This is probably the best fish restaurant in the world – Financial Times

It was a dark and stormy night. Drenching gusts blurred the car windscreen; the wipers were going triple time. This kind of spring squall is not unusual in the rainy climate that gives the Basque coast of Spain its colour scheme: bright green hills, battleship-grey skies.

As I drove into the port of Getaria, the wind dropped in the protective lee of the steep promontory and I watched a big fishing boat glide into harbour with its deck lights blazing like floodlights in a stadium.

It was still raining the next morning when I walked up to Elkano, the greatest fish restaurant in the world. Aitor Arregui, the proprietor, tall, thin, full of nervous energy, was worried, as always, about the fish.

The weather was bad and the boats weren’t going to go out today. He looked down at his phone to consult an app that tracks the location of the Getaria fleet. The sea on screen was blue and blank.

I asked Arregui what March was usually like. “March, according to the Roman calendar,” said Arregui, “is not important. More important are the moons and tides, the seasons and the years. Now is the time when the mackerel are coming into spawn.”

Elkano is exceptional, not just because the fish is delicious but because it is a revelation. We have learnt to pay attention to the breed and living conditions of the farm animals on our plates, and to celebrate the whole beast, nose to tail. Fish — a wild animal, hunted in its natural habitat — deserves no less respect.

At Elkano they appreciate and understand the connection between time and place and taste, the biodynamic rhythms and life cycles of different species, their varying characteristics, predilections, diets and habits, even — from cheek to eye to throat to bony fin — the different parts of their anatomy.

The natural harbour at Getaria, from where people have been fishing since before Roman times © Markel Redondo

Arregui took me down to the basement, where the chef, Pablo Vicari (originally from Argentina, he’s been at Elkano 13 years and is now part of the family) and a sous chef were cleaning the fish that had just been delivered. There were four yellow plastic crates of tiger-striped mackerel, as sleek and metallic as torpedoes. Arregui slit open the iridescent belly of one to show me a lobed milky sperm sac.

Mackerel, he explained, were fattest and had the highest protein content now because they are getting ready to reproduce. In April it would be anchovy season, red mullet in June, squid in July. In August the big boats would go out for weeks at a time and line catch tuna; September is lobster; in October the local shrimp are lightly fried so that diners can crunch through the heads, the most delicious part.

A box of pink langoustine, waving their legs, were the largest I had ever seen. Bream with red tails and rose-gold scales and a black thumbprint behind the gills stared up bright and clear-eyed — “with fish, just like people, you have to look into their eyes,” Arregui’s father used to say.

Arregui showed me the difference between the female and the male lobsters: the females have broader tails in order to cache the roe underneath; the males are slimmer. He turned over a female and the black roe was stashed thickly between her paddle-shaped swimmerets. Her tail flapped, as blue as Chinese porcelain.

Freshly caught turbot © Markel Redondo

Paco Ferreras, Elkano’s fish buyer for more than 40 years, arrived with boxes of mottled turbot, slimy with mucus, a sign of freshness. Arregui flipped one over and pointed out the red and bloody bruised appearance of the white underside and the stiff upturned tail that indicated rigor mortis. “I always want the turbot to be the last fish caught in the net.

This one was in the net a short time, probably it died last night or early this morning. We will keep it for tomorrow. This one, look . . . ” he held up another turbot from the same catch but the white underside was an even cream colour, without red blotches, and the fish was floppy and had passed through the rigor stage. “This one,” pronounced Arregui, “is for today.”

People have been fishing from the natural harbour at Getaria since before Roman times. Elkano was founded in 1964 by Arregui’s father Pedro, as a modest tavern for his friends, who were all fishermen. Arregui’s grandmother made fish soup, and, as was common practice at the time, Pedro installed a brazier outside on which he grilled the fishermen’s catch while they drank the local wine, Txakoli, made from the vines that stripe the surrounding hills.

“My father was not Ferran Adrià,” said Arregui, referring to the Catalan father of molecular gastronomy. “He had curiosity but he was not searching for something new, he was living in his terroir — fishermen, fish, fire.”

One day a fisherman friend of his brought a whole turbot and, when some customers bought it on the spot, Pedro had the idea to grill it whole instead of skinning it and cutting it up as usual. The skin trapped the unctuous gelatin, the fire charred and crisped the skin. A legend was born. The whole grilled turbot became Elkano’s signature dish.

Aitor Arregui, whose father Pedro founded Elkano in 1964 as a modest tavern © Markel Redondo

The restaurant prospered and its reputation grew. They moved to a larger space 200m up the hill and, at one point, in 1982, Pedro was persuaded to open a satellite Elkano in Madrid. But shuttling between the two restaurants was exhausting and, after five years of success in the capital, Pedro closed it. “We were so happy when it finished!” said Arregui. “My father didn’t like to be in Madrid.” I said he must have felt like a fish out of water and Arregui laughed at this British idiom and said, yes, that was it exactly.

Like Pedro, Elkano is a restaurant that is embedded in its culinary landscape, in the seasons of the sea and the traditions of its community. The vegetables come from the farms in the surrounding hills — “We are waiting for the first tiny green beans of the season!” said Arregui — and the restaurant’s glossy cookbook features portraits of the staff in the kitchen and front of house, as well as fishermen who supply the restaurant and the chandlers who fashion the iron grilling baskets. Asier Ezenarro, who took over the grill after Arregui’s father stopped cooking, was a fisherman for 12 years and has been a griller for 17.

Griller Asier Ezenarro © Markel Redondo

In sight of the Elkano dining room is a statue of Juan Sebastián Elcano, one of Getaria’s famous sons (along with the couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga) who, in the early 16th century, was the first to circumnavigate the globe. When Arregui came back to Elkano in 2002 — he was a professional footballer in his twenties — he researched the history of Getaria and discovered that among the possessions inventoried at Elcano’s death were three parrilla, iron grills. Arregui is sure they were grilling fish on board during their voyage. Landscape is more than a location; it is the sum of the history and culture of many generations.

“We are 3,500 people in this village and we are all the sons of fishermen,” said Arregui as he showed me around the harbour — warehouses, auction house, the small factories canning anchovies, fishmongers with seawater vats for live crab and lobsters. The sun came out from scudding clouds and the sea sparkled. Fisherwives sat on the wharf and mended nets.

In the mid-1990s, realising they could never compete with the big trawlers, the local Confederation of Fishermen in Getaria signed up to be a “selective port”. They fish seasonally, with nets that avoid by-catch. The focus is on quality over quantity. But still, every fisherman grumbles about the quotas, and Arregui knows that although the fishing in the past decade has been relatively good, overall there are fewer and fewer fish.

Chef Pablo Vicari working on a grouper © Markel Redondo

Increasingly, he and Vicari, the chef, have been encouraging customers to eat different fish and different parts of the fish. Until recently, mackerel was considered a lesser fish by Basques and not something for a restaurant menu. Slowly they introduced raw tuna. Last year when they had 120 frozen tuna bellies (bonito belly is apparently a bit tough and chewy) left over, they grilled them and conserved them under oil — it was a big hit.

Arregui looked up at the sky, the sweeping bright blue patches between rain clouds, and tried to be optimistic. “The fishermen say they will not go to sea this afternoon but who knows. Let’s see what the sea gives us.”

And so to lunch. I ate a mackerel head, soft and gummy in the cheek, crispy as potato crisps around the salty umami jaw. I ate a creamy mackerel sperm sac and compared it to a grainy mackerel egg sac. I ate lobster tail, chewy and rich, dressed in a vinaigrette with its bitter black roe. I ate a lobster thorax, sucking the char on the legs, and mixing the slick of green slime, cooked red roe, less cooked black roe, with nuggets of flesh dug out from the knuckles.

I ate the Basque speciality of hake throat, with its soft triangle of flesh surrounding a gelatinous centre, four ways. I ate two groupers, one that had lived out at sea, and one that had lived in the rocks. I was not expecting to be able to taste any difference but they were completely different.

The deep-sea grouper was soft and its skin flaccid. But the flesh of the muscly rock dweller was bouncy and firm, there was a layer of fat between the flesh and the skin as rich and sweet as lardo, and the skin was as crunchy and funky and moreish as pork scratchings.

Mari Jose Artano, Arregui’s mother and inventor of the famous ‘Lourdes water’ that seasons the grilled fish © Markel Redondo

Arregui’s mother, Mari Jose Artano, now in her seventies, kindly, chic and trim, wearing a white blouse and black trousers, came to pour us a little more Txakoli, bright and effervescent, that seems to bounce so happily off the rich fish. The story goes that Mari Jose went to work for Pedro when he first started and her trial periods kept getting extended.

It was Mari Jose who invented the famous “Lourdes water” that seasons and sauces the grilled fish at Elkano. It is a mixture of oil and a mild acid — lemon, vinegar, verjus? — in a secret formula only Arregui and his mother know.

Arregui came to carve the turbot, as he does for every table, explaining the difference in texture and taste of the meat on the white side of the fish that rests on the sand and the dark that looks up to the sea. He encouraged us to suck the filaments of flesh between the frilled bony fins of the fish like an accordion. He pointed out the globules of white protein floating in the jus of Lourdes water and stirred vigorously to emulsify the two.

Arregui looks through the turbot catch to select which fish to grill © Markel Redondo

“The chest can be a little bitter because it lies against the heart and the liver. This is the back of the neck and often feels as if it has been cooked longer because it is a little firmer, a little drier. Now, the cheeks, which are the softest and most gelatinous part. Here,” he said, pointing to greyish blobs inside a jagged collar bone, “this is something like bone marrow”. He winkled out a tiny bone from the head, smaller than half a finger nail, and balanced it on top of an upturned glass and shone my iPhone torch underneath so that it glowed white.

“Our grandfathers used to see the face of the Virgin Mary in this little bone,” he said peering like a jeweller at a jewel. “If you count the rings, you can tell the age of the fish. One, two, three — can you see? And there is a large gap between the first and the second ring, so it means this fish ate well because it grew fast.”

After his father died in 2014, Arregui reopened the old Elkano that had been empty for 26 years, as a place for locals and fishermen to come. The decor is unchanged, small dishes of pintxos are chalked up on the menu: croquetas, brocheta of langoustine, Arregui’s grandmother’s fish soup. Behind the bar is a sign that reads “think global; eat lokal”, in English but spelt with the Basque k. It struck me that there is often a tension between the two, but that it is like the tension in the span of a bridge.

Many young chefs come from all over the world to Elkano to eat but, when they ask to work in the kitchen, Arregui dissuades them. “What we do here is so simple. They think they are going to learn how to cook, but it is about the knowledge of the fish.”

Tiger-striped mackerel, at their fattest and with their highest protein content because they are getting ready to reproduce © Markel Redondo

Others have taken inspiration home. Tomos Parry, the bright young British chef, has wowed London with his open fire grill at his restaurant Brat in Shoreditch, and openly acknowledges his debt to Elkano. Arregui and his chef Pedro have been to Brat, and even took mackerel and hake throats to cook a special collaboration meal there. Arregui was too polite to comment but I would say that while the grilled whole turbot at Brat is pretty great, it’s not transcendent.

At Elkano, in Getaria, there is a natural symbiosis between the land and sea and the people and the plate that cannot be replicated. Arregui is not a cosmopolitan man — “I am so Basque!” he laughed — but he has travelled and he is curious. “Everywhere I have been — Japan, Argentina, Namibia — there is fire and there is fish.”

Grilled lobster thorax © Markel Redondo

He and Pedro have started a new project, a restaurant called Cataria, in Andalucía where there is a series of old fishing ports along the coast, near the natural bottle neck of the Strait of Gibraltar, where fish must pass from the cold Atlantic to the warm Mediterranean. The idea is not to reproduce Elkano’s menu but to use the same principles of buying fish — fresh, proximate, according to time and tide.

A selection of the iron grilling baskets used to cook the wild turbot © Markel Redondo

The sun was shining in a clear washed sky as I drove back up the coast. I reflected, digesting, wondering how a fish was so much more than the sum of its parts and how the example of “lokal” could go global.

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