The best damn prawn I ever ate was at Etxebarri. The famed Basque restaurant in the Atxondo valley, within striking distance of the magical eating Mecca of San Sebastián knocked me sideways from the first mouthful. This was followed by the best grilled squid, the best suckling kid, the best anchovy, the best cooked oyster...and so it went on. All of this cooked on the behemoth of a grill with its intricate system of wheels and levers for lowering and raising ingredients from the snarl and crackle of the grill, different wood used for cooking different ingredients — chef and owner Bittor Arguinzoniz's obsessional paean to grilling.
The owners of Lurra have had a deep affection for the food and traditions of this part of Spain for some time, Nemanja Borjanovoc and Melody Adams having opened Donostia (the Basque form of San Sebastián) across the road a few years ago. Lurra's influence is driven by the traditional charcoal and wood grills “Erretegias” found across the Basque Country, and Damian Surowiec is now Executive chef across both restaurants, the names of Barrafina and Fino stamped on his CV — this may be a new opening, but the cogs of a wickedly oiled and experienced set-up are whirring in the background.
As an obsession for grilling over wood and charcoal sweeps across the city, from Kitty Fisher's and Ember Yard, to the grills at Smoking Goat and Blacklock, it's also the Galician Blond (Rubia Gallega) which is becoming the most fetishised and sought after beef around, cows and oxen native to Galicia which can reach up to seventeen years of age, their depth of flavour and high content of flavoursome fat most highly prized in the restaurants of the Basque Country. The source of this beef in the UK has largely been driven by the Lurra/Donostia team, their own import business Txuleta supplying restaurants such as Chiltern Firehouse, Pizarro, Flat Iron, Goodman, Kitty Fisher's and Taberna do Mercado. A staff visit by the Donostia team to the unassuming Bar Nestor in San Sebastián with its wonderful beef (and ridiculously good plate of tomatoes, olive oil and salt), was the spark for the idea of bringing in this meat themselves. Fridges opposite the grill showcase the meat for anyone wishing to ogle slabs of glistening yellow fat and remarkable patchworks of marbling across ravishingly scarlet flesh. The word 'fetish' again seems appropriate.
Rubia Gallega is a permanent fixture on the menu, usually a 14-year-old female (not used to produce dairy milk, I'm told, only producing milk for calves), more rarely a retired Ox kept on as a pet, living on pasture and a diet of potatoes and onions — stories abound of farmers in tears when finally selling them. Finish every scrap on the plate, give this particular piece of beef due respect.
Sweet and creamy, wickedly buttery fat. It's this that is jangling in the palate memory receptors more than anything after a couple of visits. I've since learnt that 'Lurra' translates as 'land' in Basque. Fat of the land...
TXULETA: Rubia Gallega Rib Eye (£60/kg) — The main event, the heavyweight draw, the fattened veteran (14-years-old on our visit). Gnaw the bone, tear every strip of meat from it, every nugget of yellow wobbling fat, a crime to leave any trace of DNA. Leaving any fat on the plate will reward you with a slap. Ideally.
COURGETTE FLOWER WITH BRANDADE COD (£7) — Fried flower jammed with loads of of salt cod, a smear of squid ink to mop. Yeah, go on then.
COBIA TARTARE WITH TROUT CAVIAR (£9) — Pretty roundel of heaped tartare, pearls of trout caviar. After the full on salt of the previous, needed a touch more seasoning, perhaps another scattering of trout eggs.
GRILLED TIGER PRAWN (£8) — The Etxebarri prawn has tainted every prawn that followed it, an unfair Platonic ideal shaming all that followed. Still, a fine, fine prawn worthy of head sucking, and even a crunch of shell.
SUCKLING LAMB CUTLETS (£9) — More sweet fat, this time from indecently young scamps recently dragged from the teat. If it didn't taste so good, it would be declared illegal.
SQUID STUFFED WITH CHORIZO PRAWNS, SQUID INK SAUCE (£10.50) — Full of all the good stuff, squeaky fresh squid, bouncy prawns, smoky chorizo: there's no 'filler' here. An instant 'can we order another, please?' dish.
KOKOTXAS PIL-PIL (£7) — Hake throats, a Basque speciality made by slow poaching fish in olive oil, releasing its gelatin and mixing with olive oil to create a distinctive sauce. Spooky, velvet textured emulsion, delicately flavoured morsels of fish. Worth trying as rarely found in the UK.
MONKFISH WITH MOSCATEL & GARLIC SAUCE (£9) — Often overcooked, this bit of monkfish tail had plenty of meaty heft while retaining succulence. Deft grilling.
FRIES WITH SMOKED PAPRIKA AND AÏOLI (£5) — Yes, all day mate, great chips. Perfect foil for your slab of Txuletón for a superior steak and chips.
WHOLE GRILLED TURBOT WITH TXAKOLI DRESSING (£60/kg) — We were left gnashing our teeth when this Supermodel of a menu item was declared as not being available, the quality of Turbot delivered that day not being of good enough quality. Next time.
The wine list is in safe hands, with Nemanja also running his own wine import business Mountain Valley Wines, and a good place to start is the eye widening whiplash acidity of bracing Txakoli, the Basque wine that acts like a spritzy squeeze of lemon in between mouthfuls of monkfish and grilled octopus. We're also wooed by the excellent Bocchoris Brut Cava, and a great value and cheekily named Donkeyjote (geddit?) Garnacha from Navarra, a snippety snip at £22. A money no object choice would always be Belondrade from Rueda, a fiendish barrel fermented Viura that acts like it wants to be a white Burgundy: you'll have to feel in the mood for spaffing £70 on that one.
It would be unfair to say that Lurra is attempting to be the Etxebarri of the UK: that would be a foolhardy and impossible task. It is however showcasing some of the most remarkable beef in the world.
Go for the Txuletón. Do Not Pass Go. The End.
Just don't let any of that fat go begging.
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