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.

Climbing out of the Clouds (NYC 2014)

The onslaught of food started not an hour after I stepped off the plane. First up, a lox bagel at Russ & Daughters. I have not found anyone else that masters the balance of lox, cream cheese, bagel, and red onions as well as them.  I stopped by Dominique Ansel to pick up some gifts for others. The last time I was there, I had waited 3 hrs in the early morning for a tasty cronut. He’s up to something new craze, but I’m in no hurry to wait in line. A lavender grapefruit pavlova, which I waited 3 minutes for, was great too.

Anytime I find myself near NYU area, I gravitate toward Momofuku Saam. Its not really that close, but I love the idea of just sitting at the communal counter and wolfing down a rotisserie duck rice bowl. Another neighborhood favorite revisited, the burger at Corner Bistro in West Village. Both guilty pleasures I guess.

I booked a single person lunch at Del Posto since everyone I knew was at work and was treated like royalty by the staff. I thought the luna piena to be one of the best pastas I’ve tasted. The other dishes I had here were all very solid. This is a restaurant I’m glad I finally got to try.

I returned to Robertas after having a great meal there 4 years ago.  I’ve eaten a lot more the past few years and now conclude that the cooking there doesn’t justify such lines. The food is good, but I find the Bay Area quality of mid range restaurants to be of similar style and caliber. The grunge space counter-intuitively draws me back for a fun evening with friends though. The Eastham mussels dish was memorable.

The next evening, I found myself back in Roberta’s courtyard for Blanca. If Roberta’s is a indie rock concert, a pianist in the corner of a hotel lobby would summarize Blanca well. With a kitchen counter seating, Chef Carlos Mirarchi and his two chefs prepared 20+ courses where I enjoyed the dry aged meats the best.  I half expected Blanca to be the best meal of my trip, a la Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare of 2013, and that might have rendered my expectations unachievable (The parallels being kitchen counter seating and banned photography.) While Cesar Ramirez’s cooking at BK Fare pushed out luxurious dishes that wouldn’t seem out of place at destinations like The French Laundry, the food at Blanca was focused. Dishes had a main ingredient with one or two supporting ingredients.  It made for 20+ tasty bites of what a talented chef would have most fun cooking. Chef Mirarchi shared with me that he didn’t want people’s experiences pre-conceived with photos online or posted menus, so I’ll stop with any more details.

I stayed near West Village so I paid a visit to Kesté. The place introduced me to artisan pizza 4 years ago and I had a wonderful buratta pizza this time around. You always remember your first….

Somewhere in all this eating, I walked across the Williamsburg Bridge and had a great peanut butter & jelly ice cream at Odd Fellows in Brooklyn. How does that jelly not freeze?

My friends, Sam and Grace, took me to Delaney’s BBQ in Brooklyn. The brisket is a rock star. Didn’t think anything could resemble to Franklin in Austin, TX but this as close as you could be. By the way, congratulations you two!

There’s a ramen joint in Tokyo, Bassanova, that has proved elusive my last three visits to Japan. The chef left for NYC and opened up Bassanova a while back. While he left the American counterpart as well, the signature green curry ramen remained on the menu. It was good but their tonkatsu version was even better. Around the corner from Bassanova, my friend took me to her childhood favorite, Great NY Noodle Town of Chinatown. The congee here was probably the best I’ve had. Move over Halal cart, a new late night post bar option! I did visit  the Halal cart the night before too though.

While I acknowledge cooking at Jean George’s to be top notch, I have always left disappointed. This time was no different, but here’s a plausible explanation why – the dining room at Jean George out classes the food being served at lunch.  I regard the dining room at Jean Georges to be among the most cleanly beautiful I’ve sat in on a sunny day. The food on the lunch menu is comforting, but something I’d want to eat in an Asian-influenced bistro. The Black Sea Bass in Sweet & Sour Jus and the fried sweet breads were excellent but I find myself eating wanting to enjoy those without the fuss of dressing up. I heard Pete Wells of the NYTimes came in recently for a re-review; I’d probably trust his words more than mine.

Le Bernardin was what I expected it to be – prodigious. The seafood cooking is just incomparable. A few friends wanted to try the best NYC fine dining had to offer so suggested the seafood temple despite it meaning I would have visited twice in a year. I’ll order something besides the Chef’s Tasting menu as I had the same Langoustine dish 6 months ago and two of the dishes had the same main ingredient (halibut and king crab). Regardless, everything was still perfect.

I squeezed a last minute lunch on my last day at Gramercy Tavern. It had been on my list over the years but I never made it in because of all the other “hot” restaurants fogging my mind. I regret not climbing out of the clouds earlier.  The one meal I’ve had there elevates it into my one of my favorites of the city. A perfectly cooked ricotta cavatelli and comforting pork chop dish stood out, as did the gorgeous, comforting dining room. Thanks Bui for indoctrinating me, I will return for sure.

With each trip to New York City, I am learning and understanding the restaurant scene more; no longer just blindly labeling it as the vanguard of American dining (although I still think it is). Each trip remains a mix of the new and old – some old favorites that I can’t help but jump in and some that I’ve eyed from across the country for a while.  Hopefully I find myself in Saam bar sometime again this year.

Russ & Daughters
Dominique Ansel Bakery
Momofuku Saam
Corner Bistro
Del Posto
Odd Fellows Ice Cream
Delaney BBQ
Bassanova Ramen
Great NY Noodle Town
Jean Georges
Le Bernardin
Oddfellows Ice Cream
Gramercy Tavern


Finding Comfort in Parts Unknown (Seattle, WA 2013)

My trip to Seattle and its surroundings stood out among my travels this year. Despite never having set foot in Washington, I felt at home, at ease in this corner of the US. More so than how I sometimes feel in the Bay Area. It was the hints of my beloved Berkeley, the ubiquity of the outdoors culture, and the necessary glue of friendship that made Seattle somewhere I would like to call Home one day.

The trip revolved around paying a visit to Willows Inn on Lummi Island, a celebrated restaurant on the most northeast San Juan Island, a few hours north of Seattle. Much has been written about Willows Inn and its Chef Blaine Wetzel, and the restaurant has become a destination for food centric travelers in recent years. Needless to say, I had a fantastic meal that featured the islands bounty – salmon, mussels, vension, porcinis, shitakes, sorrel, and much more locally procured ingredients. (You can check out the photos of my meal here.) It was here on Lummi Island that I firsthand experienced true foraging.

I visited noma in Copenhagen earlier in the year (Chef Wetzel is an alumni). Most of the items I had on that day were still alive or growing in the surrounding countryside that morning. However, it was here in Washington where using local ingredients made a heartfelt impression

A white Jeep was parked in the middle of the street ahead of me as I biked along the main road that circumvents the island. A chef in the Willows Inn kitchen apron was picking some greens from the side of the road, inches away from the black asphalt. Gently tugging on the rooted greens, he would place them in his hand held wooden bowl. I asked what he was picking.

“Sheep’s sorrel. For dinner!”

Two hours later, the foraged sheep’s sorrel was featured on two courses, with the venison and then with these oysters. It was this moment when I understood a restaurants focus on “local” and “fresh. These roadside herbs were actively conducting photosynthesis just moments before! This was as close to “time and place” as I’ve ever experienced in food.

And it wasn’t until after the meal did I find out it was Blaine picking the sorrel from the side of the street.

If I was to move to another city, Seattle would be at the top of the list. I stayed at a friend’s apartment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood which had the renaissance vibe that I associate with Berkeley. Now my college town does not have bars where Macklemore filmed music videos, but the two towns share the cultured vibes and culinary promise where it would not be strange if street artists would perform on instruments unheard of in the Western world or if a restaurant could be internationally renown for serving just  locally sourced oysters or fresh untampered produce.

Good friends + good views + good food is a formula for memorable experiences that organically manifests itself in my travels. This trip had many of these but one stood out – Paseo’s messy but immensely satisfying pork sandwiches, Gas Work Park’s panoramic views of Seattle proper, and three good friends made for a moment that paralleled any previous formula proven experiences I’ve had. Its hell of a lot easier to appreciate life’s everyday pleasures during shared laughter and while you lick pork juices dripping down your wrists.

When I was job searching during senior year of college, companies asked for my location preferences. Foolishly, I checked the Seattle box as my #1, thinking that I would have an advantage because all the other Berkeley kids would want SF. After this recent trip, my collegiate attempts at a leg up seemed almost prophetic. The next recruiting opportunity, I’ll mark Seattle again. This time, with all earnestness.

(Marking Seattle as your #1 doesn’t work if you bomb your interview, just FYI. It might predict your future though.) 

Photos from my meal can be found here.