There’s something about smoke.
Most of our honeymoon was cold and wet. The kind of weather that makes you want to curl up by a fire with a galleon sized flagon of red wine.
Through our journey we were constantly being drawn to places with flickering flames and a lick of smoke trickling out the door.
So wouldn’t it be right that on the day that we were heading to the place which is a the pinnacle of all things smokey that the sun was shining and the beach of San Sebastian beckoned?
I’d made a booking at Asador Etxebarri the week before, heavily marinated in apologies. “Buenos dias, lo siento, habla englis? -My Spanish is terrible, my Basque is worse I’m afraid….”
No problem. Quickly fetched from the kitchen is Lennox. “You from Australia?” he picks from the drawl.
“So is my sister. Looking forward to seeing you next Friday.”
If only everything in this world was that easy.
Asador Etxebarri is about a forty minute drive from San Sebastian, through the windy trails of the A8 and past a small town called Axpe.
We get lost twice on the way and have a couple of Nav Girl induced pirouettes.
It’s more than worth the digitally induced dance. Axpe when we get there is so serene you can’t quite believe it’s real. There are towns that might be referred to as four horse towns. To all outside appearances this is a four building town.
Asador Etxebarri is one of those buildings. The only other structures are mountains which peer down and are so picturesque you’d be forgiven for abandoning your reservation, donning a pinafore and twirling around, singing to the sky.
I’d been tempted to include Asador Etxebarri on our itinerary for a few reasons. The vaulted Neil Perry had said it was the inspiration for his Rockpool Bar and Grill at Crown Casino in Melbourne- home to a very indulgent red meat and red wine lunch that the Hungry One and I had last year. And while we’re at home, the Hungry One is the captain of the barbecue. Fire, smoke, being outside, wielding long tongs, these all fit nicely into his division of responsibilities. So, for future inspiration, I’ve decided we’ll come to the source.
A source that is largely incomprehensible.
There are some things which are universal; the pleasure of coming in from the mountain wind, walking into a calm, spacious dining room and finding comfortable chairs where the sunlight streams in through large windows to warm your back.
Then there are those which aren’t- which is a wine list and a menu in Basque. The deer in headlights look and some sweet smiles and generic pointing simply won’t to cut it here. We’re going to need Lennox.
Thankfully he’s not far. Soon we’ve happily placed ourselves in his hands. The conversation goes something like this.
“We’d just love you to bring us what you think is best today.”
He rubs his hands “This could be fun. Do you eat caviar…?”
I get as tiny bit worried. I’ve got bells going off in my head- bigger those hanging from the steeple next door. “That sounds great- I’m so sorry, but can I give you a budget ballpark?”
He laughs “Sure.”
I say “I think I would be uncomfortable if lunch was more than… 200 euro each….”
He laughs again. Harder. “You’ve spent too much time in Paris. You’ll be fine.”
We’re more than fine. We’ve got a delightful half bottle of Txakoli the local, lightly spritzed white wine to get started and a slow progression of some of the simplest and tastiest things I’ve ever scraped up and sucked dry.
Through the course of the meal were faced with a series of things in perfect pairs. There are two circles of chorizo that are spicy and smokey and with just enough chew to make it obviously from the family of sausage, as opposed to the over seasoned sponges you’re sometimes served. Later come two grill tarred oysters, which have slow danced with smoke until they’re so sexily impregnated with it it almost feels salacious.
There are baby octopus, lightly chargrilled and puddling about in squid ink. There’s sea cucumber with a nest of tear shaped peas. There are two plump nuggets of sweetbreads that make you thank some greater power for the presence of thymus glands in our lives. There are roasted, smushed purple potatoes, topped with a poached egg and shaved cep mushrooms.
There’s a small ball with flakes on it that comes somewhere near the beginning. I assume its a ball of something fried and slightly crusted. I cut it in half and transfer it straight to my mouth. I’m expecting richness and some smokiness. I get both of those, but also a surprising deposit of saturated fat.
It’s a butter ball.
A ball of smoked butter, with crumblings of toast crusted to it. If ever there was a course to help our challenge to get chubby,this is it. I’m not sure how they did it but suddenly I think not just that they’re inspired, but we’re all idiots. Why haven’t we got smoked butter in supermarkets?
Seriously. It’s that good.
Other things that come that are similarly fun. Lennox’s foreshadowed local sourced caviar that’s smoked and warmed comes in a sweet little bowl. If the oyster was sexy, this is indecent. The little beads rub up against each other, loll about in your mouth and leave a salty, sweet, smokey legacy that makes me wonder if this is what it might be like to make out with a stoned rock star.
At some point we each get a fat prawn, still in its skin, perfectly seasoned and grilled. It’s up there in the twenty best things I’ve ever eaten. But like so many of the other courses there is nothing else to dress it up, hide it, or hide behind. It’s just the produce, just a prawn that’s been cooked by some fellows with serious command of fire and smoke.
If simplicity is a virtue much of what finds its way to our plates must be holy.
If the shrimp Hoges was suggesting we throw on the barbie was always this good, Australia would be a very different place.
These are all highlights, and we haven’t really even got to the red meat yet.
When we do, it’s similarly simple and stunning. There’s a delicate slab (if you can have a delicate slab) of a raw, smoked, minced terrine, bisected by a nutty, powdery crumble for textural contrast. The Hungry One is a texture slut from way back, but this meat needn’t have bothered. It had him at ‘hello’.
Then there’s a piece of beef, seasoned heavily, crusted by fire, but still smoulderingly raw in the centre. It comes sliced and has the bone as a free gift with purchase. I’d love to say I was too much of a lady to pick up the bone and have a gnaw. I’d love to say it, but i can’t.
The coffee is good enough to please the Hungry One and desserts have enough flavour to please but not the heft to hobble.
We’ve had a bottle of red and half a bottle of Txakoli. We’ve had magical things woven from fire and smoke. I’m in love with the place and could happily sit with th sun on my back all afternoon. That’s until the table next to us feels the envy for fire and lights some cigarettes. Suddenly it’s all over. We pocket a mini muffin for the road and pay the bill. It’s about half of what I said I’d be uncomfortable paying.
The serving sizes for our unlisted tasting have been perfect. But with all that smoke and heat we both need a walk in the crisp mountain air.
On our way downstairs we bump into Lennox again. He and head chef and owner Victor Arguinzoniz are finishing service. We’re invited behind the mystery curtain to see how the magic is made. The twenty foot grill on which everything passes has been hand designed by Chef and is enough to make the Hungry One start planning renovations.
Instead of taking away from the artistry, for us, seeing how it’s done is just adding to it.
By the time we actually get to leave the temperature has dropped again. It’s almost time for dinner. If only we were confident of finding our way back to San Sebastian in the dark we’d be tempted to stay. It’s always hard to draw yourself away from a good fire.
Post script- Things with flames are hot by nature. We’re obviously not the only ones who think so.
Asador Etxebarri just found itself sitting as a new entry at number 44 in Restaurant Magazine’s 50 best restaurants in the world for 2008.
It’ s now officially my brush with fame/flame.