Elkano, simply, from the sea

When asked where the beautiful Turbot on our plate had come from, our
waiter simply gestured toward to sea just beyond the windows.
"Everything we serve here come from right there", he said. Elkano is
that kind of restaurant, where deceptively simple technique gives way
to the superlative freshness of the local ingredients. And that’s
precisely why we had gone there in the first place.

We had arrived only a few hours prior, a flight from Paris to Biarritz,
on the French side of the Basque country, then an hour or so drive to
San Sebastian. After a brief rest at the hotel, our friend Mikael
joined us for the drive to Guetaria, for dinner at the famous seafood
house Elkano. And so began our saga of driving –or getting lost,
rather- in the maze that’s the highways and byways of Donostia.

By the time we arrived at the restaurant it was far too close to
midnight, having gone over 40km the wrong direction and back again. We
rehearsed the starving children look with each other in the car, hoping
to be pathetic enough that they would serve us still, despite the
hours. Happily, we once again underestimated how late people ate in
Spain. Not only that they took us in without complaint, two more tables arrived even later than we did, and the
restaurant seated them without missing a beat.

We took a quick glance through the menu, though it was just for show.
We knew what we had come all that way for, and it’s the Turbot. That
majestic fish, whose sweet, succulent flesh and gelatinous bones are
considered by many a great chef to be the very finest specimen of fish
in the world.

We told our nice waiter that we were there for the Turbot. Yes, we
came all the way out here for the Turbot so could we PLEASE have a
Turbot, and might we have it NOW?

Needless to say we were a little eager. The waiter seemed quite amused by all this, and kindly assured us that they certainly did have Turbots, still. But wouldn’t we be interested in a thing or two else to begin, he wondered. He had some very fresh Percebes and Kokotxa that would make a great precursor to our Turbot.

The primordial-looking Percebes landed first on the table. It is a type of shellfish that grows wild on the rocks in the Cantabric sea. The Percebes on our plate looked a bit like severed toes of small Dinosaurs. To eat, you pick one up by the part that looks like the nail, hold on to the other end with your other hand, and then give it a little twist to separate the meat from the tube-like body, so you could suck the sweet flesh off easily.

Even the act of eating it sounds primordial, no? While I was contemplating this, Mikael and David went to town, tossing the shells off to the side and squirting the juice all over themselves. I threw my manners to the wind – sorry Mother- and joined them. Eating delicately with this crowd could actually mean not eating at all.

After we quickly did away with the pile of Percebes on the plate, the second course arrived, Kokotxa, tiny morsels of meat from the throat of Hake fish. The Kokotxas were dipped in a light egg batter and then fried. The crunchy and eggy batter contrasted gorgeously with the juicy and salty meat.

Another plate arrived with yet more Kokotxas, this time simply grilled. The waiter explained that they had a special contraption that allowed the superbly fresh Kokotxas to be cooked directly on the grill without any oil. The final result was gorgeous, eating one was like biting into a delicate bubble encasing the spirit of the sea. When the plate was finished, I badly wanted more, but managed to contain myself because I knew what was to come. Yes, it was time for the Turbot.

And so it arrived, at long last, a beautiful specimen of the fish, about 3-4 pounds in size, simply grilled, glistening and slightly crisp in places and around the edges, laying in a pool of clear, viscous liquid which we knew to be nothing but the juice and gelatin from the fish itself.

The conversation ceased entirely, each of us concentrating on the beautiful piece of flesh and bones on our respective plate. We started out timidly dissecting the fish with our utensils, but quickly dispensed with them in favor of our own Mother Nature-issued hands. The goal was not only to eat the sweet meat, but to get to the best part, to suck every bit of gelatinous membrane off every single piece of bone.

That wasn’t easy, mind you, my fingers kept getting stuck as if glued together by the gelatin from the fish. Far be it to let that minor detail deter me, I just had to suck my fingers as I went along to keep them separated –again, sorry mom.

Sated, and the fish reduced to an impossibly tiny pile of bones, we sat back to contemplate our great fortune. What a privilege it was to be there, to have a meal that was so glorious in its simplicity.

Elkano is my kind of restaurant. Like its neighbouring Etxebarri, Elkano is the kind of situated place that inhabits and expresses the very essence of its surroundings. It is, simply, there and nowhere else. I don’t feel that way very often with restaurants: Michel Bras and Olivier Roellinger came to mind, but I’d be hard pressed to think of many others.

Not that I’m averse to foam and air and all the trickery novel culinary techniques offer. I enjoy a fun, challenging, cerebral kind of meal, delighting in unusual combinations and pushing the flavor and texture boundaries, a scientist at heart, still, me.

But sometimes, you know, sometimes, happiness is just a pile of fish bones.

—————–
ElkanoGetting there
Unless you took the 40km scenic route we did, the drive to Guetaria from San Sebastian should only take you about 20 minutes (to go the 25km or 15 miles distance).

Once you get into town, head toward the direction of the port, and the restaurant will be hard to miss. Trust me, we nearly ran right into it.

Elkano Restaurant
Herrerieta 2
20808 Guetaria
Guipuzcoa, Spain
P: +34 943 140024
F: +34 943 140530
info@restauranteelkano.com

If you made it to Elkano and Guetaria in September 2007, you might want to check out the Balenciaga retrospective that will celebrate the completion of the multimillion-dollar museum and headquaters for the Cristobal Balenciaga Foundation. Guetaria was the birthplace of the famous designer. (Thanks the New Yorker for the info.)

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  • http://vanillagarlic.blogspot.com/ Garrett

    The whole experience sounds like an orgiastic food fest. Love the pictures too!

  • http://sooishi.blogspot.com/ ooishigal

    Gorgeous shots as usual, bravo Pim!

  • http://www.maryeats.com maryeats

    Wow, at first glance I thought it was asparagus tips wrapped in bacon!

  • http://www.winosandfoodies.typepad.com/ barbara

    I’m assuming you shared the one turbot. It sounds very large for one person. It all sounds wonderful Pim.

  • http://thecookscottage.typepad.com deccanheffalump

    Sounds utterly mouthwatering.
    Balenciaga and Elkano sound two excellent reasons to make the trip to San Sebastian. Thanks for that tip.

  • http://www.ithinkfoodisgreat.com conor

    You could make a trashy B horror movie about percebes. “Night of the Percebes” I mean really trashy. I marvel at the phenomenom that we get to tune in to what you eat on your travels. Thanks for the insiders eye.

  • faustianbargain

    the “percebes” looks like barnacles. usually, they are simply steamed and served straight. they are delicious, but arent usually considered ‘shellfish’. its a dangerous job collecting these off the rocks..one has to dash before the waves hit the rocks..but they do fetch a pretty price.

  • carla

    Pim, you are playing with my heart! you have made me realized how much I miss eating percebes. We eat them a lot in the coast of Portugal. Usually we buy them in a fish market, close to the sea, and then before heading home, we stop at the ocean/beach to collect some sea water to cook the percebes, and that is it! best with cold beer, or chilled Vinho Verde!

  • erik

    I first tasted Percebes at a Bar a Huitres, in Montparnasse, where I was a regular in 2001. For your reference, in french they are known as “pousse-pieds”, and I believe the season is December. Benoit, the (famous) oyster bar man presented them to me as a delicacy. I am stoked to see you bring them up. Did some quick research, an 1 posting on eGullet says the US prohibits harvesting of Percebes :(

  • http://realthai.blogspot.com/ Austin

    That all looks really wonderful. Wish we could get good seafood-I mean really good seafood-here in BKK!
    Austin

  • Susana

    Thank you for your stories Pim. We have a great cuisine and i´m sure you will love it, too.
    Best regards from Spain

  • http://www.aminglingoftastes.com Julie

    Pim,
    That was an elegant, transportive bit of food writing. I hope to get to Elkano someday!
    Thanks,
    julie

  • http://www.jetsetelective.com/pp/ Jetset

    Pim, thanks for sharing this feast with us. What a treat. I’m adding it to my San Sebastian trip October. Now all we need is a headsup on eastern europe. Really, any plans to visit Zagreb?

  • http://www.gastrochick.com gastrochick

    Reading your post has brought back fond memories of the delectable turbot which I had the pleasure of eating a couple of weeks ago at Kaia, El Kano’s sister restaurant in Getaria. In my opinion Kaia equalled my experience at Arzak, which incidentally is possibly one of my favourite restaurants in the world.

  • beachfan

    Wow, I go for turbot like the NYC group goes for suckling pig. What a great article!

  • Joaquin Silguero

    I am glad to hear you enjoyed your trip to Donosti and the surroundings. The Basque Country is famous by its restaurants. I live here so I am delighted to hear people coming from other countries like our food & quality of life. Best regards.

  • http://www.morzeustka.com Noclegi Ustka

    Thank you for your stories Pim. Best regards from Poland. Noclegi Ustka

  • Merril

    Loved reading about Elkano. Came across your web site while researching this restaurant after reading about it in our paper in Melbourne Australia. Going to be there at the end of May beging of June. Would love more info on fine dining on the coast of france and Spain.
    Merril

  • Jin Yoo-Kim

    looks amazing! I can’t wait to try the turbot here. How many restaurants did you end up going to in San Sebastian? Thank you for the post!