The drive from San Sebastian towards Bilbao rivals the Big Sur Highway with its bridges and expansive views of the ocean on one side, and green rolling mountain hills on the other. The directions from the website were simple with landmarks as turning guides since signage was a little scarce along the way. Tom and I turned off the picturesque highway to Durango, passed by old factories and houses until we crossed the railroad and circled around the Auchan Supermarket. A small wooden sign at the Y in the road pointed up the hill to Axpe, the small town where Asador Etxebarri, one of the world’s top restaurants and our ultimate destination resided.
Victor Arguinzoniz, the self-taught head chef of Asador Etxebarri, restored an old 18th century restaurant in 1989 with his wife, Patricia. Victor learned the art of grilling at an early age and experimented with different wood charcoals on meats and seafood imparting different aromas and flavors. He uses seasonal ingredients, fresh seafood, and free-roaming livestock to create simple, elegant dishes with robust flavor. There’s no grand driveway up to a mansion with tuxedoed bellboys and servers, just a simple two-story stone building surrounded by green mountains and farmhouses serving grilled cuisine that is heavenly.
We arrived to one of the smallest villages I’ve ever seen. This was straight out of the 18th century, but with a random car parked on the side of the road. Asador Etxebarri had its own walled parking lot, and we walked around to the front of the building that faced the village park square. On the left was a stone house with a school playground attached, and at the far end was a fountain with other buildings surrounding it. The entire village seemed deserted until some school children were let out for recess. Just outside the square was a church and other ancient structures, but there wasn’t a soul to be seen. A tiny, rough sidewalk bordered the narrow road which was barely big enough for two cars to pass, and it was obvious that horses and cattle were still used along these routes. Apparently we were in the center of town with farmhouses spread out across the mountain landscape.
Inside the stone-constructed restaurant was a small bar area on the first floor. An old crusty character already hovered at the bar halfway through his beer. A corner bench and table were the only other furniture in the place, and in the corner, a soccer match broadcasted on a small box TV. I really felt like I stepped back through time, but with electricity.
Patricia came and told us our table was ready. We followed her up the stairs to the second floor where a beautifully decorated dining room awaited us. White tablecloths, a single flower in a vase on every table, wood paneled ceiling, and large windows flooding the room with light was inviting and comforting.
We had a choice of different menus. One was the degustation menu with 11 courses of tantalizing grilled seafood and meat. Unfortunately, after a heavily salted pintxo crawl the night before, and the roller coaster ride through the countryside we weren’t up to the full experience, so we opted for the second menu of A La Carte. After our appetizers of thinly sliced cured sausages and caviar, I ordered the lobster, grilled to perfection.
The other tables were half occupied by Spaniards and the other half foreigners. An expert server amusingly gave a lesson on how to get the snails out of their shell to a clumsy American. Extaberri is famous for its grilled angulas (baby eels), but these are only in season for a short time in the winter.
On the ride back to San Sebastian, we lovingly sighed over the spectacular scenery of green mountains on one side, and steep hills to cliffs leading to the sea on the other. If you feel adventurous, rent a car and drive through the rugged Basque Country. Your reward will be more than just a view.