A Clandestine Dinner with Iñaki Aizpitarte
There’s an ancient Asian legend in which, when you are born, the gods tie a red thread to your ankle or around your pinky finger. Then, these matchmaking gods tie the other end to your soulmate, the person you are meant to cross paths with, to find before you can find yourself. The thread can tangle, stretch, and go on for eternities, but it never breaks.
I would like to propose the existence of a culinary equivalent….maybe a spaghetti noodle. In this version, a cursory glance at the World’s Top 50 restaurants plants a seed in the form of a name, a French name. A visit to Paris and a well-chosen Airbnb apartment that just happens to be a block from this unassuming restaurant’s facade. A lightbulb moment…the last table available during the visit reserved…and an incredible meal at Le Chateaubriand….and before you know it, a weird link is formed between my taste memories and Iñaki Aizpitarte.
So of course I was doing the proverbial eye rubbing when I saw that Iñaki was coming to San Sebastián, and not for any highbrow gastronomic conference or press junket, but for an inexpensive, exclusive, sort-of-secret dinner that would explore the role of border smugglers in the bygone era of dictatorship in Basque Country.
Perched above the old part of San Sebastián, in the Gastronomika dining society, me and 50 other people sat back and allowed him to cook for us in that txoko I know so well.
The first dish was introduced by an old mugalari, or "border person" in Basque, who used to smuggle foodstuffs (and who knows what else) across country lines. Iñaki himself is an ideal chef to take on this theme, as his family is from Eibar and migrated to France, where he was raised and currently lives. The dish was earthy, with an impressive number of both vegetables and textures, from mushroom to strange root vegetable.
In Iñaki's cooking, both at the dinner and in his restaurant, you can see the adoption of new/international/modern techniques, but with a constant connection to his roots and his location. Enter a cooling ceviche type dish but with a straightforward green, citrus flavor.
The meal ended with a very rustic dish, which we ate with remnants of the carcass literally staring us in the face. Porchetta and beans, beans that had all the locals freaking out. In Basque Country, there is one bean (the Tolosa bean) and it is simply stewed, with not enough salt, in the local alkaline water. These were THREE KINDS of beans on ONE plate (already mind blowing), and they appeared to have been picked up in loads of butter with what must have been a bushel of finely chopped herbs. I keep forgetting to make this at home. Yum.
The whole event was put together by espacio reflex, a unique initiative in Donosti meant to promote culture and the intermingling across genres. At least, I think that's what they're meant to do...the roster of events is so varied and the site so oblique that it's hard to tell. But sign me up for all of them.
And it would be fine if every night ended with crispy cream.
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