Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Stellar Lunch at Extebarri San Sebastian!!

April 18th 2013, San Sebastian

We left the Pullman Hotel in Bordeaux at 10am expecting a three hour drive to get to our lunch in San Sebastian. Slow driving and backlog at the border turned this into close on six, meaning that lunch didn't much get underway much before 3.30pm. There was also a slight delay following a mistaken destination. But we finally arrived at the Asador Exterbarri pretty hungry and hoping for a memorable lunch.

And that was exactly what we got for all the right reasons. Superb food and matched with some magnificent wines. 

Extebarri entrance
Located in the Axtondo valley to the south of San Sebastian. Extebarri nestles in a lush green setting that was only slightly dampened by an April shower as we debarked the bus and got inside. The ambience is one of rustic simplicity and warmth, dominated by stone walls and wood panels and lunchtime natural light helped by wall lamps. 

The Extebarri website talks about the necessity for "Care and instinct under the discipline of fire and primitive cooking techniques, where simplicity and warmth of the grill inspire a natural landscape." At the same time the restaurant seeks to inculcate a sense of "Wistfulness, with an adventure spirit for knowledge; tasting flavours, and rediscovering that space and time are imperceptible."

What this means is that all the food is locally sourced and cooked over "La Brasa" or "The Grill". Chef Victor Arguinzoniz plays daily with his fire to maintain a simplicity yet with a sense of experimental adventure whereby anything can be prepared over the grill or in the ovens - caviar, egg yolks, even the goat's milk ice cream. Part of the secret is the charcoal used - it is made every day at the restaurant using an assortment of woods from various trees and sources. Apple, orange, olive and oak wood each lend a hint of smoky enhancing char to the cooking. "From seafood and steaks to wild woodland mushrooms and oysters, the character of cooking is defined by the woods used" and different charcoals get used for different foods. As much as the food gets infused with the spice of the wood, so does the restaurant. The smell hits you as you walk through the doors and take a seat and breathe and taste the smoke in the air. The grill is central to the Asador experience in all sensual terms - sight, smell, taste and sound. But not to touch. Burning fingers should not be part of the Asador experience. No.

At the heart of things, though, remains the food. Whilst the grill permeates the taste, texture and smell of things, the freshness and seasonality of the produce is what makes or breaks a restaurant. At Extebarri, much is made of sourcing from the surrounding district. Woodland mushrooms and wild berries, free range eggs from free roaming chickens, organic vegetables from the restaurant garden, whilst chorizo, cheese, butter and ice cream is all produced in house.

Gramona Cava
Given the numbers, it made sense to go with the tasting menu and do the Malaysian way of parking the food in the middle of the table and sharing it around.

Lunch became a total feast. Each of the starter appetizers did exactly that, setting the palate for the gastronomic assault that was to follow. The beetroot onion combo pumped up the fiery chorizo which was neutralised by the mozzarella in preparation for the salt and oily magic that was the anchovies on toast. The clean acidic and lemon spritzy finish of our Gramona Imperial Cava NV starter was naturally softened by the cheese and anchovies which also made for a somewhat short but pleasing finish. Outside of this the fizz did have good length on it, still tasting fresh and fruity even after two hours in the warmed up glass. Someone gave me their glass to try - I have yet to learn such discipline.

The Sea Cucumber
The oyster came out in a butter foam which zipped the fizz somewhat, though the cooked seaweed lent a vegetal salty texture that was nicely firmed up on a hunk of bread. The prawns were champion, fresh and grilled to succulent perfection whilst the follow up sea cucumber was soft, sweet and mouth meltingly delightful. Totally unlike the chewy monsters swimming in the gunky soy goo that my Chinese friends rave about when we go to eat at Chinese restaurants in Kuala Lumpur. This delicacy still totally eludes me - I just cannot get what it is about it that people will pay astronomical prices to eat. Everyone likes to sit next to me because I always give mine away when it gets served. To this extent, the Extebarri Sea Cucumber was a revelation. Still don't particularly like it, but revelatory nonetheless.

We had moved on to the white which was a 2011 Bizkaiko Tzakolina from the Itsas Mendi winery Guernica. This came over clean and light with a lovely body. Imagine a chardonnay without oak and butter and this would be it. Softly fruity, the sea cucumber killed off the acid which allowed a ripe apricot note to burst through.

Baby Octopus
The smoky grilled baby octopus was aptly named - it looked embryonic, almost to the point of pity to see them on the plate. But sometimes we must put sadness to one side and just taste away. And what a taste - the texture was one of very, very, VERY tender ribeye. Total woooooo….   

The strangely named Scrambled of Mushroom turned out to be scrambled egg yolk with raw mushroom and came out a bit thin and runny, like half boiled eggs albeit an incredibly great tasting yolk. This was perhaps the less salted dish of the entire production and was probably the one that most needed a shake. In the east, a half boiled egg is often spritzed up with a dash of soy sauce and that would have helped here. Add a hunk of buttered bread and it would have been bonanza.

The lightly grilled Prawns
The follow up mushrooms felt as if they had just been picked. Crunchy, raw, and fresh with nothing else added to enhance. Total taste and texture. Au naturelle, and oh my lord what a delight. Stellar and sublime.

Our dear leader and wine guru Yin How had been scouring the wine lists of the restaurants on our itinerary and had made his selections in advance. For our red, he had found a belter - a 2009 Echezeaux from the Romanee-Conti Domaine which the restaurant was selling at a price that proved so silly to some of the members that they promptly bought up the entire restaurant's stock. I also asked if I could buy a bottle or two but was too late -  there appeared to be no such thing as letting members get a look in when it came to buying top end wine at silly prices. Lesson learned.

DRC Echezeaux 2009
And oh, it was a belter. Drinking like liquid silk with a bouquet of cotton and wool and tasting of the lightest of cherries. Someone once told me that the first wine he had ever drunk had disappeared in the mouth - evaporated into the air. This was what the Echezeaux felt like - breathing the wine rather than drinking it. Enlightenment. Feed me more.

There had been lots of tittilating and tongue busting tastes to this point in the meal. And as playfully delightful as they were, it felt increasingly like it was getting time for something to fill the belly. Tasty is nice, but substance is still king. 

Me and my big mouth. 

The turbot came to the table in its smoked entirety and was rapidly demolished before most photographs could be taken. It was that good. Rich in flavour with an oaky smoky skin, the buttered asparagus contrasted well to boost the slightly dry texture of the fish flesh on the tongue and on the finish. 

Extebarri's magnificent Beef Chop
The Galician beef chop could have fed our house for a week. Large to the eye, it proved equally large on taste. Seared to medium cooked perfection on the bone, this aged piece of lightly seasoned meat was world champion. The importance of the grill now made sense, with the charcoal infusing its smoke into the meat and giving a heavenly carbonised oaky bite in the mouth. I thought New York had the edge of cooking steak. Extebarri would easily give the Wolfgang's and the Luger's a darned good run for the money. It was a Brahma with the Echezeaux, a perfect match of perfect steak and perfect wine. Absolute Wow.

My notes say that another bottle of red got opened at this time, a bold and sexy Spanish number tasting of spice and peppery dark fruits and plum and full on the finish without being overly tannic. Very voluptuous - the Penelope Cruz of wines. The name eludes at this time. And there are no photos. Perhaps I got it wrong?

Raising a glass at the Extebarri
The smart move would have been to stop eating at this point. We had a dinner reservation for 7.30pm and it was now 4.15pm. Would there be sufficient time for our lunch to be digested ahead of our 3 star Michelin extravaganza at the Akelare? Then wisdom shone through - we were in Spain where time takes on a different dimension. Why not just start our dinner later, say 9pm. when the rest of Spain starts eating? Brilliant. As Picard of the Enterprise might say, it was made so.

Which meant we could enjoy the desserts without feeling too much in the way of guilt. The fruits in the smoothie and marshmallow had a freshly acidic tang to offset the smoked and toasty marshmallow. But the surprise of the day was the Goat Milk ice cream that had spent some time getting smoked over the grill. It came out as rich milky cream with a dusting of smoke and a hint of goat. It felt somehow reminiscent of a Devonshire Cream Tea without the scone - total light liquid cream, yet less gunky than the full cream. Very unique taste and one that would be worth a return trip to San Sebastian on its own. 

Extebarri was the memory of the trip for the steak and the wine and the ambience. A total standout that we were still talking about two weeks after we had returned home. The beef, the wine, the smoke. We were recommending it to everyone who had either been to San Sebastian or were going there. Between this place and the Rekondo where we did lunch the following day, the beef at the Rekondo had the slight edge - less crisp on the char and a little less pepper. But both were magnificent and to have eaten them 24 hours apart was a privilege. Otherwise, is difficult to separate the two. Extebarri was a total experience and one I would happily repeat at any time. Especially the smoked Goat Cheese ice cream. Totally gut busted - Total Phwooooarrrhhh.

Do we really have to go to dinner tonight?

Erretegi Asador
Plaza San Juan,
1 - 48291 Axpe-Marzana
Tel 94 658 30 42

Tasting menu starters were:
Beetroot and Spring Onion
Chorizo from acorn fed pork
Butter of Goat's Milk with Black Salt
Mozzarella of Buffalo 
Salted Anchovy

The mains were
Oyster with seaweed
Prawns from Palamos
Sea Cucumber with baby green beans
Baby Octopus with caramelised onion and its ink
Scrambled of Mushroom
Beef Chops of Galician beef

Desserts were
Smoothie of blood orange
Marshmallow with strawberries
Reduced Milk Ice Cream with red fruit infusion

Gramona Imperial Cava NV 
2011 Bizkaiko Tzakolina from the Itsas Mendi winery Guernica
DRC Echezeaux Grand Cru 2009
unknown Spanish red

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