Phone: 022 170 1556
We spent: $186 for two
Rating out of 10: Food: 10 Service: 9 Value: 10 Ambience: 9
Is there a culinary equivalent to the best house on the worst street?
Because, with all due respect to Avondale, the last place I expected to find a perfect 10 was beside a laundromat on Great North Rd.
I'm writing this five days after I ate at Etxeberria and I'm still thinking about Etxeberria. About the unparalleled excellence of wafer-thin, room-temperature Manchego cheese with dense, corn-based lavosh, creamy quince butter and a pickled walnut for smearing. About how texturally challenging raw squid cured in rhubarb and pine needles was. About how the "pepper" was actually a spice mix containing ants. Yep, I ate ants. And I'd eat them again if Javier Carmona asked me to.
Ex-Mexico, Beirut and Oaken restaurants, Carmona has set up Etxeberria as a Thursday-to-Saturday night venture in the space that is, by day, Woodworks cafe.
At 6pm, the curtains come down. My dining companion was thrown by the calico drop cloths that shortened the room and swathed the regular cafe counter. "I keep waiting for the painters to arrive . . . or Christo."
We took our seats under the strings of bare bulbs and the green neon sign. A waitperson in an embroidered peasant shirt poured cool water from an earthenware jug, into tiny, earthenware cups. Wine, cutlery and crockery were fetched from a still life tableau with flowers. It did feel like we were inside an art installation.
An amuse bouche arrived. Sheets of sago, reimagined as pork crackling and sprinkled with (this is not a typo) crickets. Insects are the sustainable protein du jour, but I'm not ready for recognisable body parts (legs, feelers, etc). These critters had been ground into a "flour" and mixed liberally with salt. Everything tastes great with salt. For the record, the ant mix was a little anty on the palate. But the insects are optional; say "no" and all you're really declining are social media bragging rights.
The a la carte menu is small. Just three starters, mains, sides and desserts, respectively. It changes weekly, and if you have a specific dietary requirement, you should phone ahead to check you can be accommodated.
On the night of our visit, the kitchen was wringing the very best from very late-season corn. Tiny, sweet kernels, slightly scorched and loosely bound with cured egg yolk and fig leaf whey, with a cheesy spoonful of cultured butter and pickled vegetables ($12).
Aforementioned ceviche, served with cured pork cheek and plums ($16) had an echo of the familiar - squid and chorizo - but it was an uncompromising take. Chewy, astringent, creamy and sweet, all in a single mouthful. It was adorned with baby pink rose petals and I fell just a little bit more in love with Etxeberria.
The restaurant's name comes from the Basque Country, and translates as "the new house". Carmona lives out west. This, he told our table as he delivered dessert, was an opportunity to have fun closer to home.
I think that comes through in both the food and the ambience - seriously clever, but not too serious. Exhibit A: The soundtrack. I've never heard Darcy Clay's Jesus I was Evil while fine dining (if that's not your thing, it moved on quickly to The Stranglers, Bowie, and a fair bit of 80s nostalgia).
Our mains were immersive. "I feel like I'm drinking from a rockpool," said James, when I passed my plate of fish ($26) - sticky-skinned brill, with chickpea, seaweed and fermented garlic. His goat birria (a spicy stew from Mexico) was rich with spice - cinnamon, maybe, and definitely coriander. From the earth and of the earth.
And then that dessert. Get the cheese ($16) but if the churro ($12) are on, get them too. Sweet and hot with sugar and long pepper, served with a seemingly impossible chocolate ganache made with water. Etxeberria was like eating in a dream. Did that really happen? Wait, wasn't there a restaurant there last night?