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.
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.