Reliving the Past – Asador Extebarri (Basque Country, Spain 2017)

I didn’t think through it clearly. Why would I return to the restaurant that presented me one of the best dining experience of my life? Anything less than perfection would have offered disappointment. One simply does not muddle with such memories.

None of this crossed my mind until I walked down the cobblestone path to the entrance of Asador Extebarri, the restaurant in northern Spain that shaped how I have cooked and dined since my first and only visit in 2014.

I paused footsteps from the entrance, sharing with my friend that I was going to take photos of the entrance. Truthfully, I lingered to clear the emerging doubt in my mind.

The dining room hadn’t changed. The menu had a similar progression with a few familiar dishes. In fact, I sat at the same table three years ago. However, one thing about this experience would be different; I opted for the wine pairing. Within the last year, alcoholic beverages have found itself deeper embedded as part of my day-to-day. I left a job that often conducted breathalyzer checks to join a community where a drink a day was not out of the norm. During the entire meal, I felt like a sixth grade pre-algebra pupil sitting in an engineering graduate level course, eyes wide opened at the possibilities of wine but without a foundation for what any of it truly means.

But my visit was really about the food.

Within the first few courses, I remembered why I was here. Hints of charcoal from multiple dishes teased me; a subtle smokiness of the grill hid within the chanterelles mushroom cracker while the aromas of burning wood blanketed every bite of the grilled Palmamos prawns. The wafts and depths of the grill from each of the first seven dishes refocused me1. Regardless of the aforementioned doubt, I was ready for what was and remains the greatest single piece of steak food I have ever tasted, the Extebarri beef chop.

I chose to have the first bite whole, to capture the charred flavors of the grilled crust along with the muskiness of the interior, cooked rare. I had a clear palate, a full mouth, I couldn’t lose. Then, it all came back.

First, the best steaks from the last three years. Gwen in LA, VACA in Orange County, Els Casals outside of Barcelona, Peter Lugers in Brooklyn, the Weber grill in my yard. Every single one fell far short2 of Extebarri, my true and only benchmark of beef. Damn, I am fortunate to have visited all these places.

Next, the friends with whom I shared meals with and the defying conversations into the night that ensued. My college buddies who joined me 3 years ago for the first visit to this Basque country restaurant. The friend that day who was crazy enough to fly to Spain for 36 hours to join me in eating here. And all the friends, new and old, whom seen me not only grow into a world-class food snob but also an individual who cannot hit pause on this game of life.

Lastly, it was all that I’ve become, learned, and failed in the three years between visits to this fine dining temple.

I’ve shed some of my ridiculousness the last few years. Air-guitar shower solos less frequent. Midnight bike rides to the beach non-existent. I can’t even recall the last time I traveled solely to visit a restaurant, the hallmark of my post-college years.

Career progression, moving cross-country, and everything in between seemed to do that to me, but dining at Asador Extebarri this fall day rekindled something in me. If anything, it brought me back to 2014; a simplicity, a purity, and a naïveté that I too often long for today.

I placed the fork down as a droplet of a tear formed, ready to run its course.

And for a moment, all was right in this world.

Asador Extebarri
San Juan Plaza, 1
48291 Atxondo, Bizkaia, Spain


Note 1: I really shouldn’t discount the rest of the meal. The grilled gambas and the grilled porcini and aubergine dish really were spectacular, enough to fall within the top 10 bites of the year. However, when you buy tickets to see Kobe’s last game, no one cares if Gordon Hayward drops 20-5-5.

Note 2: The only experience that ever came close was on a flight from LAX to Calgary. I was eating leftover 60-day dry aged rib steak from VACA in Costa Mesa. I didn’t recognize the funk and greatness of the steak the previous night at the restaurant but upon eating the meat cold, it had a wonderful flavor that came halfway to Extebarri’s perfection. Do dry aged steaks taste better cold? I have yet to figure this out.

Asador Extebarri (Basque Country, Spain 2014)

It’s not every restaurant, especially a fine dining one, where I am greeted at the door by a chef reading a newspaper. However, this was Asador Extebbari, and the fancy norms of Michelin restaurants didn’t seem to apply in this Spanish foothill town of Atxondo.  Turning around and checking his watch, he casually put on his apron, smiled, and gestured us toward the dining room.

What proceeded that unexpected country side welcoming was a fifteen course lunch that brought an unadulterated excitement that I had only associated with my blissfully ignorant youth. Forget knowing which farm your strawberries came from or what temperature this egg was cooked at. The grilled food at Asador Extebarri was simply fantastic.

A few years back, I saw a post about the ribeye at Asador Extebarri in the Basque region of Spain. It looked gorgeous with its crisp edges and velvet interior – a quintessential iconic dish from a restaurant in the Spanish country side. Flying to Spain seemed ludicrous at the time, so I just buried it on my restaurants to try list.

However, I was in Scandinavia soon after, for noma.  Then, in the Pacific Northwest for Willows Inn on Lummi Island. A layover in Tokyo solely for Ryugin.  Again to Scandinavia, but this time to Jämtland for Fäviken. Another few days to the San Juan Islands in Washington, still for Willows Inn.

And in the summer of 2014, I finally visited Asador Extebarri.

Slices of chorizo, as a welcoming snack, jolted my senses awake as the flavors and spices fought for center stage.  Another snack, salted anchovies on bread so perfectly toasted that the crunch and chew countered all of the fish’s brine. A tomato with buffalo mozzarella course masterfully balanced the hearty, comforting cheese with the tomato at the peak of its seasonality and therefore, flavour.  Then, grilled prawns were served with no utensils. The sucking of the shrimp head juices was even better than the perfectly cooked slightly raw tail.  A slice of tuna belly followed. Lightly grilled on the edges, tataki style, I no longer credit nigiri sushi as the best toro preparation.

Finally, the ribeye arrived.

Upon eating a piece, the crunch of the crisp edges lingered longer than any steak I’ve had. Maybe it was my mind holding onto the perfect charred texture or maybe it was just grilled that flawlessly. Then an unfiltered musk followed. A tinge of sweet. Hints of smoke. Cheese? The flavors were so complex and satisfying, it gave me pause.

It was undoubtedly and in every essence of the word, perfect.


See photos from the rest of the meal here.

Willows Inn on Lummi Island (Pacific Northwest 2014)

To visit a destination restaurant without understanding their terroir is a waste. I’ve gone to many exceptional restaurants without any due diligence and left rather confused and frustrated, knowing  I squandered an opportunity to understand the experience.1

A second visit to Willows Inn on Lummi Island, paired with an extended trip in Washington state, allowed me to more fully embrace the experience of this special restaurant. Half a year ago, I visited and was excited d by the sorrel picked by the side of the road, the grilled escarole, and the exclusivity of trying to reach the place. I was intrigued but it wasn’t enough time. I was in and out of the area within 24 hours.

This trip, I parked myself in Washington for a week. I explored coastal tide pools. I hiked mushroom and berry filled trails. I wandered in farmers markets. And at Willows Inn, everything I discovered was highlighted in a meal – the salmon berries, the parade of local “snacks”, or even the progression of the meal fittingly following the trajectory of the sun, ending as the sun set.Together, they represented the Pacific Northwest experience.

Since my last visit, the meal has added a few more small bites to start. The snacks, all locally sourced, range from smoked shellfish and salmon to kale chips with black truffles. They set the stage for you to understand where you are at that moment.

Grilled mustard green with shaved herring roe.

Weathervane scallops and horseradish

Spot prawns poached with its roe.

Porcini mushrooms in sweet woodruff.

Grass fed lamb and grasses.

Salmon berries with wild roses. Chef Blaine explained that the two ingredients here overlap only 2 weeks of the year.

Given the opportunity to spend a week in the San Juans and the surrounding areas, I got to give context to my unique meal at Willows Inn. It’s hard to understand a sense of time and place without actually spending some time in that place. Unfortunately, it’s also difficult to spend more time than just the day of the meal when it comes to visiting destination restaurants. But for a restaurant like Willows Inn, the trip surrounding the restaurant is worth it.

It is the restaurant to understand time and place. Perhaps that’s what Michelin meant when they describe a restaurant as worth a journey itself.

See photos from the rest of the meal here.


1 L’Arpege, Pierre Gagnaire, Sushi Mizutani come to mind where salvaging the uninformed  experience on the spot was out of the question due to language barriers.

2  I recommend visiting in the summer. The three hour meal ends as the sun sets. A meal that doesn’t take advantage of its surroundings more than that.

Summer Eating in NYC and Los Angeles

See some food photos from my trip here.

New York is by far my favorite place to eat. When I was last here in 2011, I felt the same as I stepped on my flight to leave. My feelings have not changed. There’s something about walking, public transit, or even flagging a yellow cab as your methods of getting to and from each restaurant – it makes the experience more complete, more of a destination. From the (crack infused) white sauce at Halal Cart on 53rd and 6th to the ‘lightly cooked’ fish at Le Bernadin, food in NYC somehow elevates their game, setting the benchmark unparalleled in other cities. San Francisco, I reside with you, but NY holds my taste buds captive.

Here’s what I ate:

Shake Shack (7.5/10) – Burgers are great but not worth the wait when I have In n out at home.
Momofuku Saam Bar (8/10) – I craved the roast duck from 2011 but I leave this trip with fond memories of the ginger scallion sauce.
Corner Bistro (8/10) – a Burger that you would want at a neighborhood BBQ. Crisp and Simple does it.
Momofuku Milk Bar (4/10) – Crack pie…?
Le Bernadin (9/10) – Quite possibly my best meal of the year until…
Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare (9/10) – this intimate experience blew me away. Vegetable centric tasting menus in CA are great, but BK Fare reminded me that $200+ for vegetables isn’t the luxury I crave every fine dining meal.
Ippudo (8.5/10) – Still the standard bearer for Salt Ramen. Had Santouka a week later and it didn’t compare.
Dominique Ansel Bakery (8.5/10) – Cronuts are for real. The 4 hour wait is too. Fig and Mascarpone flavored. #sonutsforcronuts
the NoMaD (7.5/10) –  Egg Quinoa and Asparagus dish is surreal. Food that doesn’t try too hard but is still an awesome meal.
Katz Deli (5/10) – Good but dry after 2 bites!


I have always considered LA as home but I never felt comfortable with the city. I spent my pre-college years there, a.k.a. ignorant years, so I spent time fussing over SAT’s and not culture and neighborhoods. I was fortunate enough to spend a week in LA this summer which allowed for weekday dining, evoking a ‘local’s experience.’ Happy hour specials at Pizzeria Mozza after 10pm on weekdays? Check. Not needing to wait for a table at Son of a Gun? That would never happen on a weekend. LA is full of diverse, cultural, and great food, but besides a select few restaurants like Providence and Alma, I feel that the restaurants lacked a connection with the world trade of food. Perhaps this is a positive thing? Forging its own identity; its own sense of Time and Place if you will…

Spago (8/10) – the Japanese chirashi and seasonal agnolotti are real stars here
Baco Mercat (7/10) – I wasn’t a fan of the baco’s but the vegetable dishes here were stellar
Son of a Gun (9/10) – probably my favorite place in LA. Their fried chicken sandwich is incredible, words cannot describe. Octopus salad and lobster roll are all amazing too.
Dino Chicken (8/10) – the white meat portions aren’t as juicy but the dark meat and marinade is worth the trip (plus its $6 bucks for a flavor soaked meal!)
O Dae San (7/10) – Korean BBQ will always have a place within my heart
Pizzeria Mozza (7.5/10) $20 for a pizza, dessert, and beverage after 10pm on weekdays? Yes Sir – late night meet up spot.
alma (7.5/10) – Alma and noma are the two most conflicting places I’ve had this year. The food was interesting and striving for depth but at the expense of flavors sometimes. I did enjoy the tofu beignets and pigeon.

… 200 Miles and 2 Million Calories (Restaurant Post)

Summer 2012 was the quintessential post-graduation trip of a lifetime (see earlier post here). It was also where I dined at some of the most acclaimed or storied restaurants that don’t call the US, “home.”

Some of them were fine dining, some of them were Michelin starred fast food joints. But what was truly awesome was to see how flat the world was, how fine dining operated in similar fashions throughout the world, yet with their own subtle, but distinct local flair. Sushi Mizutani in Tokyo consisted of few words spoken, and even less minutes spent in the small sushi temple. Louis XV was spent on the balcony of Hotel de Paris, overlooking hundreds of Bentley’s, Ferrari’s, Maserati’s…

I began in Tokyo with the Tsukiji Fish Market where I experienced the most incredible sushi  at Sushi Dai. With a 2 hour wait at 7 in the morning, the sushi there was surreal. Priced extremely fairly and I was all smiles after the meal, but honestly who isn’t when they walk out of “Big Sushi”? A few days later, I entered the temple of Chef Miztauni at Sushi Mizutani. Photo privileges were denied, but the meal was not even close to the experience I had a few days earlier at the fish market. Its supposed to be on the level of Sukiyabashi Jiro, Mizutani’s former Sushi mentor’s fellow 3 star establishment. It was great, but if I was asked where to go for sushi in Tokyo, I’d direct them toward Sushi Dai in a heartbeat. Mizutani and Jiro experiences can be saved when you mentally prepare yourself to be in front of a true master of a craft, with all the beauty and intimidation that comes with it.

My second food destination was to Hong Kong where in the 24 hours, I had 3 Michelin meals that were priced a good chunk below the average SF restaurant price. Some of the best dim sum and goose was to be had here.

Next, I journeyed to Europe where many of the smaller, unknown restaurants impressed me far more than the heavy hitters. Maybe it was the expectations, but nonethless, disappointment usually occurred with the red book 3 stars.  Gordon Ramsay was more or less unforgettable, but Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Passard just completely underwhelmed. Maybe I dont appreciate French cooking/genius/whatever.

Heston Blumenthal threw curveballs , left then right. It was ridiculous how fun my friend and I had at the Fat Duck. When you’re having tea with the Mad Hatter or enjoying a dish accompanied by ocean sounds, you cannot possibly leave that playhouse without giggles all over.

I bow to Alain Ducasse. In addition to having the most majestic dining room ever, Le Louis XV showed me simplicity can be artistic culinary genius and truly beautiful. Simple wild strawberries over a mascarpone sorbet prompted me to declare it the best dessert I’ve ever had. His signature cookpot of season vegetables…. words cannot describe… you would have to enter my day dreams to understand how much I enjoyed this.

I returned to Carme Ruscalleda’s sea side restaurant, Sant Pau, and left knowing that my amazing dinner 8 months earlier was no fluke . Equally amazing, the town, Sant Pol de Mar, transformed, night and day, from the quiet winter neighborhood to the bustling seaside town of summer, full of Spanish vacationers to the beaches of the Mediterranean.

Another notable included the amazing views of Chateau Eza, along the Cote D’Azur of France. The food didn’t match the breath taking views, but then again.. what can? (probably the cookpot at Le Louis XV….)

The smaller name restaurants I spoke of earlier were Reinstoff of Berlin and La Degustation of Prague. Reinstoff was a solid modern fine dining establishment, fully deserving of its 2 stars. It was a meal that my San Francisco Bay Area palate was happily familiar with. La Degustation also employed a modern approach, albeit to traditional Czech cuisine. It amazed me that ingredients throughout the world dont vary too much (didn’t encounter any new mushrooms I had never heard of), but the sourcing and preparation play a huge role – I never thought catfish would ever appeal to me, but I would choose this Czech catfish over most halibut, salmon, or cod preparations  .

At the end of it all, I came back with a nice collection of memories, restaurant business cards, and a souvenir knife from L’Arpege. It was an incredible experience, being able to eat at all these dream restaurants with one of your best friends. I’m sure I will return to Europe sometime down the line, Noma proved elusive this time around, but honestly being able to eat meals in a foreign country is blessing itself.

The places I visited this summer:

Chateau Eza* – Eze, France (August 2012)
Hung’s Delicacies* – Hong Kong (June 2012)
La Degustation* – Prague, Czech Republic (July 2012)
L’Arpege*** – Paris, France (July 2012)
Le Louis XV*** – Monte Carlo, Monaco (August 2012)
Lei Garden* – Hong Kong (June 2012)
Pierre Gagnaire*** – Paris, France (July 2012)
Reinstoff** – Berlin, Germany (July 2012)
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay – London, U.K. (July 2012)
Sant Pau*** – Sant Pol De Mar, Spain (August 2012)
Sushi Dai – Tokyo, Japan (June 2012)
Sushi Mizutani*** – Tokyo, Japan (June 2012)
The Fat Duck*** – Bray, U.K. (July 2012)
Tim Ho Wan* – Hong Kong (June 2012)

It Felt So Wrong… It Felt So Right

Falling asleep to the sound of a crackling fire, waves repetitively pounding the shore, the angelic white glare of the bright full moon, I fell asleep besides my two companions, my two comrades in the 4 years Berkeley Engineering War, my two friends who had elected to come camping for 2 nights at the start of our last Finals Week.

Waking up was just as majestic. The same eternal sea graced the shore at a lesser decibel as low tide was in effect. Seals barked from the jetty and Blue Jays chorused in the bushel around me.

I wash up, I organized camp, and I start my essay on the Mekong River Hydro-dam.

Why am I writing a paper along the sea shores of the Pacific Ocean? Who writes papers while camping, drinking a beer, and digging his toes into the fine grain sand?

To borrow the words of Katy Perry, it just felt so wrong and yet it felt so right.

4 years at Cal taught me to appreciate the slower, the picturesque, the beautiful things of life. Sitting by the ocean means tenfold more to me now than it did when I grew up by the body of water. Sitting on a patch of grass overlooking my university, falling asleep along the way, feels so natural to me, as compared to when I couldn’t sit still or vegetate for more than 10 minutes pre-college.

Now 5 days away from graduating, I’m finishing up my final assignment. But my mind is more engaged in the fact that I am ending college with the greatest lesson Cal taught me …. Appreciation of everything and everyone around me.


I have since graduated (12 hours ago) and I’m overwhelmed with emotions. I can’t convey what I’m feeling as simply as thoughts materialized when I was typing away on the beach. More on this later…

Cooking Steak in a Ice Chest (Hanger Steak Sous Vide)

Buying cuts of meat from a butcher shop is always exciting. Undoing the paper wrapping from the butcher feels like Christmas morning gift unwrapping for me, you already kind of know what you’re getting but you’re genuinely exhilarated anyway.

Making steak sous vide style in an ice chest with hanger steak purchased from a butcher shop? haha, you can only guess my excitement here.

Prep Station, steak with some rosemary, onions, and garlic. Carrots with similar garnishes and olive oil

Steak and Carrots in Ziploc bags (dont trust cheaper ones..). Carrots need to be kept at around 183 F, so that was put in a pot on the stove top where the temperature fluctuated between 175-185F.

Steak in a ice chest/cooler, changed the water around 20 minutes. Surprisingly, the temperature only dropped 1 to 2 degrees every 20 minutes. Medium rare to be kept around 135-138 F.

Around 70 minutes later, I removed both from the bag to sear on a cast iron at the highest heat. (I normally preheat the cast iron in the oven).

Steak turned out a little more rare than I thought, but it was still amazing.. I’ve never made a beef cut this well, including my ribeye that I’ve tried to perfect after over 15+ preparations. I’ve had so much worse steak preparations at many M-starred restaurants, and I could’ve even made this better by just maintaining the water temp a little higher to get a more medium rare.

Do these world class chefs cook out of ice chests? haha! My post college dream was to purchase a couple hundred dollar sous vide machine but I think my ghetto version with an ice chest will do just fine.