Hardly A Humble Grill Joint
Michelin-starred restaurants sometimes appear in the unlikeliest places and have the unlikeliest views. That's the case with Etxebarri, a gem of a Basque restaurant -- it received its first star a couple of years ago -- where grilled food takes center stage. Its home, the hamlet of Axpe, seems literally in the middle of nowhere. Even with a GPS you're sure to take many a wrong turn, making your 30-minute trip from Bilbao sometimes considerably longer. (Even my seasoned bus driver was clueless.) Once ensconced on the second-floor of the beam-ceilinged dining room, I spied cows grazing in the Axtondo Valley's verdant fields. In this unpretentious atmosphere -- the restaurant is housed in a centuries-old stone farmhouse -- chef Victor Arguinzoniz is a serious grill sorcerer: he designed all the cookware, makes the charcoal, and grills the seemingly ungrillable. (Oysters, caviar, sea cucumber, baby eels and even ice cream take on a subtle smokiness that enhances their natural flavors.) Arguinzoniz also maintains a locavore ethic: He picks the mushrooms, gathers the veggies from his garden, and sources the pork for the chorizo from his pigs. Order the degustation menu to sample both the exotic as well as those dishes that'll also satisfy less adventurous taste buds, such as beef, prawns and anchovies. The ethereal food and bucolic atmosphere in this land of mountains and meadows make Etxebarri a must visit, even if you don't have any idea how to eat a grilled barnacle.