hardly morning. I woke up at 11:00 and Toby and I had plans to meet at noon so we could grab a cup of coffee before heading off for Etxebarri for lunch. We ended up walking from one end of the town and back before we finally sat down at a tapas bar that was around the corner from our hotel. Soon enough it was 1:15, and our taxi was going to be at the hotel at 1:30. We headed back to meet the others and after a bumpy ride because the driver couldn't find the restaurant, we arrived at Etxebarri around 2:15.
No other restaurant has been hyped as much as Etxebarri. Vedat Milor, of the blog Gastroville, was the first person to review the restaurant on the OA forum a number of years back. But since then countless people have raved about it, most notably the "Spanish contingent" that I referred to in my post about eating at Asador Ripa & Elkano. In fact they waxed so poetic about the place that they had the chutzpah to speak of chef, Victor Arguinzoniz, and Ferran Adria in the same sentence, implying that there was some sort of equivalence between the two in terms of their importance to Spanish cuisine. But they weren't the only ones, aside from one very picky friend of mine, everyone raved about it - including my friend Toby, who visited last July, and who is normally stingy when it comes to praising restaurants - and it's rating in the OA Survey made it a restaurant "Worth Planning a Trip Around.
What makes Extebarri different than your average top restaurant in Spain is that the food is almost exclusively cooked on an asador, which in other places is known as a charcoal grill. But this isn't just any old charcoal grill. Supposedly, chef Victor Arguinzoniz has created a custom asador, with special levers and gears to control the distance between the cooking grates and the coals, as well as special cooking pans that allowed him to control the heat levels. As a committed backyard griller (I would call myself an expert but I want to be humble for a change,) I was curious to both see the contraption that Arguinzoniz created, and to taste the food that everyone was raving about.
As with Elkano, Etxebarri was much more elegant and refined than I imagined it was going to be. It's in an old house up in the hills above Durango, with a spacious dining room that features large tables with lots of space between them. Another important feature of the restaurant is an Australian named Lennox (well at least for English speakers) who is Arguinzoniz's assistant in the kitchen. We had been in touch with him by email before our visit and his presence made ordering especially easy (actually when Lennox visited the table we just told him to cook for us.) We started with some tasty home made chorizo, followed by two different types of butter, one smoked and one made from goat's milk, along with thin slices of white mushrooms. Also good but, it's a bit unusual to serve butter as a course. Then a single grilled prawn followed by some beautifully plump oysters that were lightly grilled and served on chopped seaweed.
Smoked caviar, a dish that has received unanimous raves was next, and I have to say that it completely lived up to its billing. In fact I think that someone could take domestic caviar, lightly smoke it in this style, and create a market for it. I'd love to try it with some creamy scrambled eggs. Grilled espardenyes on sliced long beans was very good but then again, I'm an espardenyes freak. Then a lightly cooked egg served atop fresh peas and crushed purple potatoes. Delicious and a welcome departure from dishes cooked on the asador. Then some very good bone marrow that was grilled and served atop spring peas, was another dish where cooking over the asdaor added value.
Kokotches and a clam were next. Both cooked over the asador and reminiscent of the preparation at Elkano the night before. Good but expected in terms of the effect the grilling had on the ingredients. Then baby eels which were superb. Slightly smoky from being grilled, their texture was superb with just the right amount of squoosh to them. By far, this turned out to be my favorite dish of the meal. Lightly smoked tuna with tomato was next. Good but again, expected if you are used to cooking tuna on your grill at home. Then a slice of what tasted like chorizo, but which was sliced like a tranch from a terrine. Quite good and it had a unique blend of tasting like beef on the outside and chorizo in the interior. Maybe someone who has had this before and who knows the exact details of the ingredient could chime in as the Spanish speaking waitresses didn't know how to explain it in English and we forgot to ask Lennox about it at the end of the meal.
Steak was our final course. And while they served a beautiful specimen which was perfectly cooked, the memory of the steak at Ripa from the day before still lingered so I'm not sure we appreciated it as much as we could have. After a few simple desserts, we visited the kitchen to inspect the famous asdaor and get a few explanations on how they grill various ingredients, and to chat with Lennox and Victor, both of whom are pictured below.
When a restaurant receives rave reviews from certain segments of the destination dining community, and I find myself disagreeing with them to some extent, I always feel as if I have missed something. This instance falls into that category but, I feel compelled to ask those who have raved about this restaurant; what about the way these ingredients are grilled, as opposed to cooking them some other way, adds significant value to the experience? I mean I do a fair amount of grilling at my Long Island home and while I can't control the heat to the same extent as they do at Etxebarri, I know the result you can get from cooking over fires of different temperatures as well as grilling over indirect heat. And while I know the grills at Etxebarri allow them to impose much more nuance and variability on the grilling process than I can do on my Weber kettle, still, as my mother would say, "grilled is grilled" and the process has its limitations. Sure it's a good dining experience but I simply do not see the claim that this is a regional dining equivalent of places like Arzak or Mugaritz.
To put a little more meat on the bones of the argument (or maybe I should say, take some off,) there is an argument to make that a super-refined grilling process actually detracts from the experience of regional dining. In fact my experience at Etxebarri reminded me of the "who has the best bouillabaisse" argument that has been going on for years between Tetou and Bacon on the Cote D'Azur. Many people claimed that Bacon, a much more refined restaurant than Tetou, served the premier example of that pricy fish soup precisely for the reason that it was more refined. But I always found their version to be somewhat lacking in soul because the level of refinement (which in reality comes down to how well the soup is strained,) removed too many of the trace elements from the finished product causing the flavor to be somewhat diluted. On the other hand the soup at Tetou was full of gusto and more in keeping with what a bourgois French grandmother (who also happened to be a terrific cook) would make for an important Sunday lunch. I guess the point is that regional cooking, by its nature, has inherent limitations and sometimes when you attempt to raise the bar too high, it loses something in the process. And while my I enjoyed my meal and I would have no problem going back, I am at a loss to see what all of the gesticulating is about. Even the claim from the "Spanish contingent" that Arguizoniz "used special pans that allowed him to grill the ingredients from the top and bottom at the same time" turned out to be nothing more than a pan I can buy at my local Williams Sonoma, which is filled with burning embers and then placed on a rack that sits above the ingredient. On the other hand, Toby said this meal paled compared to the one he had last July so maybe it was just the day we were there.
El Capricho was one of the most unusual dining experiences I ever had. Pedro Espinosa, who used to be a moderator of the Spanish forums at eGullet, and who now reviews restaurants located n the suburbs of Madrid for El Mundo, claimed to discover the restaurant. But after my lunch, it seems that seems that some famous Spanish food writer (I forget his name) put the restaurant on his list of the best chuletas in Spain and I suspect that is how Pedro learned about it . Normally, I wouldn't be in a hurry to follow Pedro's recommendations as his advice in the past has been spotty. But with Itoi and Steingarten on board, it seemed like a no-brainer. But this time there was an extra dynamic at play - what was unusual about the El Capricho situation was that Pedro held back the info about the restaurant from many people in the online community. I have no direct evidence as to why he did this but I assume it was because he wanted to pitch it to Itoi and Steingarten as some type of an exclusive, whereby they would return the favor by mentioning his name in their articles in Time & Vogue respectively. It made for an unusual dynamic in that members of the online dining communities are usually quick to share information about restaurants they discover with others. But this time Pedro held the information back. It made me realize how as members of the online community switch their status from ordinary diners to quasi-professionals, their relationship with the online community changes. It's a topic I hope to explore in a Monday Morning Agitator down the road but I thought it was relevant to this article. But just so you can understand our thought process, if a steak was so good that someone was willing to withhold talking about it in order to get an article in a major magazine, it must be one hell of a steak and as such we were willing to drive 250 miles out of the way in order to sample it.
Sometimes it's best to start a review of a restaurant with the conclusion and El Capricho, despite a number of positives which I will get to later, is one of those instances. Putting it simply, it is one of those most disgusting restaurants I have ever come across. It is located in an old wine cave, about 40 kilometers outside of Leon, Spain, and the interior is dim, dingy and outright dirty. The proprietor, Jose Gordon Ferrer (an amazingly sweet guy,) buys 15-17 year old work cattle and oxen from local farmers and puts them out to pasture for 2-3 years before slaughtering them. The result of serving such mature cattle is that the steaks are something out of the Flintsones. I'm not kidding. The four of us split two steaks, one from a 17 year old ox and one from a 15 year old cow, and the combined weight of the two steaks was more than 7 kilos. The photo of the cuts of beef sitting in the restaurant's kitchen counter is in the introduction pane and while it is difficult to see the enormity of the piece, but I assure you, for beef to be that size it had to come from cattle that survived a nuclear holocaust.
Besides making for an unusual visual, because the steaks are so thick, grilling them through would probably take more than an hour (if it could be done at all.) So Jose has worked out a routine whereby he sears the steaks on the asador, and then he brings them to your table and he carves them into small pieces. He then places a plate that has small piles of the different parts of the steak and you cook the pieces yourself on hot ceramic plates. Sorry if I am repeating myself but, the entire process was disgusting. True, at the time we were all caught up in the moment so we went along with the program but in retrospect, all four of us agreed that it was repulsive, er, disgusting. In fact, looking back on the experience, I feel comfortable speaking for the others by saying it was enough to make you vomit. Thank heavens Mrs. P wasn't there as she would be talking about it for the rest of her life! (insert smily face please.)
Of course this doesn't mean the steak tasted bad. In fact I thought the cow was pretty good, tender and juicy but ultimately lacking the complexity and long finish of the beef at Asador Ripa. The consensus on the oxen was that it suffered from the combination of being too lean and too gamey, although Gary went as far as calling it "horrible." We started with some homemade ox chorizo (dreadful) and ham made from cow which was pretty good and sort of like bresoala.
Now that we had plowed through a series of very substantial steaks, the issue of who had the best steak had to be settled. After putting hygienic issues aside, was this the great steak that Espinosa/Itoi/Steingarten claimed it to be? We all concluded not. As is always the case when it comes to dining, the restaurant with the best cuisine had the best set of facts on its side. In this case, Ripa, who in my opinion had the best steak of the three by far, used an exclusive source for their beef. Etxebarri on the other hand, told us they used multiple sources which necessarily meant that the quality varied and on some days you might get top Gallician beef but on others the beef could come from Denmark. But Capricho was a different animal entirely because they served mature work animals who had been put out to pasture rather than cattle that had been raised specifically to be eaten. Which of course begs the question, if cattle that is raised for eating gains its complexity from being placed on specific grazing regimens, why would work cattle that hasn't been put through those steps be as complex tasting? The answer is they wouldn't. Sure, a 20 year old cow has certain amount of complexity that is inherent simply due to its age. But it's not the same type of complexity that you find in a cow that has corn stuffed down its gullet for the past 15 months as if it is a goose that is being readied to donate her liver for your New Years dinner.
In the end of the day we all concluded that haute cuisine style food cooked on an asador, and 17 year old oxen that yield ribs the size of a brontosaurus, make for good copy, hence the tumult surrounding these restaurants. But closing my eyes and ears to the din and the hype, and trying to be objective using the OA scale, I would say that Etxebarri is Recommended + (and I can see the potential for it going higher) and El Capricho is Can't Recommend. Although I will say that if the same quality steak was served in better hygienic conditions, I would probably move it up to Acceptable. And if anyone out there doubts my conclusion, especially someone from the "Spanish contingent," I will be glad to cook them up a 45 day aged steak from DeBragga & Spitler, just like I did for my dinner guests this weekend, to prove it. It was far, far better than my steak at El Capricho, and a hell of a lot closer to home.