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Etxebarri

Plaza San Juan, 1 Axpe-Marzana, Atxondo- Bizkaia, 48291, Spain

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Extebarri (“new home”) is located in the foothills of the limestone mountain Mt Anboto in the Urkiola range, 25 miles south east of Bilbao, near a village called Axpe. Chef and owner Victor Arguinzoniz restored the old stone house that houses the restaurant, which opened in 1988. A former timber worker, he has designed adjustable grills that raise and lower ingredients over open flames, creating his own charcoal from woods including apple, olive and oak in order to impart the flavours that he wants to the ingredients being cooked. He even grills the ice cream here to impart a subtle smoky note. The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 2010, which it has retained ever since.

Extebarri has a large barn-like main dining room, with a smaller additional dining room available. The tasting menu is usually €125, the exact price depending on the particular products used. It is a celebration of local produce, with hardly any garnishes used. Tables were generously spaced, with no music to distract from the food. The wine list, as often the case in this region, was very generously priced.  Alion 2009 was €65 for a wine that you can find in a shop for €69, Didier Dagenau Pur Sang 2011 was €140 for a wine that retails at €85, and Vega Sicilia Unico 2000 was a bargain €199 for a wine that will set you back €342 in a shop.

Pretty much everything served here is cooked to a greater or lesser degree over the charcoal grills. The shellfish was prepared using apple wood, other dishes with a local wood which did not seem to have an English translation but was referred to as “lillex”.

White bread was made from scratch in the kitchen and was hearty and rustic, served with goatmilk butter freshly churned on the premises (16/20). Edamame beans were lightly smoked and salted, very tender and a world away from the dried up creatures of the same name that one might encounter in London (17/20). Sliced chorizo had a bit of smokiness too, and was unusually good, without any hint of stringiness (16/20), while the char-grill treatment even applied to some buffalo mozzarella on the side. A tomato was treated in the same way, this also having excellent flavour (17/20). Porcini slices on little crisps used mushrooms picked from the nearby hills (16/20) while a local anchovy had impressive flavour and was not overly salty (17/20).

An oyster served in its shell was also excellent (17/20) but even better was a pair of red prawns caught in the waters north of Barcelona, served in their shells. Reminiscent of the prawns from the Italian Riviera, these were very lightly cooked with just a hint of smokiness, and had superb flavour. There are perhaps limits to how high a score is reasonable for such a simple dish, but the prawns were really dazzling (18/20 may be a mean score). Porcini smoked in a local wood came on a bed of aubergine, and were also very good (16/20).

The other star dish was lightly seared tuna, liberally salted, from a 120kg fish caught locally. Again this was such a simple thing, yet the quality of the fish was superb, up there with the quality you might encounter in a top Tokyo restaurant (easily 18/20). Whole bream was good, though not of the level of some of the previous dishes, and suffered from being cooked just a touch too long, served with a few vegetables including carrots and beetroot (15/20). Rib eye of Galician beef had plenty of fat content, and was enjoyable though not quite as tender as, say, highly marbled beef from Japan, here served with a little dressed lettuce (16/20).

For dessert, figs in beer granita were rather overwhelmed by the hoppy taste of the beer (13/20), and milk ice cream with beetroot juice was pleasant though not an immediately obvious combination (14/20). The bill came to €200 (£157) a head including tip, though this was with some very good wine. If you shared a modest bottle of wine then a typical bill with water and coffee might be €160 (£126) a head. The only thing that drags my overall score down a little was the slightly overcooked bream and the desserts. Overall this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, the ingredients used of impeccable quality. Etxebarri this time around felt even better than I recall from my last visit, with the very best dishes genuinely stunning, and is highly recommended if you are staying anywhere near Bilbao. 

Further reviews: 01st Sep 2009

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