The place that made perhaps the biggest impression on me on this last trip to Europe –on yet another a pilgrimage to many starry restaurants- was, surprisingly, a kitchen without even a star to its name. This restaurant, called Etxebarri, which simply means ‘new house’ in Basque, was the very definition of the phrase ‘middle of nowhere’, and serves up the kind of strikingly personal cuisine that makes one sit up and take notice.
A friend had warned us that the normally useful directions from Via Michelin were incorrect, and gave us instead a tattered treasure map with pencil markings on the roads where we were supposed to turn. We had a better idea though, or at least we thought we had one. We had a GPS in our rental car, whom we dubbed Hal II, and for whom we lavished blind faith. Need I say that our better idea turned out to be hardly better than nothing at all?
Driving in and around San Sebastian is quite non-trivial. Many of the major arteries in and out of the main city overlap each other, with varyingly named motorways sharing the same actual road. Signs on the roadside look at times like a long series of coded messages. Adding insult to injury, everything is labeled in both Castellano (standard Spanish) and Euskara (Basque). Not that I would ever begrudge a people so proud of their heritage, but, speaking neither Basque nor Spanish, I found myself in a constant state of confusion in the world full of math equations in place of a road sign!
After an action-filled drive from San Sebastian (ahem, Donostia), we finally made our way to a little town called Axpe, where Etxebarri locates. The restaurant is in an unbelievably beautiful setting, in a village seemingly comprised of only a few traditional stone buildings, set against a dramatic hillside. The picture doesn’t do it justice at all.
We came all the way here in seach of the distinct cuisine of the chef, Victor Arguinzoniz, the renown grill master of the region. To say that grilling is his passion would be an understatement. Not only that every dish out of his kitchen is grilled, but he makes his own charcoal, and even invented his own oven and grilling contraptions to take it to a whole other level.
It’s the kind of highly personalized cuisine that could be confounding to some. Michelin, who is unusually generous in this area –San Sebastian has the highest ratio of Michelin star per capita- gives him no star at all. I’m not sure if it was because they couldn’t understand him, or perhaps simply couldn’t find him.
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