Donostia: Seeking the Holy Grill

Today is a questing day. Our destiny: the Holy Grill.

I only slightly exaggerate here. Etxebarri is absolutely legendary for its revolutionary grilling techniques; mastermind Victor Arguinzoniz designs innovative mechanisms specifically suited to ingredients never before subject to smoke and flame. We’re talking oddities like egg yolk, here, along with caviar – for the intrigued, our now intimate friend Tony Bourdain investigates in an excellent episode of No Reservations.

It has all the paintings of the lunch of a lifetime – but first, we have to get there.

The internet cautions us to schedule plenty of leeway in the drive from Donostia to the remote Etxebarri. Ominous blog posts relate harrowing tales of labyrinthine country roads and a total lack of reasonable signage. Only the valient may triumph.

And triumph we do, after weaving our way in and out of the extensive printed maps and GPS satellite coverage. The parking sign is a beacon in the darkness, calling us forward to meet our collective culinary fate.

We feel somehow removed from both space and time as we commonly understand them, disoriented and anticipatory here in the smallest Basque town imaginable. Here you see the first half of Atxondo, flanked from behind by enormous mountains.

The other half of Atxondo consists of Etxebarri.

We are precisely on time for our 2.00 PM reservation and getting rather giddy.

Etxebarri features both an a-la-carte and a degustation menu; loyal readers will already know we love to decide not to decide.

Over a few slices of chorizo and the most magnificent cava we’ve ever had – crisp and effervescent, as intoxicating as the cool mountain air seems to be – we contemplate what lies before us:

handmade goat butter
Palamos prawns
grilled sea cucumber
grilled egg yolk, St George’s mushrooms
grilled peas
grilled anchovies
grilled hake
grilled beef on the bone
wild fruit infusion, fresh cheese ice cream
pane perdu, smoked milk ice cream

The third course causes Janet to balk. She’s been forever scarred by a gnarly experience with an awful sea cucumber dish in Hawaii; I gently inform the waiter of an unfortunate and very specific allergy. She doesn’t bat an eye and offers several alternative options – Janet goes for clams with enormous relief.

We select a bottle of Rioja to accompany us throughout our courses: Imperial Reserva 2004. It’s lovely.

Lovelier still is this. My friends, atop this blacked slice of toast is a serious quantity of smoked goat butter, dotted with ash and St. George’s mushrooms. It is not anything that can possibly be understood through the internet – we are overwhelmed with tastebud bliss at the very first nibble. The creamy room temperature butter melts its way into your senses, nudging you you to close your eyes and let it take over.

We do.

Second is two oversize local prawns, complete with elegantly entangled feelers. They are for picking up and tearing apart, in order that you might enjoy every possible morsel contained within. After reading that they’re Ferran Adria’s preferred delicacy, I am the first to suck out the brains. It doesn’t take much convincing to get MP to do the same.

After some coercion, Janet falls in line and never looks back.

The dreaded sea cucumbers emerge in an appropriately-shaped plate. They rest on a bed of fresh, buttery peas, presumably from the northern region so famous for them this time of year. These puppies have absolutely nothing in common with the beast of Janet’s gastronomic nightmares; their folds allow for plenty of delicious charring, and the texture is chewy but certainly not unpleasant. Janet is more than content with her clam course.

The fourth course is the most mysterious to me – I can theoretically picture how one might grill caviar with some form of mesh, but an egg yolk? This marvel of modern science is paired with the lightest of St George’s mushrooms, collected from the mountains we see out the window. The smokiness imparted by the grill combines perfectly with the rich eggy depth.

Fifth: peas, please. They seem to be soaked in butter. We like it.

Our sixth course is ‘chovies like we’ve never before dreamt; these grilled beauties are not strongly flavored at all nor extraordinarily salty, yet somehow manage to conserve the elements of common anchovies that make them so adored by their fans. Bitter greens refresh the palate between bites.

The seventh course is hake with spring vegetables. It’s fabulous, of course, but far too large a portion; we’re well aware of what’s to come having seen other tables, and we feel enormously guilty for leaving the majority sitting on our plates. This ought to be one-fourth of its size.

What we’ve been waiting for: the eighth course, the chuletón, a monstrous cut of seared Galician beef.

It’s significantly less marbled with fat than Olaizola’s glorious version yesterday, which divides opinions as to the winner. In the end, we decide they’re both equally magnificent in different ways – this one perhaps particularly notable for its extraordinarily crispy crust, complementing the totally raw and extremely high quality meat within.

How exactly we continue from the ideal beef is a mystery, but this cheese ice cream swimming in a magenta infusion of wild fruits (walhd fruits, wahld fruits) as the first dessert course certainly helps. It’s rich beyond belief, pleasing MP’s palate especially.

As for me, however, I’ve reserved my sweet tooth for this final course – smoked milk ice cream, accompanied by pane perdu. It’s darkly flavored with the same grilled smokiness that’s been so pervasive throughout our Etxebarri experience, the pane perdu serving as a slightly lighter foil. For sure, much of its intensity comes from butterfat – but that’s consistent with the kitchen’s technique the whole time.

We decide that the chefs at Etxebarri are fat experts, which sounds like it could be derisive but certainly isn’t intended that way. The creative and precise use of butter and its kin throughout the tasting menu provides for a cohesive, innovative cuisine we’ll not be forgetting anytime soon: the Lunch of a Lifetime.

Our extensive mid-day meal takes us from a noon departure time in our rental car to a significantly late afternoon arrival back in Donostia at 7.30 PM. We siesta for a very short spell, then take advantage of the gorgeous weather and stroll about town. Absolutely no one has any shred of an appetite, but we still gaze with vague interest into the windows of the various pintxo bars in Gros, the half of the city on the other side of the river.

We’ve as of yet not been too successful in terms of conserving appetite for serious dedication to evening pintxos, but we’ve still covered significant culinary ground. Sea cucumber! Goat’s milk butter! Loyal readers, there will be no complaints.


12 thoughts on “Donostia: Seeking the Holy Grill

  1. Ah, how wonderful! This post was worth the wait. Of course, I pulled up my photos from our 03/10 adventure there to compare & contrast – and remember. Thanks for sharing your experiences so eloquently. You really bring these places to life for your dear readers.

      1. I have no doubt that he would have taken longer! He would have been gnawing on the bone of the chuleton.

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