Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Lunch for the History Books - Asador Etxebarri in Carracedelo, León Spain

Bucket lists often contain many different types of activities - exciting items such as sky diving or helicopter rides to a volcano, athletic items such as running a marathon, seeing natural wonders like the northern lights, getting more education like an advanced degree or learning a new language, or seeing specific works of art like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris.  If you read my posts regularly, you may have noticed that my mentions of bucket list items revolve almost exclusively around seeking out great food, wine, and travel related experiences. 

For my bucket list, I seek new and different experiences that relate to my primary passions - food and wine. It is more than just the eating and drinking I seek (though I enjoy both very much) - it is the passion of a great winemaker,  the artistry of a great chef, the expression of local terrior in the wine, the local cooking customs and the respectful and successful use of locally produced ingredients.  It is the culture of food, wine and how it is embedded in cultures in different ways that is my quest.  My love of cooking also drives me to increase my own knowledge of different ingredients, different regional dishes, and different customs that I can include in my own bag of tricks as a wanna-be chef.

My bucket list restaurants are not always the most highly rated with the most Michelin Stars or hightest Yelp rating - I am really looking for a unique experience, something off the beaten path that promises to please the palate - and potentially be the meal of a lifetime. My wife and I are not against paying a hefty price for a fantastic experience, but paying a high price will never guarantee a fantastic experience. Luckily - for our bucket list dining, or just nice restaurants we've wanted to try on special occasions - we haven't had a very disappointing experience so far.  Some were fantastic, some were just OK, but from every one so far we at least came away with something very memorable - even if it was just finding out about a great cheese called Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery at Restaurant Gary Danko.

One restaurant that has been on the bucket list for sometime is Asador Etxebarri in a small village in Léon, Spain. Fans of food tv shows like Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations may have seen segments about this hard to find restaurant where all of the cooking is done in a fairly primitive kitchen on wood fire grills. We are talking absolutely all the cooking!  Wood grilled cooking and a Michelin Star - this is the kind of unique combination that earns a spot on the Wino4Life (and Wino4Life Wife) bucket list.
Everything is Cooked on These Grills!

The address of this restaurant is not a mailing address but instead GPS coordinates. The restaurant is located in the village of Carracedelo in a quaint square next to a church. If you were just driving through, you would think this little village no different that hundreds of others that dot the hillsides of Spain. But this one holds quite a secret!  During this year's vacation in France and Spain, we booked lunch at Asador Etxebarri during our stay in San Sebastian. After a little over an hour drive in a heavy Spanish spring rain, our trusty Garmin GPS took us to the right spot without a hitch, and we were greeted, and seated at a fantastic upstairs table next to the balcony.  

My wife and I wanted the full experience, so we opted for the tasting menu and let our hosts choose the wine pairings.  One of the incredibly unique dishes we had heard about at Asador Etxebarri was grilled caviar - but unfortunately they have had problems getting access to the correct kind of caviar for their unique grilling method, so this dish was not available.  Our host promised we would not be disappointed, even without the caviar dish - and she was so very correct.  The wine pairing for the meal was fairly simple, a white wine for the all of the savory courses except one - which warranted a nice big red wine. Add a sweet wine for the desserts, and that was our wine pairing (Maridaje in Spanish). 

Our first wine and first course.  The wine was poured without any description, and our first course was presented - mushrooms of the seasons on a sort of water cracker, along with some delicious and fresh bread. The mushrooms were delicately flavored, but our wine was a bit cold at this point to show its true colors.

Our next course included three items, plus a butter for our bread. We were served the following:

Smoked butter made from goat's milk with black salt.  The salt tasted like it was also smoked in the kitchen to give the butter an additional smokey kick.  Awesome on the rustic, fresh bread.  I have never done this before in my blog, but I need to give a quick silverware shout out. The "stand up" butter knife we used was one of the coolest tableware things I've ever seen.  Some quick research after returning to our hotel after this meal let me know that I could be the proud owner of a similar knife for only about $120 (yes - owner of just one knife for that price).  Maybe for my next birthday?

Fresh, house made Buffalo Mozzarella cheese with just a slightly smokey flavor. Creamy, delicately flavored, delicious.

Salted (preserved) Anchovy on toasted bread.  Nothing like any Anchovy I've ever tasted.

In the heat of the moment, I did not take a close up picture of probably my favorite part of this course - Chorizo made from acorn fed Iberco Pork - the most decadent encased meat product I've ever been lucky enough to enjoy.

Now the white wine started to warm up a bit, and was really shining through with all of these dishes. It had a somewhat familiar nose, but was still very unique - and the way it highlighted both the delicate taste and subtle smokiness was very impressive. I had to know what it was! Our host brought out this bottle and told us this was not what we were drinking... huh???  This was a bottle of wine from the same winery, Castell d' Encus, but the actual wine we were drinking did not even have official labeling yet because it was an experimental wine from this winery.  The winery had just purchased some vineyards in Galacia, and so was experimenting with the Albariño grapes from the area. The wine we were drinking was actually a blend of Albariño and Riesling, something I've never seen before!  From my perspective the experiment is a great success - a wine with a great nose, nicely fruity, and very very food friendly.  At first I was a bit disappointed at having only one wine for so many courses, but what a special treat to get to try a wine like this one!

OK, now moving on with our meal (spoiler alert) - the same white wine joined us for the next five courses!

Next up was a lightly smoked Oyster with seaweed. I could easily have downed a dozen of these - so fresh and flavorful - still tasting of the ocean with just a hint of smokiness. Another tableware shout out - the oyster was served on a specially made plate to hold oyster shell upright so has not to lose any of the treasure inside.

Our journey through the sea by way of a wood fired grill continued with beautiful prawns just lightly grilled. Tasty from head to tail!

Next up was a first for us, a grilled sea cucumber with green beans. I know it is surprising that in all our years we have never tried green beans... HA!  No, but really - after seeing a sea cucumber in an aquarium I was in no hurry to consume one. The texture was surprising, seemed more like a vegetable than a sea creature. Not a tremendous amount of flavor - but not bad either.

Next was a group of baby octopi with caramelized onion and their own ink. Very delicately flavored and again just a hint of smoke from the grill - I'm beginning to notice a trend on how amazingly delicate dishes are treated on that rustic (or just plain primitive) wood fired grill!

A quick break for creatures of the sea to try a delicate mushroom broth. I was surprised how well our wine paired with this, I was afraid it may overpower the broth - but it actually complemented it nicely.

When our next dish was delivered - we (and by we I mean my soul mate and translator wife) had to ask to make sure we heard right - yes cod fish tongues in a smokey sauce. Count me in as a fan of fish tongues, these were delicious! The sauce started to kick up the flavors a bit after many delicately flavored courses, and that made me happy happy!

One last course from the sea - a fresh sardine from the grill. I never imagined a sardine could be so tasty. 

For our  course, the switch was made to red wine - FINALLY!!!. We were given a choice of a Rioja or a Ribera del Duero. So far our courses had been delicately flavored, but I was anticipating a perfectly cooked and nicely hunk of beef - so went for bigger is better and chose the Ribera.

Not surprisingly, this was a fantastic wine, made from Tempranillo like Rioja, but definitely Rioja's big brother.  Nice soft tannins, nice sour cherry and a bit of vanilla on the nose - we've covered the surf, now we ready for some surf!

This work of art was brought to our table - a beautiful chop of Galacian beef.  The level of char on this steak was legendary, and it was cooked to just between rare and medium rare.  In Spain, you are likely to find thin, scaloppine cuts of beef cooked well done, but other, thicker cuts are never cooked much above rare so as not to impact the flavor of the quality product.  Our meal started with a bunch of delicate flavors which were great - but I really appreciated a big finish with the savory courses and this beauty - one of the best steaks I've ever had.

Time now for a blood orange "smoothie". Nothing grilled here - but a great palate cleanse before we started on the sweets.

We now were served a dessert wine in preparation for the sweet stuff. By now, our host brought us the bottle as she knew we would have questions about the wines.  This wine was from the Penedés region of Spain - home to Spain's sparkling Cava wine.  This wine is a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Albariño sweetened by the effects of Botrytis or Noble Rot. Deliciously acidic, aromas of apricots, peaches and baking spices, and sweet but not too sweet. Let's get our dessert on!

The dessert courses maintained the theme with grilled elements. Our first dessert (I love the term first dessert because it assumes more desserts will follow!!!) - was marshmallow with grilled strawberries. Yes, tender ripe sweet strawberries delicately grilled. Nicely sweet, and a perfect not too sweet combination with our dessert wine.

Our lunch of a lifetime wrapped up in great fashion - ice cream made from grill reduced milk with a red fruit infusion.  Again, just a hint of smokiness poked through, but did not detract from a smooth creamy ice cream made from high quality milk.


My bucket list lunch did not disappoint in any way.  After a fabulous meal, we requested the chef sign our menu - and we were invited in to see the kitchen and get his autograph.  

We met an incredibly gracious and kind man who seemed to just love what he does (if he's not cooking, the restaurant isn't open), and has not gotten wrapped up in all the fuss over having a Michelin-starred restaurant.  He showed us his "primitive" kitchen (his words), signed our menu, invited us to return and see them again soon. I truly hope we are able to return soon. The menu changes fairly often with ingredients available at different times throughout the year - so the experience could be very different, I just hope the steak always stays on the menu!


Please join the conversation! Questions, comments, suggestions - I want it all!!