The small town of Getaria by the Bay of Biscay has a restaurant that is known to food lovers all over the region and it is where every chef heads for the best seafood in the area. I am talking Michelin-starred chefs like Juan Mari Arzak, who, when I told him the morning after having dined at Elkano about my dinner, was envious and asked if I had enjoyed his favorite dish, the hake kokotxas. I have known, interviewed and dined at restaurants of most chefs in the area and had been hearing about the ultimate seafood restaurant for years but eventually made it there last October when I was in San Sebastian for the Gastronomika. We have had many exceptional meals since then but that experience of dining at Elkano was special. My husband has not stopped talking about the grills on the patio where huge turbot were being roasted over live coals as we walked past to enter the restaurant. There were stacks of crates with whole turbot ready to be cooked over the grills or asadors as they are known in the area, glowing with the coals underneath and the enticing aroma of roasting fish in the air.
A half hour drive from San Sebastian in Basque countryside of Northern Spain, Getaria is a picturesque village along the Bay of Biscay. As a history buff I knew that Juan Sebastian Elcano from this village was the first person to circumnavigate the globe by sea and Cristobal Balenciaga the famous fashion designer also hailed from there. The modest restaurant is not by the water but a short walk away. Upon entering the restaurant in a large group we were greeted by an older couple and their son who was bustling about the dining room. That was the first time I met legendary grill master Pedro Arregui who along with his wife Jose Mari was overseeing the commotion in the room as we all settled down. There was an air of celebration in the restaurant and my Spanish friends informed me that Elkano was celebrating its 50th anniversary and so we went up to congratulate Pedro Arregui and his wife and were introduced to their son Aitor who seemed to be in charge of the restaurant. I have a special regard and respect for couples who work in this industry and raise their families in this atmosphere having lived the experience myself.
I heard a few months ago that shortly after we met Pedro Arregui he had passed away and felt a sadness but also fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet this gentle man who has left an indelible mark on the culinary traditions of Spain. Elkano is a genuine eatery powered by real passion and existing simply to cater to the needs of anyone stepping through its doors. Restaurants like these evoke a nostalgia of days gone by when food was real food and not an altered by product of fancy technical processes and there was a connection between the chefs and their customers. How often can you smell the aroma of food being cooked over a fire with just a hint of oil or salt? This is what real cooking is and what we are losing in the quest for the latest techniques of cooking or plating food.
Pedro Arregui was a very creative cook who became famous for the way he cooked whole fish in its skin especially flat fish like turbot on huge grills over live coals as well as the local delicacy, hake glands or kokotxas in the local language. We enjoyed them cooked two ways both grilled and fried, but the star of the meal was the whole turbot presented at the table before being filleted. The menu had everything from langostas, squid, clams, barnacles to preparations in squid ink all simply prepared but delicious.
I was seated close to the reception area where Pedro and his wife watched and helped expedite the food from the kitchen and the grills in the front of the house. Though he had left the cooking to his grill master Luis Mantetola and the salon to his son to take care of due to his health he had every reason to be proud of the restaurant he established fifty years ago. In this former grocery store that was owned by his mother the seafood soup from her recipe is still served to guests at Elkano.
The restaurant is local and sustainable in practice procuring seafood from the Getaria area and local seafood nurseries. Arregui’s son Aitor has big shoes to fill but from what I observed, the traditions of his family and work ethic were already ingrained in him and he will carry forth the legacy of his father. Arregui attributed the excellence of his kitchen to using the best product available, in season and being mindful of the impact on the ocean. I will always remember Arregui walking over to the table to ask if my hake cheeks were to my liking since eating my way through an immense multi-course meal I was not able to finish everything on my plate. A perfect host, an innovative cook and a simple man whose restaurant was not awarded any Michelin stars or made it to any best restaurants of the world list but was just as good at his job as other chefs in the area with that recognition. This year the San Sebastian Gastronomika is paying a very fitting tribute at the annual event in October to one of their best from the Basque country and all of Spain.
As homage to him I wanted to share the story of this man whose legacy of simple cooking using good products can be an example to cooks and chefs everywhere. In an area that has many Michelin-starred establishments Elkano holds its own and its prestige and acclaim are well deserved.