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#1 alexhills

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Posted 31 October 2006 - 09:43 AM

A weekend visiting a friend in Bibao required a trip here, in the gorgeous village of Axpe between San Sebastian and Bilbao. Wow. An authetically unique and special experience. Even the village itself seems like something from 500 years ago, the Jai-Lai fronton, the tiny chapel, completely lovely. I hadn't realized that the downstairs of the restaurant is basically the valley's pub, which is also perfect, old guys wearing berets drinking Tzakoli and eating - excellent looking - calamari fritos. So far from the tedious exclusivity and seperatness of too much haute cusine.

So the food itself - we arranged a degustation, they called my friend a couple of days before to tell us what they had in mind and we could decide whether to go for that or the normal menu.

That chorizo to start. Lovely mellow seasoning, but the thing that really got me was the texture, just unbelivably smooth and tender, quite unlike any other charcuterie I've had, I'm used to wanting big robust flavors and damn the rest, but this was subtle, silky, refined.

Then spot prawns, given a very light grilling and a touch of sea salt. Whole and in the shell, nothing else on the plate. Perfect, clean, had taken on the taste of the grill and had a lovely iodiney tinge, but all perfectly integrated and balanced. In some ways my favorite dish, and a perfect demonstration of the less is more approach that is everything here.

Oysters on seaweed. Rather reminiscent of the oysters in smoked butter I had at Manresa a couple of months ago, the smokiness coming from the grill here of course, but the way the taste plays off the seaweed was very similar. Not quite the best oysters I've had, but wonderful.

Caviar. A good sized spoon of Iranian beluga. Somehow grilled too, obviously on a pan of some sort, served on top of what was apparently the head gunk of a lobster, slightly congealed. A really unusual and provking dish. I'm not sure I'd really want to cook high grade caviar like this, which certainly robs it of its pop, but adding the taste of the grill is really fascinating, and the marriage with the lobster juices was pretty amazing.

Mussels in a jerusalem artichoke cream. Very pleasant, perfect and perfectly cooked (of course) mussles, but a less thrilling course. A bit more conventional cooking going on and that's really not the point. The only dish that felt like it had something resembling a recipe rather than a method.

Ceps and roast aubergine. Fantastic ceps, gently and simply cooked with good olive oil, rather more robust aubergine showing much more of the grill than the mushrooms. The lovely sensibility for exactly how far the charcoal taste is allowed to infuse each ingredient is really the key to all the food here, and the contrast here was gorgeous.

A warmed but not really cooked egg yoke, sitting on some smashed potatoes cooked with olive oil, white truffle on top. I'm yet to be absolutely convinced by the whole truffle thing, but this certainly had me heading that way. No doubt my best truffle experience so far. Incredibly lovely lacy slices, flavor very clear if not of true intensity. The egg was just astonishing, as so often here, the flavor so familiar and simple but so much more than that.

Bacalau, smoked peppers. Gorgeous, perfectly flaky and barely cooked cod - the basques were pretty confident this hadn't been salted, and who is to argue with basques about cod - on a very simple emulsion of the cooking juices and olive oil. Something that has been done this way for hundreds of years, but here a perfect, unmessed around with expression of it. Even the slice of crisped garlic sitting on top of the fish was special, mild, no trace of chew or carbonization.

Chuleton. Enough said really. Animalistic, simple - my friend said like being in an Asterix book. The cuisson was incredible, the truest black and blue I've ever had - the interior fat not even fully melted, yet a truly crispy crust - and the beef amazing, really not comparable to anything else I've had.


Smoked ice cream, apple tart. Apple tart pretty nothingy, not bad but not really bearing any relation to the rest of the meal. The ice cream was something else though, a wonderfully direct - more so than in mayn fo the savory dishes - version of the grill taste that had been going on for the previous 3 hours or so.

Also a very nice, reasonable wine list, a very good Albarino and a bottle of L'Arossee 95 did us proud.

As an example of absolute, pure, expression of ingredient and cooking method this is completely unmatched for me. It seems almost bizarre to have a meal where so little overt 'preparation' is going on, but this meal brought it off absolutely. It is also something that belongs to the place so strongly, this would be impossible even in Bilbao or San Sebastian. Extraordinary, a sort of bubble which holds another way of treating food that renders most of my preconceived notions irrelevant.
He has taken up residence in the 'Grand Hotel Abyss' - a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.

Lukacs on Adorno, but....

#2 Wilfrid1

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Posted 01 November 2006 - 03:25 PM

This lovely report has added the sin of envy to my previously unblemished character.
Elect-a-lujah

***Every Monday***At the Sign of the Pink Pig.

If the author could go around the place hitting random readers with a rubber hammer, the Pink Pig would still be worth a visit.

#3 Maurice Naughton

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Posted 01 November 2006 - 09:36 PM

Wilfrid, please let me join you. I'm not often knocked about by a food report, but, Alex, this almost sends me to the night train to Spain (Gare d'Austerlitz tomorrow, 7:43 pm). One of the most compelling reviews I've ever read.
Cambridge University Professor of Electrical Engineering, Sir Charles Oatley, in October, 1948, along with his student Dennis McMullan, began the research that led to the production of the first scanning electron microscope in 1965.

I thought you'd want to know.

#4 Wilfrid1

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Posted 01 November 2006 - 09:44 PM

Yes. Please submit them weekly in future. Expense reports should be sent direct to Orik. Thanks.
Elect-a-lujah

***Every Monday***At the Sign of the Pink Pig.

If the author could go around the place hitting random readers with a rubber hammer, the Pink Pig would still be worth a visit.

#5 pim

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Posted 01 November 2006 - 10:03 PM

Alex forgot to mentioned one of the people who inspired his trip there :P :P

There's a post chez moi on Etxebarri from a few months ago -with a bunch of photos from the meal and the kitchen too.

Oh no she didn't.

 

 


#6 pim

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Posted 01 November 2006 - 10:06 PM

Here's the restaurant

Posted Image

and the txorizo

Posted Image

more on Chez Pim

Oh no she didn't.

 

 


#7 alexhills

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Posted 01 November 2006 - 10:30 PM

Indeed, thanks be to Pim and her magical chorizo pictures for sending me that way. My basque friend's parents had eaten there around the same time which meant he was easily leaned on....

Seriously everyone, go if the slightest chance appears. This is what food should be like. Any evocativeness in the writing is solely becuase of what I had to write about. Orik - or anyone else - is very welcome to fund any further attempts to richen my prose style, although I fear leaving London rather often may be a necessary part of the package. :P
He has taken up residence in the 'Grand Hotel Abyss' - a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.

Lukacs on Adorno, but....

#8 Miguel Gierbolini

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Posted 02 November 2006 - 02:01 AM

Here's the restaurant

Posted Image

and the txorizo

Posted Image

more on Chez Pim



Oooooooooooh Pim. You must be a Queen. A goddess. Something.
"I mispoke."

#9 pim

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Posted 02 November 2006 - 02:48 AM

Oooooooooooh Pim. You must be a Queen. A goddess. Something.


nyah....Maurice got it right, I'm a witch. :P

Oh no she didn't.

 

 


#10 Andy Fenn

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Posted 28 November 2006 - 05:14 PM

Here is a post of the meal I had here in September. Thought it would be an appropriate first post - this was a truly memorable experience.

It wasn't going well. My first day in a left hand drive car, having negotiated the coast road from San Sebastian at a snail's pace, we set off from our final stop on the way to Axpe. The English guy I spoke to on the phone assured me that it was only 40mins from San Sebastian. So it could only have been half an hour from Orio. And surely just west of the point where our single road map ran out. But no. We drove and drove. And got lost. A lot. When we arrived nearly half an hour late, there didn't seem to be anybody there. Downstairs deserted. Upstairs, said Englishman was nowhere to be seen. Only two other tables occupied, and a CD player booming out operatic classics. We were worried.

But the concerns were misplaced. The English guy we spoke to on the phone was actually working in the kitchen and he came out to explain the degustation menu they were to put together. A glass of wine settled the post drive shakes, and the music grew on me. Most importantly, I was about to embark on the most incredible culinary journey of the trip, if not ever. The quality of the raw materials we were to experience was out of this world, and I had never fully understood why some people couldn't get enough of perfect ingredients perfectly cooked. The photos don't do justice to the flavour, due to the unadorned and unadulterated purity of the ingredient, but they at least give an insight.

Course 1: Chorizo on toast

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They make this about 50 yards up the hill as described by Jet. Incredibly supple and smooth, packed with subtle flavours. The best of its kind I have ever tasted.

Course 2: White Tuna (Tuna Belly) with garden tomato

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Perhaps it was because this was our first introduction to the seducitive subtle smokey notes of the etxebarri grill that the tuna tasted so good. Perhaps it was because our British tomatoes are so dire in comparison that the tomato tasted so rich and sweet. But this dish is wrestling with the Mugaritz vegetables for best of the trip. Combining them on the fork, you first get hit with the smokey notes of the grill, then the knock-your-socks-off sweetness of the tomato, and finally the lingering meaty taste of the fish with the simple olive oil dressing. This was absolutely spellbinding and I was grinning ear to ear with every mouthful.

Course 3: Gambas Palamos

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These are caught below the sea at depths of 300ft. The chef took great pleasure in telling us that their heads exploded on the way to the surface, so it was imperative that we suck them clean. The meat was richer and sweeter than any I have tasted, dressed in nothing more than a crystal or two of sea salt. The heads were enormous, and full of things I didn't realise featured in a prawn's anatomy. You can see the colour through the translucent shell. I had a good crack at wolfing it all down, which rewarded me with an even richer, slightly saltier experience. Again, I have never tasted prawns like it.

Course 4: Lightly grilled oysters with seaweed

For some reason I forgot to snap these, but there is a photo on chez pim. They were great. I don't love oysters in the same way as I love other kinds of shellfish, but these were undoubtedly superb specimens. We had three each, and they tasted simply of the sea, with a faint smokey undertone, imparted by a gentle moment on the grill.

Course 5: Sea Cucumber with Cannellini Beans

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I had never had this before, and fear I may never taste a better example again. Similar texture and flavour to squid, but slightly richer and superior in my opinion. The beans were meltingly soft, enriched with a little ham stock, and partnered the charred cucumber perfectly. Wonderful.

Course 6: Mussels with Tomato Broth

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The mussels adopted a smokier flavour than any of the other preparations, but the mussels were sweeter than any I have tasted, and handled the influence of the grill without being overpowered. The tomato broth was magical. How could it be anything else, when using those tomatoes?

Course 7: Bacalao with grilled peppers

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This was the other standout dish in the company of stellar performers. As you can see, it was an enormous piece of fish. It was cooked to perfection. You needed only to press the top with your fork, and the flakes would fall away, yielding moist, translucent and surprisingly gelatinous flesh. There was a hint of garlic imparted, and the peppers had reached an exquisite smokey sweetness, which provided a superb accompaniment to the fish.

Course 8: Grilled Beef Chop

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The aroma of the beef as it sat beneath me was intoxicating. Cooked black and blue, this was the finest piece of beef I have ever tasted. Again, a simple salad and a couple of grains of rock salt were all that was required. Incredible.

Course 9: Apple pastry with ice cream

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Not grilled, but still lovely. Excellent quality filo. The ice cream tasted a bit of bacon, which I liked. But I was assured that there was no swine in there. Bizarre. Think my senses had taken a pounding by this point, so I forgave myself. But it was a very good dessert.

EDIT: I now realise having read these reports that it was simply a smoked ice cream. Should have known!

This was a truly fantastic meal. The only potential downside, is that ingredients everywhere else will disappoint. The next evening, at Arzak, I had crayfish, white tuna and beef. They didn't touch the quality I experienced at Etxebarri. Why don't the top places use ingredients like these?

So yes, it is worth the hype it gets on the foodie boards. Simple food it may be, but it takes a master to get the best out of these ingredients, and the results were spellbinding. Michelin's loss.

#11 Wilfrid1

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Posted 28 November 2006 - 05:16 PM

Great first post, Andy - thanks.
Elect-a-lujah

***Every Monday***At the Sign of the Pink Pig.

If the author could go around the place hitting random readers with a rubber hammer, the Pink Pig would still be worth a visit.

#12 pim

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Posted 30 May 2007 - 03:42 PM

Didn't manage to get here when I was in the area a few days ago, but saw Bittor's demonstration at a conference in Pamplona. He used two sautee pans, lined one with moss, punched holes on the other one with a screw driver and then put on top of the pan lined with moss. The he slowly grill giant white asparagus spears on the pan on top, smoking them with the moss at the same time. The dish looked extraordinary. I wish I had a chance to try.

Oh no she didn't.

 

 


#13 voyager

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Posted 30 May 2007 - 06:38 PM

Didn't manage to get here when I was in the area a few days ago, but saw Bittor's demonstration at a conference in Pamplona. He used two sautee pans, lined one with moss, punched holes on the other one with a screw driver and then put on top of the pan lined with moss. The he slowly grill giant white asparagus spears on the pan on top, smoking them with the moss at the same time. The dish looked extraordinary. I wish I had a chance to try.

Oh, great! Now you'll have my husband out punching holes in my saute pans. Seriously, the process is quite interesting. I may have to offer one up for this purpose. Thanks for the concept.

#14 balex

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Posted 30 May 2007 - 09:48 PM

In Italy there is a standard pan with holes in like you describe for roasting chestnuts. Maybe that is what he was trying for?

(It is often sold with a special sort of scissor/clipper implement for cutting the skin of the chestnut)

#15 voyager

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Posted 30 May 2007 - 10:10 PM

In Italy there is a standard pan with holes in like you describe for roasting chestnuts. Maybe that is what he was trying for?

(It is often sold with a special sort of scissor/clipper implement for cutting the skin of the chestnut)

Of course. I see those at flea markets throughout France. Thanks for the lightbulb. :D