Maybe you fall in love with the place, and all of its sights and sounds. Or maybe you fall in love with the people, and the ideas and stories they share.
Sometimes you fall in love with both.
I fell in love with both in Ezcaray, Spain.
My aunt and cousin who live in Spain drafted the itinerary for our week long road trip through the northern part of the country. One of the nights was to be spent at the Hotel Gastronómico Echaurren in Ezcaray. My aunt chose this town and hotel as a stop, not only because it’s nestled in the Rioja wine region, but it is also home to the first ever Michelin star restaurant of La Rioja.
Hotel Echaurren has a wonderful story that spans five generations. The hotel dates back to 1898, where Pedro Garcia and Andrea Echaurren first established it as a refueling stop for carriages. Andrea had a deep passion for cooking, so they added on a dining hall— marking the start of Echaurren’s proud hospitality and culinary heritage.
Their daughter, Marisa Sánchez, inherited the small hotel of Echaurren and together with her husband transformed it— making it a home for her family, as well as a hostel and restaurant for guests.
Mrs. Sánchez was known for her fine traditional cooking of hearty Riojan dishes. The character and refinement she embodied through her food led to Echaurren winning Spain’s National Gastronomic Award in 1987.
The old hostel was eventually converted into a chic, cozy hotel that is currently operated by the fifth generation of the family. The hotel now has two main restaurants. Together they represent the evolution of Riojan cuisine from traditional to modern.
The Echaurren Tradición restaurant serves Mrs. Sánchez’s timeless regional dishes. On the other side of the kitchen is El Portal de Echaurren, which her sons Francis and José Félix Paniego founded in 2002. By 2004, it became the first restaurant of La Rioja to ever gain a Michelin star.
Francis has perfected both the art and science of food. His style of cooking is progressive in nature, but he is passionate about keeping the local culture and cuisine alive.
Francis manages both restaurants now, but El Portal is where Francis gets creative in the kitchen. He concocts innovative dishes that are loyal to Riojan traditions and use the freshest local ingredients. This type of cutting edge cuisine is what has put Spain on the map as a culinary hot spot. Today, El Portal proudly holds two Michelin stars.
My aunt had met Francis once at a marketing event a year ago. She vouched that his passion for cooking and his family-run business were authentic. She was able to snag a reservation for us at Echaurren Tradición.
We show up to our reservation at 9:30 pm— right on time in Spain’s book. Our server, a tall man with dark hair and olive skin, greets us at our table. He hands over the menus, as well as the wine list with an impressive collection of roughly 300 wines.
Given we had just indulged in some tapas a few hours earlier, we decide to order a la carte. However, they do offer menus degustación (tasting menus), which were appealing and crafted to represent the wide array of traditional Spanish cuisine.
To start, we order the famous cheese croquetas stuffed with bits of ham and chicken. Mrs. Sánchez’s recipe is legendary within Spain; so skipping this one wasn’t an option. And let me tell you we were not disappointed. The cheese was rich and creamy and practically melted in your mouth. Our server also brought us freshly baked bread rolls and a cheese spread made of truffle and honey. We definitely played our carbs right.
The carnivore in me was drawn to the chuletillas de cordero a la brasa (lamb chops), which were served with potato slices and vine cane oil. The lamb chops are another one of Mrs. Sanchez’s specialties, considering that the northern (Basque) region of Spain is known for their quality livestock.
Also, during Francis’s apprenticeship, he spent some time studying and experimenting with confits and aromatized olive oils. So given that this entree was made by the meat and oil connoisseur himself, meant I had to give it a try.
The meat was served on a sizzling platter with the potatoes served on the side. The lamb chops were a bit more fatty than I prefer, but the Spanish are known to leave the fat on the meat for flavor.
Speaking of flavor, I don’t know what they feed the livestock in Spain but whatever it is, it’s working. Every single meat dish I ordered in Spain was so tender and savory. Which is probably why A1 steak sauce isn’t a thing there. All they do after the meat is cooked is sprinkle some sea salt on top and it’s good to go. These lamb chops were no different.
For dessert, we had the tosta templada con queso de cameros (cameros cheese on warm toast) with apples and honey ice-cream. The tart was simply magical—so magical that it vanished in like, 10 seconds.
As we were finishing our dessert, my aunt waves her hand at someone behind me. I turn around and a man with a warm smile comes over to our table and gives my aunt a hug and a kiss on each cheek.
“This is Francis, the chef!” My aunt introduces each of us to him. He was very charming and mannerly, leaning in towards each of us to shake our hands. He asked us how we were enjoying the dinner, our stay at the hotel and the town of Ezcaray. We rave about the hotel and the food and explain how this was one of the stops on our road trip through Spain; he is attentive and hangs on our every word.
For being a world-class chef, Francis was gracious and engaged with us in a way that others may not have taken the time to do. It was evident that he was not only passionate about the food he delivered, but also the experience attached to it. You can’t help but feel apart of the family.
After spending some time at our table, he wishes us safe travels and heads back to his group. Our server brings us the check and with a wide grin asks, “So, how do you know Francis?”
My aunt explains to him how they met. “I always found the history behind this place fascinating and how Francis and his brother have carried on the family tradition…”
As she continues, he bites down on his smile. You can tell he is impressed that my aunt knew so much about the business.
“Well,” he interjects with an unforced laugh, “I’m Francis’s brother.”
To our surprise we had José Félix—Francis’s brother, the head server and Sommelier—serving us the whole night.
“Would you like to see the kitchen?” he offered. He definitely didn’t have to ask us twice; we all sprung up out of our chairs and followed him in a single-file line like little first graders headed on a field trip.
We were one of the last groups in the restaurant, so in the kitchen, the staff was cleaning up while feasting on the extra food. The stainless steel kitchen is pretty spacious, as would be expected since the same space is used to feed both restaurants.
The left side of the kitchen is where the cooks tend to the pots and pans sitting on giant burners; the right side of the kitchen is where the other cooks whisk, prep and garnish.
After the impromptu tour, my family and I head up to the terrace; we enjoy our complementary bottle of wine along with each other’s company.
The next morning, we check out of the hotel and the front desk lady gives each of us a parting gift—a bag with water bottles and fruit for the car ride. First a welcome bottle of wine and now this?! Echaurren, you spoil me.
As we wait for our car to pull around, we see Francis by the fireplace having a conversation with what appears to be a journalist. He spots my aunt, excuses himself mid-conversation and walks over to us. With a hug and a kiss on the cheek, he checks in to see how we enjoyed the rest of our evening. When our car arrives we say our goodbyes and Francis once again wishes us safe travels. “I hope you loved your stay here!”
What was not to love? There was a sweet synergy between the food and the people. The design experience was just as good as the hotel experience. The family’s passion for their culture, cuisine and community— contagious. Echaurren felt like home.
And so, fall in love I did.
Read more about Hotel Echaurren and its amenities here.