London’s Eneko Serves Modern Basque in Covent Garden
My mind is officially blown. On each trip back to my hometown of London, I try for at least one mindblowing experience. In March, it was mission accomplished with this and this. On a trip last month, Eneko at One Aldwych, in a boutique hotel in the ever-improving restaurant Mecca of Covent Garden, had me making airline reservations to Bilbao on my smartphone before I had even finished the appetizers. The modern Basque restaurant is the product of Eneko Atxa, a Basque Country native and owner/chef of Azurmendi, a Bilbao restaurant with three Michelin stars and placement at No. 16 in the World’s Top 50 Restaurants. The Basques are a tough crowd to roll with culinarily. Even with that spot, Azurmendi is just the third-highest Basque Country restaurant in the ratings.
I was delighted to hear that Atxa planned a satellite in London and, based solely on reputation, my admiration for Basque cuisine, and the sheer paucity of it on my side of the pond, made a reservation as soon as I could. I went for lunch and ordered à la carte rather than from the set menu.
On the advice of my waiter, I began with Memories of the Bay of Biscay (£14, or $17.45), a seafood starter. Trust a culture partly defined by its art and its food to name a dish in terms of what it evokes rather than what it contains. When served, a mesh-topped bowl is placed in front of the diner, upon which are three discrete dishes: a crab shell stuffed with its meat and garnished with edible dianthus flowers; a plump oyster dotted with a plankton emulsion speared with apple blossom flowers; and a wild prawn tartare with black olives, Granny Smith apple, spring onion, and chives topped with herring roe. Our waiter poured sea aroma (made from seaweed) through the mesh which, it turns out, covered dry ice and seaweed that generated a fog that enveloped the three dishes (and presumably affected their flavor). It was dinner as art and stunning to watch. You have to have substance to back up this style and Eneko has it in spades. The Scottish crab had the briniest meat that I have had for some time and was the kind of dish that restores one’s faith in a seafood that is too often bland and boring. That oyster must have worked out for months at oyster gym to develop such plumpness. The prawn tartare tantalized the mouth.
Sticking with starters, next was the Basque duck liver parfait and Txakoli apple (£10, or $12.46). Granny Smith apples and arugula gel dotted the surface. The rich and gooey parfait with the tart apples created a dream spin on the traditional pate and fruit pairing. A sprinkle of wonton chips added texture.
I managed to also stuff down a traditional talo (£10, or $12.46) found in the “From the Garden” section of the menu. This Basque tortilla usually plays the role of a base or container for the main event. Despite its straightforward description as “crispy corn talo with heritage tomatoes and fresh herbs,” the dish turned out to be a full salad that looked like it came from the Chelsea Flower Show. On the bottom was a tomato emulsion made with arbequina oil, heritage tomatoes, basil emulsion, caviar oil, and lyophilized black olive powder. On top, viola flowers added vibrant colors, and the whole dish was dressed in a fairly standard vinaigrette.
Edurne Martin Delgado, a 10-year veteran of Azurmendi, leads the kitchen team. I see a Michelin star down the road.
You can wash all this culinary magnificence down, as I did, with Basque Country wine. Ask for the by-the-glass vino that comes from Atxa’s brother’s vineyard. (Like the region’s wines, it has as least one “x” and probably a “ts” in the name.) These high-acid whites go well with the seafood-centric cooking, lifting and extracting the flavors.
I had homemade ice cream for dessert. Sorry not to be more Basque, but it was great — rich, creamy, and dreamily soft vanilla. Atxa returned to Azurmendi for desserts, hiring Alice Serafini who has worked with him since 2014.
A decade ago this same space house a restaurant called Axis, but One Aldwych management decided a new concept was needed. They spent two years searching for the right idea and team, and this is it. London has had a portfolio of Basque restaurants since the early 1980s, but now Eneko raises the bar.