When you arrive in Axpo – its the silence that strikes you. Everything here is still. There’s the distant clang of a cowbell and someone is giving the fronton a workout, with a slow rhythmic crack of that pelota ball. Other than that there is nothing but still silence. Perhaps unsurprisingly there’s a whiff of woodsmoke and a promise of something special.
The building unobtrusive and some locals enjoy a drink downstairs. The main dining space is both smart and informal. The staff are welcoming and you feel instantly at ease.
The tasting menu is not forced on you here so if only one of the party wants it the kitchen will accommodate. – You might not eat your meals in sync but that is not a hardship. Its worth noting simply because I don’t know of another restaurant that does this. Yes, I know the complexity of tasting menus precludes this, but still it’s a major plus point if one of you isn’t as hungry as the other.
The meal opens with a small pot of soy beans, some deeply meaty smoky home made chorizo – made to Grandmothers recipe and some freshly churned goats butter with a sprinkling of ash. Whether the last is a clever play on ash rolled goats cheese I don’t know but it was all delicious. Not your common or garden frozen edamame here. These soy beans are grown locally by the restaurant briefly charred and perfectly cooked this is like no soy bean you’ve ever tasted trust me.
A top grade anchovy toast follows and things are looking seriously up. We are told these Anchovies are made in house and it shows.
Then a freshly made mozzarella was light, milky, delicious
Bonito Belly and tomato
The tasting menu strips this dish back without embellishment to the tuna belly and a tomato – if that sounds simple it is not. There is an amazing depth of flavour and again the merest waft of smoke in both ingredients. A delicious subtle, umami bomb. A very memorable dish and my mouth is watering just thinking about it now
I’d tried these once before at Barrafina. The conclusion – the effort/ reward might not have been worth it – here a different beast altogether. Far larger for a start, the grill rendered them firm and full of flavour. The waitress did a much better job of showing us how to prise them from their shells than our friends at Barrafina did which at least stopped us dousing any fellow diners and the room with their juices. From being a sceptic, I ve been converted a real taste of the sea, saline meaty and full of flavour. People risk their lives to retrieve these, and when treated like this you can start to see why.
The oyster and seaweed
An excellent oyster good lightly poached, with a salty tang of seaweed and some foam. It was great, yet in the company it keeps, not my highlight from the menu.
Prawns from Palamos
Yes, those prawns…. I’ve seen the pictures and heard the hype. I’ve stared at them in the excellent Phaidon book Coco. It’s been something of a craving. Looking at them now the style seems to have been stripped back further. Gone are the token flourishes of a borage flower or the tendrils of pea shoots – It’s just those prawns cwtched up together with a dusting of salt. To be fair it’s all the more honest for it. These are reputed to be amongst the best in the world. That holm oak smoke is subtle yet pervades. It is not a prawn casually ‘chucked on a Barbie’. It has been cooked slowly and gently and of course perfectly. Many aficionados insist on drawing the goodness out of the head, post decapitation and there the salt on the collar serves its purpose; seasoning that rich tomalley, as you suck on the heads, then that iodine hit of the sea. I am told “you bring great shame to the family” by such actions in a public place – but I won’t be deterred you want every last morsel of this prawn trust me. There is no accompaniment or even so much as a squeeze of lemon, and nor would you want it.
I am in agreement it is simply the best prawn of my life.
Sea Cucumber and white beans
Now at the sea cucumber – there was a distinctly raised an eyebrow – this was bridge too far for her. – I’ve seen this is various guises sometimes with zucchini or in this case with some white beans. This was my first sea cucumber. Well nothing ventured nothing gained. So I put aside what I’d read about these textually challenging echinoderms, and I got stuck in. Any trepidation I might have had quickly evaporated. This was meaty and nicely charred and turned out to be one of the highlights of the menu. Sweet and more like a razor clam to me. Not as delicate as the squid but with a greater depth of flavour; the kitchen clearly upped the ante on the grilling to reflect this, that is clever no its very clever. Perfect fresh beans the lightest of broths – a total hit.
Squid caramelized onions and Ink
The SDB found the onions overpowering, perhaps a squid this good needs little else. The onions with squid belong to a Spanish tradition so they are in place here. Yes they could have been reigned in a touch but – what squid. Soft with bite and expertly dealt with on that grill. Sublime stuff.
Sea Bream and vegetables
After so many hits you might expect the kitchen to drop a ball somewhere ? but no. The most generous tranche of sea bream was cooked absolutely spot on – over fire. Beautiful crisp skin the freshest of fish and those homemade vegetables immaculate. Easily the best pieces of fish I’ve eaten in a very long time up there with the masterpiece of dover sole at Scotts.
The Japanese influenced plates they are occasionally chipped which may shock some. Frankly I could care less. I’ve been swooning since the second plate. A lived in serving dish is not going to sway that.
Beef from Galicia
Much has been written about the beef from a mature dairy cow – it is aged properly. It has the distinct aroma of well aged meat and a tenderness that comes only from such a process. – If you don’t know what that is go and get a good mature rump steak from the Ginger pig and give it a sniff you’ll then get the idea. It is cooked medium rare of course and the charcoal smoke is a given. What impresses the most is the crust. I’ve cooked many a steak in my time but despite my best efforts I’ve never come close to that. Such expert grilling defies belief. It looks burnt but it is not – this is without doubt one of the world’s greatest steaks for want of a better description. Anyone can cook a steak, and invariably a home cooked steak will be infinitely superior to that in even the best steakhouses – but not like this. No no no this is a step up from mere mortal grilling. I‘ve thought about it at length and I’ve still no idea how they do it.
It lives up to the billing. You don’t want it to end…. your stomach on the other hand, at this point, is starting to register that the game may be up.
After such a lunch its a relief that what follows is light but it is no less delicious.
Reduced Milk Ice Cream – red fruit infusion
I’ve read that not everyone got on with the desserts. Here too within the Ice cream harbours the wood smoke – but it is fantastic. If you think otherwise – well I’m sorry you are wrong. Creamy smokey ice-cream surrounded with a red fruit compote – what more could you ask for after such a meal. The smoke a reminder of what’s gone before. The berries and cream in keeping with the local aesthetic. A simple triumph.
To finish the most delicate little greengage tart and then a home made mignardaise.
Some of my fellow dinners too things to an altogether more level opting for additional dishes on top of the tasting – true pro’s I wanted to applaud – I understood the sentiment, but the second stomach had thrown in the towel it needed no further proof of what was a faultless meal.
If I could visit one restaurant right now any where in the world it would be this one. I can think of no higher praise.
Mortgage the house, sell the cat, cash in the savings.
Asador Etxebarri, Plaza de San Juan, 148291 Atxondo, Bizkaia.