The drive through the Spanish Basque country to the acclaimed grill restaurant Asador Etxebarri swings through hillsides clad in infinite shades of green, up a narrow road to the village of Axpe and its minuscule square framed by a church, a school — and Etxebarri's stone-and-timber building. Kids chase balls. Old ladies share a bench. And on the far side, muscular bicyclists catch their breath after the ride up the mountain.
For Americans, grilling is practically synonymous with char. There's not much we like better than a rare steak with a dark smoke-charred crust. At Etxebarri, chef and owner Victor Arguinzoniz does turn out a magnificent beef chop. Grilled on the bone, it is blood rare with the smoky caramelized crust we all love.
But that's about the only dish with a char at this Michelin-starred restaurant, ranked one of the world's 50 best restaurants and on just about every food-lover-in-the-know's bucket list. Arguinzoniz, for the most part, takes a more subtle approach to grilling.
You can eat your way through six or eight of the 12 courses on his prix-fixe menu before a dish arrives that's even marked by the grill. With everything else, the magic is in how he works the fire. It's something intuitive, arrived at over more than 25 years of patiently working the grill, observing, experimenting.
Primitive-looking percebes (goose barnacles) from Galicia arrive in a simple metal basket. A barely warmed oyster is splashed with a gossamer seaweed foam. A single prawn from Palamos on the Costa Brava is stunning in its simplicity, barely kissed by the smoke.
When Arguinzoniz opened Etxebarri in 1988, he wanted to see how far he could take grilling over a wood fire. Growing up in this village, no one had electricity or gas. His grandmother cooked everything over a wood fire. And he considers this traditional style of cooking integral to Basque cooking and identity, though in most places now coal instead of wood is standard.
He prefers wood charcoal: For him, coal gives the food too marked a flavor. And every morning at 8, he prepares his own charcoal in an oven to one side of the kitchen. What he loves about wood is its clarity, he says. "It has clean aromas, it's natural and it brings out the flavors of each element, letting them show, exactly."
Even after more than 25 years, he's fascinated with the ancient method of cooking over wood. For him, it's one of the most natural forms of eating. "The protagonist of the meal should be the product and not the cook," he says, distancing himself from the celebrity chef circus.
Depending on what he's grilling, he uses different types of wood. For fish and seafood, it's encina (holm oak), which gives off very soft aromas. That gentleness is needed for shellfish and fish. For meat, he prefers vine cuttings that are more typical of nearby Rioja.
Watching him work is a study in patience. His head is bent. He stares at a prawn grilling over a very low fire. A cook stands ready with a plate. The chef waits. And waits. And then at a moment divined only by Arguinzoniz, the prawn is done. Off it goes into the spacious upstairs dining room. His exactitude is impressive.
Famous as Etxebarri is, Arguinzoniz isn't one to make the food festival circuit. He is as devoted to his kitchen as a zen monk is to his meditation room. When you eat at Etxebarri, he cooks every dish himself. Everything goes through his fingers. Oh, there are always one or two cooks doing stages or longer stays with him. But in 25 years, he says, no one has ever really learned to do what he does.
"With the younger chefs, they believe it can be learned in two days," he says, laughing. "They're thinking it's only fire and the grill goes up and down. No big deal. Even famous chefs who have asked to spend the day in the kitchen don't realize beforehand that there aren't any recipes here."
Arguinzoniz is a chef of extraordinary subtlety. His food is also extraordinarily plain. But every bite is a revelation of purity of flavor. At Etxebarri, nothing is prepared ahead of time. When the guests sit down, that's when the work begins. He firmly believes that if someone comes from 3,000 miles away to eat his food, he should cook it. "For me, that's sacred."
Asador Etxebarri, Plaza de San Juan, 1, 48291 Atxondo, Bizkaia, Spain, asadoretxebarri.com.