Since the late Anthony Bourdain put it on the map, Asador Etxebarri has been widely acclaimed as the best grill, best steakhouse and one of the best restaurants in the world. So, attracted by claims of the worlds best steakhouse, and on a cold day in December I headed out to the mountains in north eastern Spain to check it out.
If at first you don’t succeed…
It was painfully hard to get this reservation. The hardest ever. The first time I was wait listed a month before heading there but that was too late. The second time I had booked flights and accommodation in advance, confident that I’d get a reservation, but when the reservations were released I just missed out. I was crestfallen and desperate. So I wrote the restaurant emails that I’m not proud of. I refused to give up and when Asador Etxebarri opened up an entire 6 month booking period, I finally succeeded in getting a reservation (on my birthday too – the four year birthday affair with Barbecoa being well and truly over).
Five months after my reservation, I got a taxi from Bilbao to a tiny village called Axpe in the mountainous heart of Basque Country, about 40 minutes south east of Bilbao. The concept of Asador Etxebarri is simple: to serve the highest quality food grilled over or infused with charcoal. The chef is Victor Arguinzoniz, a local from Axpe, and is described as having “a Japanese mentality” (an obsession with achieving perfection) to grilling food.
I arrived at the restaurant on a cool December weekend and was ushered into a room with a wood fire and poured a glass of champagne and served couple of delicious entrees. After being served some exceptionally good mushroom broth, anchovie Pintxos and home made chorizo I was taken into the main restaurant.
I noticed that I was the last to arrive with all the other tables in the restaurant occupied by Spanish speakers. I was seated in the corner of the restaurant with a view of the mountains and against the rest of the restaurant. The restaurant, an old converted stable, is spacious and understated. While the staff, like the building, are unpretentious and warm (the level of English spoken between the staff is full spectrum – from fluent to non at all).
Asadaor Etxebarri serve a 17 to 18 course tasting menu which changes by day but which always contains steak. The food is predominantly seafood with the steak being the last “main course” before you move onto a variety of small desserts. Aside from the steak, which gets its own section below, the stand out food was the Sea Urchin, Palamos Prawns and Milk Ice cream in charcoal infused beetroot juice.
I have had Sea Urchin once before (raw in Tokyo), but this was cooked and had a delicious smokiness to it. The enormous Palamos Prawns required some effort to prepare, but were smoky, meaty and juicy. The milk ice cream served with beetroot juice (which had an infusion of charcoal) was unbelievably good, but the real star was the “beef chop”.
The “beef chop”
Asador Etxebarri’s “beef chop” is old cow Rubia Gallega steak. The Rubia Gallega is a breed of cow from Northern Spain famous for producing marbled and beefy steak. Its also old cow steak which means that it has come from a cow aged between 10 and 11 years old (whereas much of the steak we eat in the UK and USA is from cows barely 2 years old). The steak is further dry aged for 23 days after slaughter.
The steak is served as part of the tasting menu so you have no say over the portion size or the temperature the steak is cooked at. Nonetheless, the portion size is decent for a 17 to 18 course meal.
The colours are extreme, the hard black crust contrasting against deep red flesh with yellowed fat. I picked up a piece, the tastes were overwhelming – a subtle smokiness, a crunch of salt, a flood of juices and a punch of beefiness. Every bite was one to savour and each bite met little resistance from the steak. The claims are true, I think this could be one of the best steaks I’ve ever had. I sipped on the wine then immediately regretted how it cut through the rich taste of steak in my mouth, so I picked up the bone and licked, sucked and tore every last fibre of beef from that bone.
Bourdain once said that if he could choose where to die, then it would be here. There’s a simplicity, purity, quality and attention to detail that makes visiting Asador Etxebarri a defining experience. The steak, and the meal in general, is probably the best I’ve ever had, but it wouldn’t be right to call this the best steakhouse in the world. Instead, Asador Etxebarri is broader than that, it’s probably the best grill in the world and damn it, I can’t wait to go back.
The tasting Menu at Asador Extebarri changes from day to day but always contains the “beef chop”. On the day I went the tasting menu was €175 euro (without drinks) and had seventeen listed courses (but 18 total) that took three hours to get through.
Asador Extebarri Q&A
Do I need a reservation? Yes. You’ll also need to front a €100 deposit per person. This is discounted from the final bill.
How far in advance do I need to book? Reservations open 90 days in advance at midnight CET time. The restaurant usually books out in seconds (although at the time of writing the website has been down).
Is there a dress code? No, although most customers are dressed smart casual. I’d recommend wearing something comfortable as you’ll be eating for about three hours. In fact the restaurant is so spacious and the food so good, that no one is going to care what you wear.
How much does it cost? It depends on the day. Around €175 excluding drinks, but including taxes. There is no service charge or tipping required.
Do the staff speak English? A full range of English is spoken at the restaurant. Some of the staff are fluent while others speak no English at all.
Should I take my vegetarian significant other? Absolutely not. This is not a restaurant for vegetarians or vegans.
Is it worth it? Yes, but for the high end meat lover.
How do I get to Asador Extebarri? There are public transport options but these are limited and not efficient. Car Hire is best, but that’ll limit your ability to fully indulge yourself. If drinking is your business, then getting a taxi is the best option albeit costing about €65 from Bilbao or €120 from San Sebastian.