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.
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.
Because of certain postings on the Opinionated About Dining Discussion Forum, as well as reviews I have read on other blogs, I dedicated a chunk of my recent trip to Europe to eating at a few of Spain's better known regional restaurants. Spanish regional cuisine is sort of in these days, as Spain is the last of the big three, France and Italy being the other two, to be discovered by the foodie community. The result is that people now talk about platters of Joselita ham, or grilled red shrimp from Denia, or baby lamb roasted in an asador, the way we used to talk about cassoulets or roast Bresse chickens, or dishes like ribolita or grilled scamponi during the 1980's, which was the golden age of Americans travelling to Europe for the purpose of eating.
Unlike French regional dining, where writers like Patrica Wells and guides like Gault Millau created a framework for where people needed to go and what they needed to eat when they got there, there is no equivelent English language publication covering Spanish regional cuisine. As a result, non-Spanish diners are sort of backing into Spanish regional cuisine as a by-product of diners travelling to Spain to sample eat the new Spanish haute cuisine at restaurants like El Bulli, Martin Berasetegui and Arzak. But since man can't live on haute cuisine alone, invariably diners will also seek out the best tapas bars, asadors, paella specialists and other types of casual restaurants that invariably featured the cuisine of the region you happened to be in, and the Spanish dining circuit now includes a list of places that some people consider a must go.
Mugaritz–Not all of today's ultramodern chefs have a natural-tasting cuisine. But at Mugaritz, Andoni Luis Aduriz has managed to develop a cuisine that relies on natural ingredients, while utilizing cutting-edge culinary technique to prepare them. His dishes typically incorporate some type of herbal infusion, and the subtle nature of their flavor sets the stage for a thoughtful and subtle cuisine. His repetoire of dishes isn't limited to local Basque ingredients—he will step out of the region and feature ingredients that you wouldn't unusually find in a restaurant located a few miles from San Sebastian. In late January when root vegetables were in season, he served a delicious dish of yuca cooked in truffle juice and sesame, and layered with taro and winter herbs; foie gras and yuca in a consommé made from date-stones, and veal cheeks cooked sous vide for 35 hours and served with “pepper tears,” one of the greatest dishes in cuisine today. Considering that the scope of his cuisine is more in line with what a one- or two-star restaurant would serve, the fact that I have given it the highest rating in Spain is telling. An important restaurant, and one that people should return to at least every other year in order to see how Aduriz is progressing. He is a chef who is a candidate for three stars. A-
Roast Escalope of Foie Gras Served on a Charcoal Grill with Crystallized Yuca in a Date-Stone Consommé and Marigold Flowers from Andoni Luis Aduriz