Chewing the fat, not literally, on a dinner date with a fellow food critic (her review bosses were paying) we inevitably strayed into the territory of ‘What’s been your most memorable meal?’, knowing on both sides of the table there had been plenty of contenders over the years.
Memorable can mean many things, of course, not all of them positive, but we’ll pass on the shockers. And when we are just seeking superlatives, there is so much to factor in – setting, service, food and wine obviously, company, though if you are reviewing professionally that shouldn’t be taken into account.
So when I say ‘boning’ clinched it for me I am not being naughty about my all-time favourite. I was swept off my feet by the whole ceremony of separating a turbot from its skeleton. Not just any turbot but the legendary wood-grilled rodaballo (wild turbot) of Getaria on the Basque coast. Elkano was the shrine we sought, arguably Spain’s finest fish restaurant. Unique for a Michelin starred establishment with its cast iron grills glowing intensely outside the front door.
There are several wood grill rivals in this working fishing village but all will doff their berets to this prow-like restaurant way back from the harbour where the legend was born 50 years ago. Founder Pedro Arregui’s magic formula – the fish sprayed with his own oil and vinegar elixir and then grilled for a precise 12 minutes.
Of late the rodaballo dish has travelled far. It’s the calling card of Brat in London, where chef Tomos Parry readily acknowledges its Basque origins; up north it’s a speciality of Joe Botham’s Baratxuri in Ramsbottom and Manchester’s Escape To Freight Island, while a steady stream of 4kg turbot are shipped up from Cornwall to the mighty Pennine grill of the Moorcock at Norland.
All quite rewarding but in situ? Accept no substitutes. We had managed to get an Elkano lunch booking on a Monday. It was for 2.30pm, giving us plenty of time for a limbering up hike along the wild sea front to Zarautz and back through vine-clad hills producing the seafood-friendly, tart local white, Tzakoli.
Settling into the comfort of Elkano, we asked Pedro’s son and keeper of the flame Aitor to pick a Tzakoli for us from a dozen on the list, all at very affordable prices. He recommended one particular example, whispering “it’s the only one not from the Getaria area. You’ll love it.” We did and it was a perfect match.
We did. It went well with an unforgettable ‘warm-up’ parade of seafood – notably txangurro (spider crab meat, sautéed with leeks and garlic, spiked with brandy, put back in the shell and browned) and the classic Basque treat, kokotxas (hake throats in a salsa verde). “Just tip them down your throat – it’s all about texture,” said our mentor.
Yet, of course, this was just the supporting cast for our Wild Turbot to share. It had arrived on the quay at 8am with the rest of the catch. If it had been landed a few hours earlier it wouldn’t have made the cut. Elkano only sticks the freshest fish on its embers.
Did our rodaballo rock? You bet. We were introduced to the fish by our server before it was salted, sprayed and grilled
Encountering the result on the plate was magical. Aitor, who now runs today’s more stylish restaurant, gave us a masterclass in the various constituents of the fish as he carved them – from the delicate fillets and dark fatty back sections, ribs from which he leached the gelatin with his knife and the succulence of the cheeks. The simple accompaniment just the sweetest of roasted red peppers.
At dusk we walked off the long lunch around the San Anton headland, known as Getaria’s Mouse because of its shape. It protects the working harbour, once a famous whaling port, from the Biscay swell.
Our lodging was the Pension Katrapona. We had arrived the previous evening via a 50-mile shuttle from Bilbao Airport. Equidistant is San Sebastian. The Getaria grills greeted us. At nightcap time the wood smoke from two floors below forced us to retreat indoors from our balcony with its great view of the harbour. We found supper refuge at Jatatxea Iriba in the old town where we devoured a supper of house-cured anchovies, then langoustines and monkfish – from the outside grill naturally.
How did Elkano get its name? From one of Getaria’s two great sons. Balenciaga and Juan Sebastian Elcano make an unlikely pairing. One, the gay son of a sailor and a seamstress who rose to be Paris’s 20th century king of couture, the other an iron man mariner, who after Magellan’s death completed the first circumnavigation of the Earth with a skeleton crew.
Born 400 years apart, both men are honoured in the town. Balenciaga with a vast modern museum housing 3,000 of his creations, attached incongruously to a palace once home to his aristocratic mentors. Elcano with two statues, the more impressive crowning an old bastion overlooking the port, and his name on the restaurant shrine to the blessed rodaballo.
He’s buried in a less secular place of worship, Getaria’s fortress-like seafront church, San Salvador, which dates from the 14th century and slopes oddly as if it’s about to launch like some fantastic Gothic galleon. How appropriate.
Neil flew from Manchester to Bilbao with easyJet. Below, nearer home, a ‘wildharbour’ turbot at the Moorcock and expert carving at Baratxuri.