In Bilbao, “Porrue,” http://www.porrue.com/?lang=en. The excellent nine dinner course tasting menu was a bargain 68 euros per person. And on top of that, Pourre offered — and we took — an astonishingly inexpensive 28 euros-per-person wine matching for each course. Nine different wines for nine different courses. Never have we had such a fine wine pairing; and the price was amazing. They were generous pours in good Austrian stemware. They were very good to excellent wines, and the staff even left the bottles on the table, in case we wanted more of any. Our first dinner there, and lively discussions with the staff and chef Unai Campo, left us excited and eager to experience it again, and so we returned the next evening. When we had dinner again the next night, and created our own tasting menu, the experience was, if anything, even better.
“Asador Extebarri,” http://asadoretxebarri.com/en/about/, in Axpe. Reservations are difficult to make. We are glad to have done so, and had the experience. The rural mountainous setting is super. The room was lovely, as was the greeting by two women who seem to run the floor. The cooking was singular. But for us there were some issues.
As one of our companions commented later: “The chef at Etxebarri is truly a master of fire. The various subtle (and unsubtle) ways fire was used preparing this meal were revelatory, as was the quality of some of the ingredients. However, the very purity and precision of the cooking, a kind of Zen presence, felt a bit cool and calculated by the end of the meal. I was asking myself if anyone in the kitchen has facility with combining disparate flavors to highlight ingredients, or even, perhaps, making a sauce. The one dish combining ingredients (tomato and tuna) was not, to me, harmonious; though each ingredient was perfect on its own, nothing tied them together. The overall experience came across as one-dimensional, and lacking adventure and excitement. That, along with [service issues I’ll mention below] left the four of us feeling somewhat unsatisfied by an experience that had the elements to be very fulfilling.”
The service issues included: one waiter who made an unprofessional and gratuitous comment about another restaurant (Porrue, which we loved); pacing was highly uneven (it began in third gear, way too fast — we had to ask them not to take away plates until all of us were finished with each course! — and then, after our request, it shifted into first gear, eventually taking a rather amazing 5 1/2 hours); and although the same waiter that we mentioned above attentively poured wine for me and another male, but half of the time he skipped my wife, hmmm.
Another atmospheric glitch: Many diners at the other tables seemed — to us anyway — to be more interested in going out and smoking their cigarettes than appreciating the food and the ambience. This left us feeling rather unconnected with our fellow diners, and again that contrasted with our two experiences at Porrue.
I’ll briefly mention other highlights of very good dining that we experienced over nine days in the general area:
Lunch at “Kaia Kaipe,” Getria, in the corner window overlooking the working commercial fishing harbor. We had superb turbot for two, grilled in a metal cage over coals, along with a great Lopez de Heredia Tondonia Blanco, 2001 — for a super price (only 39 euro). http://www.kaia-kaipe.com/
South of Haro (after a superb 2+ hour private tour and visit at Lopez de Heredia), in the quiet town of Ezcaray, we had a super lunch with scores of locals and no English to be heard at “Echaurren” (at its “tradition” restaurant), www.echaurren.com.
In Hondarribia, we dined far from the touristy main street, up in the old town an outside in an alley at “Gastroteka Danontzat,” http://gastrotekadanontzat.com/ , and enjoyed it so much that we booked again for the next night it was open.
Honorable mentions, but not rising to the level of these places:
Lunch in the old walled town of Agurain, at “El Gordo Jatetxea,” www.restauranteelgordo.com
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