T+L Culinary Journeys: On a rite-of-passage trip to the Basque Country, “Sweetbitter” author Stephanie Danler encountered an unfamiliar restaurant culture that made the local wine and seafood taste all the more extraordinary.
“Kokotxas al pil pil,” the waiter said, setting down a plate of tiny gelatinous jewels in a cloudy sauce. All I knew about this strange seafood was that it had come from the incredibly biodiverse stretch of the Atlantic that I could see from the dining table. I was in Getaria, a fishing village in Spain’s Basque Country, at Kaia-Kaipe, a place where you could order fish heads — separated from the body — as a specialty, eyeballs included. My Spanish host poured me more Txakoli and whispered, “Don’t worry, it’s just hake cheeks.”
I was an assistant wine buyer, with no expectations for my first trip to Spain, just total intimidation at drinking and eating with wine professionals for six days. Txakoli is an effervescent, needle-sharp, dry white wine usually poured from high above the table so it foams into short, flat glasses, after which you shoot it back and ask for more. It’s made in three regions in the Basque Country, but two of the best wineries, Txomin Etxaniz and Ameztoi, are in Getaria, so close to the sea that the grapes wake up encrusted with salt. At nine that morning, “breakfast” had consisted of bottles of Txakoli accompanied by bread and pink, fleshy anchoas, the local salt-cured anchovies.
We’d rolled into Kaia-Kaipe for lunch at 3 p.m. As we knew from the grills lining every cobblestoned lane, the specialty of this town is grilled whole turbot, deconstructed tableside. The cooks of Getaria were so serious about grilling that they invented their own special cage, to execute it better. What separates Kaia-Kaipe from every other grill on the street is an astounding wine list that reads like a greatest-hits list of Spain. After the Txakoli, we moved on to Riojas — a bottle of 1981 López de Heredia, as ruby red and tart as if it had been bottled yesterday.
This type of restaurant — where every single ingredient is the definition of local and made on site in a way so traditional it’s almost historic — has become the benchmark for what I look for when I travel. I have been eating in Spain for more than a decade now and have been to all the famous restaurants — the Arzaks, the Mugaritzs, the Etxebarris. But I’ve never felt about any of them the way I do about Kaia-Kaipe and the salty green hills of Getaria. It’s imbued not only with the romance of being my first but also the romance of simplicity. Kokotxas are, in fact, a piece of the fish from right below the gills that was once discarded but is now considered a delicacy. The cloudy pil pil sauce is just olive oil, garlic, and parsley. Of course, I knew none of that when I took my first bite — only that I immediately wanted another.