At Etxebarri, a country restaurant in the tiny Basque village of Axpe, 45 minutes southeast of Bilbao, I’ve just had 12 mind-blowing dishes composed of Spain’s best ingredients, each cooked on the grill.
I tasted delicate, briny oysters served on a bed of smoked seaweed, giant red Palamós prawns, thick slices of porcini mushroom, velvety rare-pink ventresca (tuna belly) and the season’s first tórtola (a much sought-after game bird). A loin of bacalao fell apart into moist, silky flakes when I prodded it with a fork. Juicy, tender, almost sweet slices of rib eye, sliced from aged Galician beef, were cooked in a custom-made contraption that grills the steaks on both sides simultaneously, allowing the heat to penetrate quickly and deeply. It made American steaks seem like charred cardboard in comparison.
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Excited, I tell Victor Arguinzoniz, the chef and owner of Etxebarri, that Spanish foodies have dubbed him the Ferran Adrià of the hearth. He gives me a horrified look. “What nonsense!” protests the 47-year-old self-taught cook, who is so shy and retiring he says he’d pay anything to be left alone by the press. But Spain’s top food critics won’t stop raving about him and his restaurant. “I was numbed by ecstasy,” one of the journalists wrote after eating there, adding that he was so overcome that he wanted to throw himself on the grill.