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A Basque Trilogy

Gerry Dawes - March 2011

Although a coterie of New York City's finest stood as the centerpiece of San Sebastián Gastronomika 2010, Gerry Dawes discovers that the real standouts during a week in Spain's Basque country were three regional exponents of refined simplicity.

I was on another multitasking mission to Spain last November, and high on my list was attending the San Sebastián Gastronomika 2010 chefs conference, where several New York City food folk--Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, Drew Nieporent, Anthony Bourdain, Colman Andrews, David Chang, and Wylie Dufresne--would be appearing. Especially appealing was the prospect of seeing what the conference organizer, Grup GSR, run by the Catalan dynamo Roser Torras, had up its sleeves for the annual event.

Nieporent and I planned to meet in Bilbao Saturday evening, November 20, the night before we were due at San Sebastián Gastronomika. I was to get us a dinner reservation at the legendary asa dor (grill-house) Etxebarri, southeast of Bilbao. I called Victor Arguinzoniz, the now-renowned owner/grillmeister of Etxebarri, called by some the best restaurant in northern Spain, and heard, "Sorry, but I don't have a single seat"--not even for Nieporent, the famoso restaurateur. My fallback was Elkano, which has been called the best fish restaurant in the world, located in the magical fishing village of Getaria, near San Sebastián. "Elkano is closed for vacation," a voice message said. Fallback position numero dos was Kaia, also in Getaria and also famous for whole wild grilled turbot.

At Kaia, we had house-cured anchoas (anchovies) and excellent txangurro (a classic Basque dish of centollo, or spider crabmeat, sautéed with leeks and garlic, spiked with brandy, put back in the shell and browned under a broiler). Our main course was whole wild rodaballo (turbot) grilled over wood coals and filleted at the table, a glorious dish for which Getaria is justly famous. We accompanied the anchoas and txangurro with Getariako Txakolina, Getaria's slightly pétillant "green wine," and with the rodaballo we had a still impeccable Monte Real Reserva 1970 at a laughably reasonable price. After dinner, Nieporent's driver appeared and whisked him off to San Sebastián. Because my conference lodgings were unavailable until the next day, I had booked a room in Getaria at the charming Pension Getariano, just across the street from Elkano restaurant.

Sunday evening, after a press conference featuring a panel of Basque star chefs--Juan Mari Arzak, Pedro Subijana, Martín Berasategui, Andoni Aduriz, and Hilario Arbelaitz--16 emerging Basque country talents prepared some wonderful degustaciòn plates for a reception. I saw Boulud and Brazilian journalist Alexandra Forbes watching as chef Ramón Piñeiro from the Frank Gehry–designed Marqués de Riscal hotel restaurant in La Rioja Alavesa put the finishing touches on his soufflé of Idiazabal cheese with organic olive oil, herbs, and citrus. Huevo frito con patatas, a still liquid egg yolk wrapped in thin strips of potato, then flash-fried, from chef Beñat Ormaetxea of Jauregibarria was perhaps the evening's top mouthful.

Gastronomika took place during Thanksgiving week, with the contingent from New York appearing for their big day on Tuesday, November 23. Bouley, Boulud, Bourdain, Chang, Dufresne, and Nieporent all played to large appreciative audiences. Andrews was there for the presentation of his book, Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food. Also drawing large followings were the contingent of Spanish superstar chefs: Ferran Adrià, Joan Roca, Carme Ruscalleda, and Christian Escribà from Catalonia; San Sebastián home-grown estrellas such as Arzak, Subijana, Berasategui, Aduriz, and Arbelaitz (12 Michelin stars in total); Italian chef Massimo Bottura (Osteria Francescana, Modena); and Australian Neil Perry (Rockpool Bar & Grill, Melbourne). A conference highlight was the homenaje (homage) by all his fellow Basque chefs to Spanish television's Karlos Arguiñano, who is probably more famous here than Adrià.

Interwoven between the daily presentations was the star-studded scene at the Joselito Ibérico stand, where Spain's ham king, José Gómez, and his crew of ham slicers served some of the world's best air-cured hams, chorizo, lomo/ (loin), and salchichón (salami) trucked over from his aging plant in Guijuelo (Salamanca). Gómez likes to serve top Spanish red wines and French Champagne with his Ibérico pig products. It was not unusual to see the likes of Keller, Boulud, Adriá, and Arzak sitting together, toasting with flutes of bubbly while munching on Joselito's stellar jamón Ibérico de bellota--air-cured hams from the acorn-fattened pata negra (black foot) breed of Iberian hogs.

To honor the New York presenters, Christian Escribà, the legendary Barcelona pastelero-chocolatero (pastry and chocolates) maestro, rolled on stage his large chocolate and marzipan creation of the New York City skyline with marzipan figures of the New Yorkers with their initials on their chef's jackets. Andrews' figure held a tiny copy of his book Ferran. "I really felt special, humbled, and honored to have Escribà's amazing, extraordinarily meticulous New York piece presented to us," Keller said.

Boulud cooked his famous foie gras/short rib/beef burgers on stage and passed out at least 200 portions to an appreciative audience in the VIP section of the 1,800 seat Kursaal Auditorium. Keller's cooking demonstration was "certainly a departure. Everybody at San Sebastián Gastronomika 2010 was doing demonstrations based on formulas and techniques," he said. "Rather than trying to intellectualize or formulate something, my Per Se sous chef David Breeden and I went to La Bretxa market in the old quarter, and from ingredients available that morning, we just spontaneously prepared some beautiful dishes." Beautiful indeed: citrus-cured mackerel with cipollini and compressed sour apples; uni with avocado, orange suprêmes, and arugula; Idiazabel with artichokes cooked sous-vide with compressed Paris mushrooms and watercress.

As the conference broke for lunch, Arzak hailed me: "Gerry Adams! [that's what he calls me], you have a rental car, no? I got a reservation at Etxebarri!" I jumped at the chance to have lunch there. It was after 3:30 when I pulled into Etxebarri's parking lot in the Basque hamlet of Axpe. I hoped to photograph Arguinzoniz working at his specially designed grills, but I was informed by the woman running Etxebarri's dining room that he didn't want the distraction of photographers during service.
Arguinzoniz's style of grilling is a precise discipline that requires his full attention, especially when he performs such miracles as smoking caviar in a self-designed grill pan with microscopically fine mesh laser-bored openings that allow smoke to come through while holding in moisture.

I opted for the shorter tasting menu: smoked house-made mozzarella perched on a single slice of eggplant; a perfect house-cured and seasoned anchoa on a thin strip of grilled bread soaked with olive oil; exquisite pieces of nécora crab grilled in the shell; a pair each of lightly grilled, rosy pink gambas de Palamós (highly prized shrimp from the Costa Brava); a pair of lightly smoky grilled oysters with oyster liquor espuma (foam), perched on a slice of pickled eggplant; and grilled becada (woodcock) with its detached head and beak presiding over an assortment of grilled fall vegetables, a chestnut, and carrot puree. My only caveat was the repetition of smoke in every dish.

The meal at Etxebarri was yet another Spanish Basque triumph of exceptional product sourcing married to simple, but exceptionally refined, techniques, which, in the best places, trumps cocina de vanguardia sleights-of-hand nearly every time. In the hands of experienced maestros at Extebarri, Elkano, and Kaia, such dishes, because of their exquisite simplicity and pure flavors, remain etched in memory long after many of the cocina de vanguardia pyrotechnics evaporate like an espuma in the dessert. Perhaps that's why so many Spanish vanguardia chefs have opened modernized traditional tapas bars in the past few years.

Fortunately, dinners begin late in Spain, which allowed a couple of hours after Etxebarri before dinner at Elkano, the third gastronomic thoroughbred in my trifecta. I arrived to find Elkano's father-and-son owners, Pedro and Aitor Arregui, and their longtime grill chef, Luis Mari Manterola, sweating "la gota gorda" (the big drop) at the prospects of serving 130 people, including the culinary heavyweights attending the conference. From previous meals at Elkano, I had no doubts that they would impress even this crowd. And they did, serving us superb almejas (clams); a tartare of chipirón (small squid) with sea urchin and trails of chipirón ink sauce (a Getaria speciality); two preparations of kokotxas (hake glands), one grilled, the other battered and deep-fried, both ethereal; small samplings of fat sea-tasting percebes (goose barnacles); wood charcoal grilled langosta (lobster); and whole wild turbot filleted at the table, all accompanied by light, refreshing small producer Txakolis from Getaria. We finished by dipping into whole, wonderfully oozing Torta del Casar sheep's milk cheeses from Extremadura and texturas de manzana reineta a la parrilla, a sensational grilled apple dessert.

I sat with Nieporent, who agreed that Elkano was indeed the best fish restaurant in the world. Boulud took the microphone at the end of the meal and reaffirmed that appraisal. Chang was impressed: "The last thing I wanted to do was eat again, but I am so glad I went. It was one of the best meals I've ever had."