Troy Hightower


Bringing Etxebarri Home

Ever since that fantastic lunch of charcoal-grilled foods at Asador Etxebarri in Basque Spain, I've been musing on grilling and smoking. I've dabbled here and there with things, and then decided to re-create a full meal, matching the conditions in Victor Arguinzoniz' grill-kitchen as best I can. We don't have a crankable stainless steel grill, but do have a raised outdoor hearth and a trusty Lodge cast-iron grill. No laser-drilled pans, but a stainless wire mesh splash guard and collander might serve. Oxygen-controlled charcoal oven? No 'check' there, but we do have seasoned branches of oak, madrone, olive and manzanita from our property, all of which provide wonderful coals. And we do have access to some pretty darned fine fresh foodstuffs. So we invited some close friends, and settled in to a grilling and smoking experience in the Sonoma Valley.

Explorations in home-made chorizo are out, but Paul Bertoli's Gentile salami from his Berkeley Fra Mani salumeria serve adeptly as an appetizer with a glass of Paul Bara Champage. Bryan's Meats in Corte Madera gets fresh Louisiana white prawns flown in Tuesdays and Fridays from a shrimper down there who fishes Mondays and Thurdays--these slightly blueish beauties were in the Gulf of Mexico yesterday. They marinate simply in Meyer lemon juice, our own very fruity 2008 olive oil, and fleur de sel for a half hour, and then go on the grill over glowing coals of madrone and manzanita for about three minutes. Served on their own, the prawns are incredibly fresh tasting--sweet, succulent and lightly redolent of smoke. (I'll save every scrap of shell, leg and head for a smoky shrimp bisque).

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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 minure, 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 acre 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.

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Taste explosions and food magic abound at Michelin 3-star Arzak, set in San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain. Out of a degustacion menu that runs to 22 courses, including four amuse and five mignardise, after four desserts, several things stand way out.

In the amuse, a "pudding" of Kabrarroka fish wrapped in fried fideo noodless on a skewer is subtly fishy and fresh. A “bola”—globule of wild mushroom soup dusted in popcorn powder is truly amusing and delicious—earthy and deep. A round of grilled apple topped with a wafer of caramelized foie gras, drizzled in foie oil looks and tastes astounding.

The most amazing course by far is tirero alla gallina—an orange-yolked farm egg “griddled” on the plancha, atop a square of crispy chicken skin, topped by a  translucent sheet of freeze-dried egg yolk, the whole knapped with ultra reduced chicken broth and drizzled with sharp olive oil—astonishing and scrumptious.

Small tranches of grilled lenguado—sole—are accompanied by crispy nuggets of sweetbread, tiny morcels of coconut macaroon and drizzled with ginger oil.

The most interesting dessert—sopa y chocolate…..pairs Idiazabla cheese ice cream with chocolate “bullets” in a strawberry conserve ‘soup’. Chocolate balls are frozen, coated in gelatin, dropped into boiling water to melt the chocolate, and set the gelatin, creating the “bullets”. The in-mouth explosion is impossible not to laugh with delight over.

Elena inquires from where we come, and seems delighted by the idea of Sonoma, which she’s heard of but not visited. Chatting with her for a moment near meal’s end, I tell her we will return and would like to visit the “taste room” where they house 1500 spices and flavors. “You must just tell me in your email, and I will show you” she enthuses.

Service is impeccable, ultra accommodating, and very friendly. No snootiness, true care about the customers’ wishes and happiness. Both chefs circulate during service, Elena and her father Juan Mari, and are friendly to all—not just the great and powerful. Both Arzaks bring laughter and love of life and food to the experience. It involves both high theater and food magic—and the food is photo: Arzakseriously good and creative. Great food, a great experience, and of course, a great big bill.


Pintxos at the Spoon

The 'Spoon' was overflowing into the square. That first bite made my eyebrows skyrocket in astonishment. The intensity and complexity of flavor in something normally meant as a bar snack was unprecedented. In the 'Spoon', we might have stumbled across the best pintxos in the world.

Tapas are Spain's ubiquitous bar food, found everywhere with regional variations. In Basque Spain and here in San Sebastian they are called pintxos--the word said to derive from the verb pinchar--to prick--because they were at one time all served with toothpicks. Many still are, and counting toothpicks is often a way for the barman to tally your bill.

But these amazing pintxos are all toothpickless, and rather than being arrayed across the bar on a sea of platters as at the usual pintxos bar, are individually ordered from a chalkboard menu. This temple of pintxo gastronomy is La Cuchara de San Telmo (cuchara means spoon), a narrow space tucked into the corner of a building across from the San Telmo convent under the looming brow of Mt. Urgull, and two blocks from the sea, at the edge of San Sebastian's parte vieja, or old quarter. A long bar takes up one side of the space; a narrow shelf, bar height and just wide enough for a small plate runs along the other. The width between is no more than two people deep, though it frequently seems to contain more. The open miniscule kitchen is at the back. Two barmen take orders and dispense plates, two bar girls pour drinks and ferry plates from the kitchen. Our barman, called Marc, is tall, dark and handsome and speaks better English than our pidgeon Spanish. His is a constant-motion dance--scribble order, pour a glass of txacoli, yell "Alex, un foie, uno; dos canelon, dos!" to chef Alex Montiel at the back, and deliver tiny plates of incredible, beautiful food up and down the bar.

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The Birds of Las Mananitas

There’s a pink flamingo at my door!

The plastered stone halls echoed with a curious gentle double-honk that sounds a bit like Harpo Marx. I peeked out the door to our room to see a 3 foot high pink flamingo delicately treading up the shallow stone steps, cock his head and fix me with a baleful unblinking eye, and then edge toward the half–open door, clearly seeking entry. Not knowing the etiquette of allowing large avians in the rooms at 5 star Relais & Chateau resorts, I gently denied him entry by slowly closing the door, and he soon honk-honked off down the hall, out to the entrance and back into his garden domain.

Las Mananitas is a lovely and tranquil resort set in an old mansion in Cuernavaca, Mexico, nestled under the ring of the Sierra de Morelos Mountains an hour south of Mexico City. The hotel/restaurant is renowned for its cuisine, its gardens, and as a home to many exotic birds since shortly after it’s opening in the late 1950’s. Las Mananitas’ signature is its African crested cranes, of which there are currently two and a half pair. Gorgeous, stately birds, they have dark charcoal bodies, stark black and white patterned wings, white cheeks with a rouge patch, and fine golden crests. Two spend most of their time at the pond at the very bottom of the pool garden, along with the single resident flamingo, who indolently wanders the gardens (and, apparently, sometimes the hallways), stretching and dipping his 2 foot neck, shaking his hooked-beak head, and occasionally spreading his broad, black-tipped pink wings.

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Two Great Days in Buenos Aires

For years we’ve written “3 days in ____” accounts of our travels in places ranging from Paris to Istanbul to Mexico City—well before United’s inflight magazine Hemispheres started their ‘3 perfect days in ----“ series (and, pilfered the title). Three days is always cramming a lot in, so when we had just two days in Buenos Aires, on the way to Patagonia and far southern Chile, the challenge seemed even larger. But we felt up to it.

A cardinal rule for us is—short stay, great hotel. The Four Seasons BA overlooks the edge of the city and the sea to the rear, a jewel of a private garden and their Mansion extension, a (pink baroque, wedding-cake architectural confection). We were whisked directly to our room for a very early in-room check in, after 19 hours of traveling, once again pointing up the impeccable service in Four Seasons properties.

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Guatemalan haggling at Chichicastenango Mercado

A two-hour ride roughly north from Lake Atitlan, the town of Chichicastenango sits in a river valley surrounded by mountain peaks oft wreathed in mists and clouds, which it certainly is the Thursday morning we awake for the town-filling weekly market. It had been partly cloudy when we arrived the previous afternoon, and the overcast turned to a noisy thunderstorm and downpour the night before. About 4 blocks square, Chichi, as it’s known locally, is a blend of multi-hued whitewashed walls, rumpled red tiled roofs and cobbled streets. The main plaza—ground zero for the market—contains two churches, a museum and small, slightly decrepit park. Chichicastenango's best known artifact is the manuscript of the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya-Quiché. The manuscript, written by an unknown Maya author in the 16th century, was discovered by Father Francisco Ximénez when he served as priest in Chichicastenango in 1701 and contains the legends and history of the Maya-Quiché people who inhabit the area around Chichicastenango.

Certainly Chichi’s biggest draw is the twice-weekly market, which is said to be the largest in Central America. Sellers arrive noon Wednesday (and Saturday, for the Sunday market) and commence to erect pole and twine armatures—roofed in plastic against the frequent rain—on which to display their wares: carved and painted masks, woven and embroidered textiles, worked leather goods, clothing of all types, as well as all sorts of household goods, antiques, fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, meats and poultry. By Thursday morning the market spills two blocks or more deep off the plaza, eclipsing and engulfing the town’s shops, restaurants and streets. Busloads of villagers from miles around begin to arrive early, and by 9 am the market is lively and chaotic. The streets are filled with village women in their various colorful skirt and huipile combinations, gnarled and wizened old fellows in scuffed boots and battered straw hats, toddlers and kids of all sizes and ages, and punkish teenagers in baggy trousers and t-shirts with reversed baseball caps. Walking around as an average-height westerner is like being a Norse giant in normal crowds, as we tower over the altitude–challenged locals. Tourists, a few of which like us come in the night before, intersperse with the native crowd, but do not overpower the market—there is very much a feeling of locals buying and selling to locals for daily needs. It is a vibrant and authentic scene.

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Iconic London Dining

Le Caprice

Le Caprice Restaurant is in my opinion the best place in London, and one of the best in the world, to dine at the bar--alone, if you are, or with someone special. It's an intimate two-person venue--not suited to more, as the linear seating makes conversation somewhat awkward. It is, however, very usual to strike up a conversation with someone on either side of the two of you, and it might be anything from a barrister out of a tough courtroom, to a (perhaps) Italian count, or a fellow countryman.

Around the corner from The Ritz and at the end of an elegant cul de sac, the restaurant is an understated symphony in black and white--floor tiles, wall photos, seating. The bowler-hatted doorman whisks you out of your cab, momentarily through the frigid air and into the warm, welcoming bar, where a pianist at the side plays jazz and standards to add a note of elegance. The room buzzes with glamorous decked-out women and well-dressed men (for the most part). A tie is not required, but even in my modern casual mode, I'd never go without a black sports coat.

The food at Caprice is perfectly suited to sharing, one course at a time, along with samplings of wine. On a recent visit we started with the Dressed Dorset crab with celeriac Rémoulade--a menu icon, impecably fresh and tasting of the sea. Next we shared sauted field mushrooms topped with a poached egg and crispy cured ham--deep and earthy. Wood pidgeon on toast was rich and gamey as a seasonal special. Another Caprice icon is the Steak Tartare--perfectly spiced knife-cut steak which still retains its beefiness below the spices. For something sweet we couldn't resist the honeycomb ice cream with warm chocolate sauce--a perfect ending. While we rarely take them, main courses include seasonal duck, roast pork belly, traditional calves liver with bacon and onions, and whatever fish the market brings. If you want the ultimately in simplicity, you can order the battered haddock and chips, or eggs Benedict with hash browns.

Whatever your taste buds feel like, you'll likely be able to compose a menu to suit, and you'll be made to feel like a regular by the friendly and attentive staff. And if you're one, or two--do dine at the bar.

Caprice WILL take advance reservations for seats at the bar, and they're recommended, due to its popularity. Dinner with wine around $100 per person.

Le Caprice, Arlington Street, London SW1
Tel (02076292239)


Greens Restaurant & Oyster Bar

Another London classic for us, worthy of a visit every trip, is Greens in St James. We always order the same things (save perhaps dessert). The freshest channel oysters for one, quails egg's with mayonnaise for the other--accompanied by glasses of Champagne--perhaps the Widow, perhaps Le Mesnil, perhaps Billecart-Salmon Rose. Then grilled Dover sole, on the bone, with beurre blanc, and whatever vegetables and potatoes are seasonal accompanied by a bottle of white burgundy--nothing over the top, but perhaps a Saint-Véran Domaine de la Croix Senaillet or Rully Blanc Domaine Dureuil-Janthial. An ethereal combination--no better fish in the world and one of the best settings in which to have it.

Green's Restaurant & Oyster Bar
36 Duke Street St. James's
London SW1Y 6DF

Tel: 020 7930 4566