Located in the beautiful Atxondo valley, 45 minutes south east of Bilbao, in deep rural Bizkaia in the Basque Country, Asador Etxebarri is impressive even before crossing the restaurant’s door. Protected by the imposing stone walls of Anboto mountain, the Basques’ mythological mountain, Bittor Arginzoniz’s caserío (traditional Basque stone building) houses Europe’s most famous grill and blends in with the surroundings.
Inside, local ladies and men wearing txapelas (Basque beret) hang out at the folksy bar, blissfully unconcerned that Etxebarri has 2-Michelin stars and stands at number 6 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. Luckily, the authenticity of the place hasn’t been lost although Etxebarri is gradually adapting to being part of this foodie royalty.
The main dining room on the first floor was revamped in September 2015 adding a warm classy touch but maintaining sobriety in its presentation —upon arrival at the table, diners will only find an informal tablecloth and napkin, a water glass and a bread plate; the rest of the china follows during the course of the meal.
Sobriety is missing in the quality of the ingredients, the very essence of the cuisine of this former electrician turned self-taught chef who masters firewood and grill techniques like no other. Part of these ingredients come from his own caserío, located not far from his restaurant, where he grows many of the vegetables that are later grilled at Etxebarri’s kitchen. He also rears buffalos in his yard, which provide a delicious fresh cheese which is served with hazelnuts and acacia honey and practically melts in the mouth.
Home-made chorizo also comes from his well-stocked larder. He prepares it with meat bought from Joselito (a famous producer of Iberico hams and other cured meats) and seasoned with dried red peppers, following Bittor’s family recipe. At the table, this dish shines by its apparent simplicity served just with bread. Goat’s butter is another favorite starter —its smoky flavors invite to spread it over Etxebarri’s delicious bread, made daily at the restaurant with natural yeast dough.
To take his grill cuisine to new high levels, Bittor invented a whole set of ingenious tools like the custom-made stainless steel grills with grates with a system of pulleys controlled by a wheel, a sieve-like basket which acts as a pan and a pot with a hole in the centre to steam mussels and other shellfish.
The seasonal menu (€175 plus drinks) changes daily based on product availability but there are classic dishes like the fresh salted anchovies over toasted bread, Palamós giant prawns or the rib-eye steak which require little else to shine and move.
Wines are chosen by Mohammed, a sommelier who has put together a wine list with interesting wines from regions and soils across Spain and the rest of the world. Rather than appellations, the list is organized by styles. Thus, under “landscape, Basque Country” he lists whites and reds like local Txakoli and Rioja whereas sparkling wines are gathered under “effervescence”.
Additionally, there is a special selection of Romanée Conti —a bottle of its legendary RC costs €9,950— and Vega Sicilia as well as a wine and food pairing option (€40) with choices from across the world and a homemade beer made by Bittor. The pairing option is only written in English because, in general, few locals dare to go beyond their comfort zone of Txakoli and red Rioja. Y.O.A.