With morning rain showers, we returned to the Guggenheim to go inside. Entering the museum we were immediately underneath nine white, midsized Chevrolets suspended from the ceiling with flashing shafts of
lights extending from the cars. This installation is Cai Guo-Qiang’s “Inopportune: Stage One, 2004,” . Does anything say “modern installation art” more than suspended white Chevrolet’s? Welcome to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
See the cars here:
Underneath the cars, with the tourists milling about, a crew was filming. We looked more carefully and saw Top Gear’s poufy-haired presenter Richard Hammond doing a segment for “Engineering Connections”. With his well-known squeamish dietary preferences, we’re pretty sure that the “Hamster” was not eating the rooster comb and pig’s snout while he was in Bilbao.
A Guggenheim link:
With the size and scale of the installations in Bilbao’s Guggenheim, the number of exhibits is manageably small and easy to see in a couple of hours. Of everything, we particularly liked Cai Guo-Qiang’s works though the suspended cars were only marginally appealing.
Around one o’clock, we picked up a rental car from the Abando train station, not far from our pension, and headed out into the countryside for lunch at Asador Extebarri. With our TomTom GPS installed and functioning in the rental car, the BeckBeck navigational system was demoted to driving. We moved out of metropolitan Bilbao with panicked, pale faces, and white knuckles all around the inside of the car, in the adjacent cars, and on the pedestrians unlucky enough to be nearby. I was surprised by the intensity of the fear all around us as Becky had earlier demonstrated her safe driving technique at the Bilbao train station.
Becky demonstrating her safe driving technique:
The TomTom took us for a few extra credit back road adventures on the way, but we eventually found Asador Extebarri next to a church in the very small village of Axpe-Marzana. We arrived about 40 minutes after we left Bilbao. Axpe-Marzana sits below a rock massif in a gentle green valley. Sheep graze in the fields that surround the small central square of the village. Extebarri means “new house” but, sitting in Axpe-Marzana’s old square, the restaurant’s stone building looks anything but new.
In Spain, an asador is a restaurant that specializes in wood roasted meats. Asador Extebarri takes the asador to its highest level reflecting chef/owner Victor Arguinzoniz’s obsession with grilling food. The kitchen uses specialized equipment that allows for easy control over the height of the product over the coals. Hot coals are produced in ovens and kept separate from the grill until cooking time. A new batch of coals is used for each item prepared with a specific wood chosen to match the item being grilled.
With help from a nearby English speaking diner, we ordered a selection of items from the menu and shared them family style at our table. Our meal included grilled prawns, crab, caviar, baby octopus, rib steak, vegetables, and mushrooms. Most of the dishes were served simply with just the single ingredient on the plate. The strong flavors of the wood smoke permeated the dishes. In some cases, like the caviar and the mushrooms, the result tended on the condensed smoke/sooty side and the charcoal flavors edged on being overpowering. For dishes like the rib steak and the prawns the smoke favors were well integrated into the beautiful, fresh ingredients producing some of the best grilled food we have ever had. For Ganesan, the chuleta de vaca or rib steak cooked rare but warm on the red inside was the best steak ever.
At the end of the meal, we visited with Victor’s protégé Lennox Hastie in the kitchen. An Australian, Lennox found his way to Extebarri a few years back. He showed us the high-tech grills, specialized mesh “pans” used over the coals, the charcoal ovens, and the tanks used to keep the seafood alive and fresh for the grill. Extebarri’s kitchen defines the state of the art for grilling food.
Asador Extebarri, though 39th on the San Pellegrino list of the top restaurants in the World, does not have even a single Michelin star. A curious oversight as the restaurant is, without doubt, a destination and was near full for lunch, the only weekday meal. In defense of Michelin (something I rarely do!), the front of the house at Asador Extebarri is run a curiously bizarre fashion. The waitress asking a neighboring diner to interpret the menu for us was unusual for a top restaurant. We ordered one item, eels with local mushrooms, which never came out. After all of the other dishes had been served, we asked and determined that they were out of eels. To replace the item, they served the mushrooms on their own. The menu itself is odd and lacks a tasting menu. We heard later from Lennox that they often prepare impromptu tasting menus requested by the international guests, but this is not well advertized. A tasting menu would indeed be a good addition. The menu offered predominantly meat items so we asked about vegetables. In response, we received a plate of nicely grilled vegetables. When we got the bill, the plate of vegetables was 30 euros, twice the price of the crab and about the same price as the prawns. The prices were generally expensive, ranging up to 200 euros for a kilogram of barnacles, and also seemed to be randomly chosen. The actual cost of the starting ingredients or the preparation time seemed to have little to do with the price on the menu.
In the end, I would not say the overall dining experience at Asador Extebarri warrants multiple Michelin stars, but it probably deserves at least one star. With the location and the uniqueness of the grill, the makings of a multiple starred Michelin restaurant are there. Refinement of the food and a serious reworking of the front of the house would be a good start. Fashioning the restaurant to meet the Michelin profile does not seem to be the goal of either Victor or Lennox. That’s perfectly reasonable. As diners, all we are left with is some of the best grilled food you can get anywhere. That’s not so bad.
More on Asador Extebarri:
We rolled back to Bilbao with less stress for the cars occupants and adjacent drivers than on the way out. Maybe it was the food, but even Becky taking out a couple of construction cones along the way was met calmly. I guess we already suspected that Becky was a conecidal maniac.
After a siesta, we were back on the streets of Bilbao for more pintxos. With the sun setting late in May at 9:40 pm, it was still light when we headed out. Our stops included Bar Los Fueros with mussels and prawns (gambas), Casa Victor Montes, and a return visit to Bar Restaurante Rio-Oja to ease our cravings for pimientos de Padron. We couldn’t let a day go by without them.