Apart from a number of dishes featuring more complex preparations, one of the most compelling strands of Basque cuisine exclusively focuses on the grill. Cooking fish, seafood, meat and other products over specific types of wood is elevated to an art-form here.
Whilst Etxebarri in the hinterland has become world-famous, the coastal counterpart is Elkano. Located in the idyllic fishing port of Getaria, not far away from San Sebastian, Elkano is one of a large number of asadors (grill restaurants) in the little town. Walking through the streets, the scent of burning embers wets your palate, and the two most distinctive restaurants in town excel at grilling freshly landed seafood: Kaia Kaipe and Elkano.
Despite being run by the same family (they are not on speaking terms with each other however!), differences exist between the two. Kaia Kaipe has its own boats that land freshly caught fish and seafood, whilst Elkano relies on a small number of local fishermen. They bring the highest quality catch to the restaurant before the lunch and dinner services start. These are restaurants, where no product will ever even see ice.
Whilst both are excellent restaurants, Elkano might have the edge, due to the phenomenal product quality. It’s reputation has pretty much been built on a single, deceptively simple looking dish: grilled turbot. The quality served here will make that in most 3* restaurants pale in comparison. Talking to the owner of Elkano, you will understand that this is a place that takes turbot seriously. No fish under 1.4kg is served here, but the finest examples are those weighing more than 8kg.
The turbot is cooked over the embers, at relatively low heat, without ever coming into direct contact with the flames. Once it’s cooked, it is simply sprinkled with salt, placed on a platter with the white skin facing up. The only seasoning is olive oil and cider vinegar.
What you end up having on your plate is turbot that has remarkable differences in texture and flavour depending on which part of the fish you eat. Thanks to the cooking process, the natural gelatin imbues the entirety of the fish with a thick, sticky juice, giving it that unmistakable texture. The Morrillo (the back of the neck) is very complex in flavour, whilst the cheek might be the best part. The ventresca (belly) is perhaps not quite as compelling as the finest tuna belly, but captivating nonetheless. The brain is incredibly gelatinous and you would hardly guess it to be fish, if given blind. For those going to a restaurant such as this for the first time, it is best to ask one of the waiters for advice, as they are incredibly knowledgeable.
Elkano, however, does not only serve turbot. If you happen to miss the season, other dishes are well worth coming for: A tasting of three preparations of kokotxas (cod cheeks) is just as educative as eating turbot here. The version with pil pil sauce (olive oil, parsley, and garlic) is addictive; complex, full in flavour, and remarkably pure.
The squid here are equally good: caught right before service, they are simply grilled and served naturally. The result are squid that are beautifully crunchy, whilst staying very tender. A subtle smokey flavour gives this even more complexity, and makes this yet another lesson in product quality.
Elkano is a restaurant that does not look like much. The décor seems to have seen its glory days a long time ago. The food, on the other hand, is shockingly simple, and good. Don’t come here unless you want to recalibrate your palate. Beware though, as eating turbot, squid or cod cheeks in other restaurants will not be nearly as exciting anymore.