Letter from Spain

Continuing on from Paris and our fabulous Lunch at Spring, we head to Bilbao. We arrive just after sunset, but with still enough light to appreciate the scenery. It is quite a sight to emerge through the tunnel onto a modern bridge and the first thing you see is the Frank Gehry Guggenheim Museum. A much better kind of “striking” than what Air France pilots do! And the double bonus: my friends had booked us into the hotel across the street from the museum –- with rooms that looked out on it.

That night: Etxanobe, a Michelin One Star whose focus is primarily modern interpretations of local Basque dishes. Located, somewhat strangely, on the top floor of a huge conference center and concert hall, it does offer great views, especially if you sit on the outdoor terrace. Really interesting and strangely compelling amuse bouche –- although I don’t know the Basque translation — which included a “lipstick” of anchovy and a watermelon soup with caviar. Trust me -– they tasted much better than their description! While there were more modern dishes to pick from, we went traditional: Hake cheeks with onion marmalade, Hake filets and a traditional fish soup. (Hake is a fish that is like a cod.) The cheeks were terrific and were very Toro-like. Etxanobe is a great option for Bilbao, but I do not feel it was so good to require a repeat visit.

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The next day we hired a car (no DUI’s for us!) to take us for lunch at Asador Etxebarri -– located in a tiny village half way between Bilbao and San Sebastian. This was one of my bucket list restaurants and I was sooooooo excited. I’m happy to report it even exceeded my hopes. I believe it has one Michelin star -– but I suspect that it is because the chef is such an iconoclast he won’t play the games to get more stars. What makes Etxebarri so unique? Everything, and I do mean everything, is grilled over charcoal. The chef has invented ovens to make his charcoal and every single dish is cooked, individually, over its own charcoal fire. When I say everything that would include caviar, vegetables and steak.

Housed in a traditional looking Basque building, Etxebarri is casual: how can you not love a sommelier who wears a polo shirt and lime green Nikes? While we perused the wine list, we sipped a homemade beer -– made on premise. Fantastic. A 2010 Roulot Meursault and a Vega Sicilia Unico “reserve especial” were selected. While there is a tasting menu option, we decided to create our own. The menu literally changes daily based on what is available and what is at its peak of freshness. Barnacles (which can only be harvested by hand and when the tides are right), squid and sardines started our meal. Amazing grilled prawns, in their shell, might be one of the best dishes I have ever had. I scratch my head: how can something so simple be so good? Words can’t even begin to describe how good. Did I mention a theme for the trip? Perfectly fresh ingredients, barely touched, perfectly cooked. There were only 6 per order –- I could have stayed the rest of the day eating just them. The meal progressed through fresh grilled vegetables, a barely opaque piece of cod, a small whole snapper and one of the most perfect steaks I have ever tasted. While I do not keep a rank ordering, this is certainly in my top 10 meals of all time.

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With HUGE smiles on our faces, we head to San Sebastian. We had planned to go to dinner in Hendaye, a French town just across the border. But after Etxebarri, we waved our white flags. We cancelled our dinner and later walked the tapas bar circuit in San Sebastian: a highly recommended alternative! Each tapas bar has a specialty and focus –- so you can create your own progressive dinner. The tapas bars tend to be crowded, so you can’t help but meet the locals, which adds to the fun. (Another reason to feel blessed to speak English: it has, much to the dismay of many, especially the French, become the universal language). I would also add that San Sebastian is a beautiful seaside town. It is sophisticated but not too much so. I can highly recommend the newly remodeled Hotel Maria Cristina. The word is out, as in the “it’s a small world category”: I run into a couple I know from California at breakfast!

Using San Sebastian as our base, we are driven to lunch in Getaria, a coastal town to the west. Why? Elkano. In business for 50 years, this place is famous for its grilled Turbot. We started with some Iberico Jamon Bellota –- my favorite ham in the entire world. Who knew that black pigs eating acorns can turn into something so tasty! This was followed by a traditional fish soup from a recipe the chef learned from his grandmother. Then the highlight: a perfectly grilled whole Turbot. This was served in a scripted manner: with clear reasons why you wanted to eat this part or that part in that order. I kept thinking of my trips to Japan, where generations learn to perfect one thing. Elkano has truly perfected the art of grilling a Turbot.

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How does one possibly end a meal like that? Well, Elkano is only a 5-minute walk from the Cristobal Balenciaga Museum. I now have a new appreciation of pairing Turbot with historic high fashion.

After returning to San Sebastian and exploring the town, we head to Mugaritz for a classically late, 9:30 pm dinner, in Spain. Since many claim that Mugaritz is the local heir apparent to El Bulli, I am truly looking forward to this dinner. My traveling companions had been 5 years earlier and raved about their experience. This time? What a disaster!!! Our conclusion is that the chef forgot he was a cook and had morphed into a chemist: molecular gastronomy run amok. We sat down, ordered a wine and were invited to visit the kitchen. It is a tasting menu only, so no selections to make. The kitchen is gorgeous –- having been renovated after a fire last year. One of the sous chef’s present us with an amuse bouche in the kitchen. While explaining they love to surprise diners with things that taste different than they look, we are presented with something that looks like blocks of nougat. She says, please taste and tell me what you think. Oh how I wanted to. It was truly horrible. Turns out is was made from fermented hazelnut. Looked great, tasted like *&$%. The next amuse was equally bad. My dining partners and I look at each other and wonder what happened. The entire meal ranged from “OK” to truly awful: muddled flavors, mushy textures, no bright notes. We kept expecting Allen Funt to come back from the dead, and say “surprise, you’re on Candid Camera.” I wondered whether back in the kitchen they were all laughing at what they were getting away with. Needless to say we were happy to leave, and headed straight to the bar at the hotel for a 100-proof palate cleanser. We felt so sad that someone could lose sight of the fact that food is to give pleasure, not demonstrate chemistry acumen. Truly one singularly bad meal.

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While I wish we didn’t end our time in Spain on such a sour note (pun intended), even Mugaritz couldn’t diminish the memories of our superlative meals at Etxbarri and Elkano. I will find reasons to get back to both of those, especially Etxebarri.

Steve Dow

One Response to “Letter from Spain”

  1. Steve, give up venture capital and keep writing food reviews! You have the knack! Your description of Exteberri was sensational. You had me sitting at the table with you. It brought to mind our experience with the seafood at Cal Pep in Barcelona where we went after our visit to Bilbao. Would’ve taken the taste of fermented hazelnut right out of your mouth.

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