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.
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.
With dishes that manage to be amazing without a trace of liquid nitrogen or hydrocolloids, Etxebarri is Spain’s new zeitgeist restaurant, reflecting the country’s recent paradigm shift from sci-fi gastronomy to cocina de producto, or ingredient-driven cuisine. What one eats here is puro producto (“pristine ingredients”), transformed by the grill into uncanny versions of themselves. “Victor’s cocina is radical,” Xavier Mas de Xaxàs, the influential and intellectual reporter for the Catalan daily newspaper La Vanguardia, told me. “Imagine, he’s gone back to the cave: meat and fire! This philosophy of humility before nature,” Mas de Xaxàs continued, “is revolutionary in a country where the cutting-edge cuisine has typically been powered by science.”
I have a hard time picturing cavemen feasting on angulas (baby eels that are as precious and expensive as caviar) lightly heated over a grill in a custom-made mesh pan. Or real Iranian beluga caviar that tastes more indulgent than I could have ever imagined after briefly cooking over applewood coals. Anyone who comes to Etxebarri will have to abandon the preconception that grill cuisine means dishes with photogenic scorch marks and the flavor of char—along with any expectations of marinades, glazes, seasonings, side dishes or garnishes.
Over dessert—an intriguing smoked ice cream— it dawns on me that Arguinzoniz’s genius is in inventing a form of grilling that has the ability to highlight, not mask, the natural taste of even the most hyperdelicate foods. For most chefs, smokiness is just one among a range of flavors; Arguinzoniz treats it as an entity unto itself, exploring its nuances like a mad perfumer obsessed with distilling the essence of a flower. He turns to different kinds of woods for grilling specific ingredients: Neutral oak is used for refined seafood and mushrooms (right now, Arguinzoniz is working on truffles); smoky, gnarled old vine trunks for robust beef; subtle applewood for caviar. Though he doesn’t even own a kitchen thermometer, Arguinzoniz might be the most technique-obsessed chef on earth.
At our meeting, Arguinzoniz is wearing a simple, short-sleeved white T-shirt and the polite, slightly absentminded expression of a professor. “The aroma of wood smoke became etched in my memory when I was a child,” says the chef, who grew up in a farmhouse in the Basque hills not very far from the restaurant. “The houses in our village had no electricity or heating other than the traditional hearth, where women simmered pots of beans and stews for hours,” he recalls. Building a fire was a daily necessity.
After finishing high school and doing his military service, Arguinzoniz became a forester. After work, he’d hang out with the guys who grilled steaks on the plaza in the town of Axpe. In 1989 he bought an abandoned, half-ruined restaurant in a 200-year-old stone building on the plaza. He did it on a whim, because he liked grilling. And because, according to him, “a Basque village restaurant is a crucial community center, and I wanted to keep this one alive.” Today, at Etxebarri’s downstairs bar, old ladies play cards and snack on slices of house-made chorizo served with Txakoli, the light sparkling white wine. Without losing its folksy Basque vibe, Etxebarri’s main dining room has been updated with acres of table linens, roses in sleek slanted vases and minimalist white china.
Initially, Arguinzoniz served iconic Basque asador (grill-house) dishes: chuletas (bone-in rib eyes), whole sea bream, cogote de merluza (hake neck). The flavors were charred and delicious but one-dimensional, and eventually, inspired by the prime ingredients served at the white-tablecloth restaurants he occasionally visited, he wanted more. “What if delicacies like foie gras or spiny lobster met the grill?” he’d fantasize. And so, in the late ’90s, he did the impossible: He grilled angulas, which are so fragile and miniscule no sane chef would ever toss them onto the grate. Actually, Arguinzoniz didn’t try to toss them onto the grate either. Instead, he invented a meshlike stainless steel saucepan and positioned it high above the hot coals. A few years later, he divined a way of grilling fresh anchovies, sandwiching two tender little butterflied fish together, misting them with Txakoli spray and then cooking them for a nanosecond. They arrived at the table barely heated through and improbably succulent, with a touch of wood smoke. Food critics who tasted them went crazy.
Taking grill cuisine to unexpected places required a whole new set of equipment. Since the necessary tools didn’t exist, Arguinzoniz designed them himself. Lining the entire wall of his kitchen are six custom-made, stainless steel grills. The grates move up and down during cooking through an ingenious system of tracks and pulleys controlled by a wheel. This way, the ingredients’ distance from heat can be regulated with perfect precision. The grills are powered by wood coal that Arguinzoniz prepares himself, twice a day, in two 750-degree ovens. Very few ingredients are grilled directly on grates. (Arguinzoniz scrapes the grills every day anyway, to remove the scent of old carbon char and any accumulated drippings.) Rather, he cooks the food in various sievelike baskets and pans he’s created. Can an egg yolk be grilled? Yes, in a little ringed fine sieve with removable sides, which looks like a miniature cake pan. Caviar? In a double-tiered lidded mesh pan, at 122 degrees and just until it starts sweating oil. Arguinzoniz’s most famous invention is a laser-perforated pan for cooking risotto. So fine are the holes that smoke enters while liquid stays in. “Each ingredient demands its own precise timing and heat intensity,” the chef says. He oversees every order that comes out of his kitchen.
I’m dying to know how Arguinzoniz smokes his ice cream. Obligingly, he explains that he leaves containers of milk to reduce on top of the coal-burning stove to absorb the aromas of the fire. But I can tell that the interview process is like an interrogation for him. “Will I see you at the next chef’s congress in San Sebastián?” I ask before leaving. A condemned nod: Yes, he’s already committed. “Talking in public is a torture for me,” Arguinzoniz confesses. “The second I finish my presentation, I escape back to the restaurant. Here I can talk to my grills. They understand me.”
Anya von Bremzen, a New York City–based food and travel writer, is the author of five cookbooks. Her latest book is The New Spanish Table.