I first read about Etxebarri some four years ago when I saw this article by Jay Rayner in the Guardian. Then I saw an Anthony Bourdain show about it and I was hooked. It was the first time I heard about somewhere that compelled me to want to get on a plane and go there.

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BBQ the Etxebarri way…literally everything is cooked on these bespoke grills that are swung higher or lower as required

Over the years that followed, chef Victor Arguinzoniz steered this isolated eaterie along consistent listings in the San Pelligrino top 50 restaurants and led the way in the BBQ trend. This is the man that, true to his Basque roots, understood the meaning of keeping things pure and simple. To him that meant wood fired cooking of the best ingredients and very little else. And definitely no charcoal in sight. Knowing that conventional BBQ’s were not subtle enough to be able to cook the repertoire of his menu he designed his own and got a local ironmonger to build his vision. The result is an impressive wall of griddles that can be steered up and down to adapt the heat source to the ingredient allowing him to cook everything from milk to steak.

So it was with a huge chunk of excitement that I embarked on my recent trip to San Sebastian and onwards for a further hour through winding lanes in our little Fiat 500 to the teeny tiny village of Atxondo to sample the place for myself.

Etxebarri room

A simple room overlooking the wonderful countryside

I guess it’s a lot to ask of that same place that after 4 years of yearning, it would live up to all the expectations I put on it. And the truth is that it wasn’t the life changing experience I wanted it to be. How could it be? It is difficult to articulate why it didn’t deliver as there was so much right about it. The setting is quaint and beautiful. The room was equally rustic and unassuming. The staff were professional and charming. There were dishes that really did engage and delight us. But all together I think the thing that was lacking that would have tied it all up together was the story that romances the simple ingredients into something so much more.

I was lucky enough to visit El Bulli 4 years ago and the first thing they did when you came through the front door was take you into the kitchen to see where it all happens and to meet chef Ferran Adria. Before your bum even hits a seat you were engaged. There was a sense of wonder and brilliance as this ever so silent kitchen operated with chefs moving as if in a wonderfully choreographed dance across the sections to deliver plate after plate of delicacies.

Oak logs - the cooking fuel piled up outside

Oak logs – the cooking fuel piled up outside

At Etxebarri, we had to ask at the very end of our meal if it was possible to see the kitchen and only then were we shown by a kitchen hand the source of the menu in its post service state. The oak logs lay stacked at the back, the embers of the ovens had started to die down and the impressive wall of steel lay silent after the service. Had we been ushered in first, or had more explanation at the time of service then our engagement would have been fulfilled.

The smoked goats milk butter

The smoked goats milk butter

Grandma's chorizo

Grandma’s chorizo

That said, there were many dishes on the 13 course tasting menu that really did impress. All the talk of smoked butter was justified as we had our antipasti of smoked goats butter, home-made mozzarella and grandmas recipe of home made chorizo which was softer and more subtle than anything I have previously tasted. For me, it was the simple pure elements that pleased me most: smoked prawns, perfectly cooked red sea bream and the sensational ice cream that topped the board. I found other dishes like the throat of hake and the oyster with spinach a bit so-what. It was almost as if they were trying too hard. I had hoped for some leeks cooked as I had seen them in the Bourdain programme and we probably offended the whole team when we sent the steak back as it was genuinely so blue that we struggled to eat it (and I was with hardy friends including a meat loving South African!). But overall there was a lot more to enjoy than not.

Steak

But what of Etxebarri? Well, I am glad that I went there and impressed to see how it has shaped the way chefs coming through here have taken on board the simplicity of cooking and the sourcing of great ingredients. But at 125 euros plus VAT I would say this meal is a difficult one to justify to anyone other than crazy people like me.

We returned to San Sebastian that night for simple 2 euros pintxos and enjoyed those just as much. What does that say?

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