Troy Hightower

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Charcoal Grilled Everything

The contrast in just five minutes, from toodling along the N634 in Basque Spain's urbo-industrial sprawl to the Swiss-hillside like serenity of the village of Axpe is nothing short of astounding. One minute, diesel fumes, factories, shopping complexes, apartment towers, and a few minutes later, clean mountain air, slopping wildflower covered sheep fields, stone barns and-chalet like farmhouses, all backed by the steep limestone reef dominated by Mount Anboto, the 1300 metre limestone peak in the sprawling Parc Naturel de Urkiola. It just doesn't seem possible that the modern human sprawl has stopped so abruptly, changing to a gorgeous scene that could have existed pretty much unchanged 100 years ago. Birds sing, cowbells, clank and not a hint of roadnoise--of course the road pretty much ends here, as the natural park map showing miles and miles of hiking trails, and sites for backpack camping demonstrates.

Such a beautiful, peaceful setting is an unexpected benefit of searching out Asador Etxebarri, Chef Victor Arguinzoniz's by now legendary wood-grill restaurant set in one of those wood and stone chalet-like farmhouses. In this kitchen, it's all wood-fire, all the time. No steaming, no sous-vide, no liquid nitrogen here. Just grilling on la brasa, and wood-fired oven. One side of the kitchen is a long, custom-made wood grill, with sections that raise and lower on cranks to get the perfect height above the coals for different foods. On the facing side, a set of oxygen-contolled wood ovens that serve primarily to make coals for the grill, out of oak, apple, olive woods, and grapevine--the wood type and heat of coals matched to the food being cooked. Each order prepared by the kitchen gets its own scoop of coals.

Arguinzoniz bought the abandoned 18th century farmous in 1989 to open as a simple Basque grill-house--an Asador, as the name says. Chuleton de buey, grilled local fish, unpretentous things. With years of experience in working a grill, he became interested in pushing the limits of technique and ingredients, and began experimenting more and more with exotic foods never normally grilled, and inventing cooking equipment to meet the challenges--the stainless steel wire mesh sautee pans, a ringed fine sieve with removable sides, in which he grills eggs, and a two-tiered mesh pan for 'grilling' caviar. Even the steaks have a special contraption to cook them on both sides at the same time,which has been described as a giant George Forman grill. Probably the chef's most famous invention is a laser-perforated pan used for cooking risotto, with such fine mesh that no liquid leaks out, but smoke tendrils can waft in.

The high-ceilinged dining room is both rustic and elegant at the same time--white nappery, gleaming crystal, tables well spaced and not crowded. There is a separate dining room for the Spanish who must smoke throughout their meal, so fortunately the main one is smoke free. The menu is fairly extensive, with most, but not quite all of the dishes hot and prepared on wood coals. Seafood dominates--shrimp, prawns, lobster, clams, mussels, squid, octopus and various fish depending on the market. Also there are a couple of steaks--the chef uses beef from retired 8+ year old Galician milk cows, fattened for slaughter, said to produce a complex, flavorful meat, and depending on availability, may be local lamb, or a chop of Iberian pork.

While we ponder the list, we order a bottle of Albarino, and are served a chunk of crusty, cream-colored country bread, along with slices of house-cured chorizo, and fresh-churned butter--both cow and goat--which has been--what else--smoked. The chef's wife Patricia runs the dining room, and charmingly speaks no English--it's good to practice Spanish, and fun to have to get by. She lets us know that while not formally listed, a tasting menu of small courses composed by the chef is possible, as are half-orders of many things on the menu. This is welcome, as it will allow us to try more things, and besides, the menu is quite pricey.

I've come here, more than any other one thing, to try the warm, wood-smoked caviar that I saw Tony Bourdain roll his eyes over on a segment of his food-travel television program. Beluga caviar is placed atop seaweed on that special stainless double wire mesh "sautee" pan, put on a grill fairly high over low coals, covered for a few minutes, and allowed just to warm, and infuse with wafts of smoke. We start with this specialty, and the result is unusual and sublime--the warmth of the normally chilled sturgeon eggs bringing out the essence of the sea, smoke kissed.

A half-order of Gambas de Palamos brings one large, succulent prawn each--these are fished off the coast of Girona, in Catalunya, at a depth of two hundred plus feet. Sprinkled with sea salt, the shell is crystalline, the meat is lightly smokey, sweet, tender and perfectly cooked--just past raw. For comparison/contrast a small portion of local quisquillon shrimp--tiny and almost transluscent--are equally sweet, but also carry a nice sea tang.

A request for off-menu grilled vegetables turns up a miniature painting-like composition of tiny cauliflower, carrot, broccoli floret, shallot, turnip and white asparagus, drizzled with oil and lightly smokey. Another slight-of-hand feat only Chef Victor would try is yema de huevo ala brasa con zizos--an egg yolk, quickly grilled, served on intensely violet colored purple mashed potatoes, with rare shaved zizos--local mountain mushrooms showered atop. A unique and delicious, as well as beautiful combination.

Even with the uniqueness of the place and method, the singularity of the food, and the distance we've come, we have vowed not to gorge. So, being satiated, we choose to pass on the highly praised beef, and even the renowned smoked sheep-milk ice cream. A few tiny cylindrical almond 'madelaines', just tinged with a wood char are chewy, nutty and just right for a tiny final taste of something sweet.

Fame and adulation have served Victor Arguinzoniz well. He's perfected his vision in the achievement of success, and at the same time maintained his dedication and his modesty, and has crafted an environment, ethos of service and overall experience that are at once unique, worthy of the price, and worth the journey. There is more here to taste, and we know that the signal of smoke will at some point draw us back.

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August 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGonzales20LANA
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