Eneko Atxa on bringing Basque cooking to Britain

Eneko Atxa on bringing Basque cooking to Britain

by Tom Shingler 26 June 2019

The three-starred chef is most famous for his flagship restaurant Azurmendi to the east of Bilbao, but after relaunching his London-based outpost Eneko Basque Kitchen & Bar, Eneko Atxa is set to introduce the city to the delights of Basque cuisine. Tom Shingler went to take a look at what’s new and talk to the world-famous chef.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor at Great British Chefs. After studying journalism and working on national food magazines, he joined Great British Chefs in 2015 and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK to interview chefs and photograph their beautiful plates of food ever since. Tom is responsible for all the editorial output of the website and, of course, is obsessed with everything to do with food and drink.

When it comes to cities with serious culinary credentials, there are few that can hold a torch to Bilbao in northern Spain's Basque Country. It’s a hotbed of good eating, with hallowed temples to fine dining and laidback bars serving pintxos – tapas-like bites often served on a cocktail stick – jostling for space down every street. There’s plenty to be found in the rest of Basque Country, too – San Sebastián is home to the Basque Culinary Centre, a world-famous institute, and then there’s of course Azurmendi, the trailblazing restaurant from the Basque Country’s most famous chef, Eneko Atxa.

Eneko’s flagship restaurant is a stunning, contemporary glass building with sustainability, flavour and the essence of Basque cooking at its heart, and people travel from all over the world for a meal there. But since its success he has opened a series of other outposts across the rest of Basque Country, Tokyo and the UK. London’s Eneko Basque Kitchen & Bar opened back in 2016, but after closing for five months at the end of 2018 it's now reopened with a refreshed, experience-led approach.

‘I spent a long time in London in order to understand the city and what we could offer,’ Eneko tells me as I sit down with him and head chef Javi Blanco. ‘I saw that it was a place where everything was always moving and always on the go, so I knew we had to do something more relaxed and informal than what you'd find at my restaurants back home.’

Javi (left) is the head chef at Eneko Basque Kitchen & Bar, working closely with Eneko (right) on the menu
The restaurant itself is below the One Aldwych Hotel, right next to Covent Garden

The result was a place that offered people a taste of what makes Basque Country cooking so good, rather than an attempt to export an Azurmendi clone across the Atlantic (a decision that never seems to work out for top-tier chef). But it wasn’t until Eneko Basque Kitchen & Bar relaunched in May 2019 that it truly achieved what it set out to do.

‘We finished our last service on New Year’s Eve in 2018,’ says Javi. ‘We had to close because they were working on things like the gas supply, ventilation and water for the hotel upstairs, which meant it was quite risky to keep running! In all we were closed for five months, which is obviously a long time, but we made the most of it by training staff and designing the new menu. We’ve increased interaction with our guests through our front-of-house team, and while the food is a lot more relaxed than what is served at Azurmendi, the soul remains the same.’

A look at the menu confirms this; rather than the enigmatic dish titles of Azurmendi which play down the culinary wizardry going on behind the scenes, the new menu at Eneko Basque Kitchen & Bar is much more to the point. Pork ribs in pork sauce; hake tempura with a parsley emulsion; beef tartare with anchovies and pickled mushrooms and Basque-style rice pudding are what they say they are – delicious dishes from the Basque Country.

‘We’ve always had the same philosophy here – to serve dishes inspired by Basque cooking in an informal, relaxed atmosphere – but being closed gave us time to really look at the details and make eating here more of an overall experience,’ explains Eneko. ‘At Azurmendi everything is focused on one fine dining tasting menu, but here it’s all about eating with your fingers and sharing dishes with friends. What marries the two together is the Basque flavours present in everything, and the attention to detail when balancing flavours. Azurmendi is somewhere you might go once, but here you can come every week if you want because it’s much more casual.’

The pork ribs might sound simple, but they're actually cooked for twenty-four hours in a complex pork sauce
Javi ensures only the very best fish and shellfish make it onto the menu

Just because the dishes are more informal than those at Azurmendi doesn’t mean the cooking isn’t as impressive, however. Head chef Javi worked at a number of Michelin-starred restaurants in both Madrid and London (including Phil Howard’s now-closed establishment The Square) before he first met Eneko three years ago. ‘It’s really important for me to have that Michelin training even if things are a little more relaxed here, as it helps so much with not just cooking well but the organisation and precision of running a kitchen,' he explains. 'We work in quite a methodical way, making sure the margin of error is at an absolute minimum. A lot of that comes from my time at Azurmendi.’

The informality of Eneko Basque Kitchen & Bar tends to refer to the presentation of dishes rather than the time it takes to prepare them. Take the pork ribs with pork sauce, for example – sounds simple enough, but they’re slow-cooked for twenty-four hours. The hake and the rack of lamb are cooked in just the same way they are at Azurmendi; they’re just served in larger, sharing-style portions rather than dainty little dishes with intricate garnishes as part of a longer tasting menu.

The jamón is some of the best in London, served either as is or on top of 'crystal bread' – another speciality of the Basque Country
Many of the wines are native to Basque too, with some bottles coming from Eneko's uncle's vineyard

‘We do pintxos and chuleta (enormous rib steaks) because I think that’s what people expect from a Basque restaurant, but we want to share some of the other gems from this part of Spain,’ says Javi. ‘Clams with salsa verde, traditional desserts and incredible seafood are all on the menu, and we bring over certain cheeses and special ingredients from the Basque Country that you simple can’t get anywhere else.’

Two of these ingredients take pride of place on the menu – native txakoli wine (which Eneko’s uncle produces) and some of the best jamón I’ve ever tasted. These are examples of products that are simply brought to the table as is; a true testament to Basque flavours. Some dishes don’t enjoy the same popularity here in the UK as they do in Spain (‘we love cod tripe and it was a huge hit in the kitchen, but it was tough to convince our guests to give it a go,’ says Javi), but what Eneko’s London restaurant does is offer a taste of the Basque Country that goes beyond the pintxos we see on travel programmes. The desserts are a good example of this – mamia (or cuajada) is a traditional Basque dessert which sees sheep’s milk mixed with rennet until it solidifies. Sounds a bit weird, but it’s a fascinating, tasty dish – especially with Eneko and Javi’s addition of chocolate and rosemary.

Whether you’re new to the flavours of Basque Country or are looking for a taste of something you ate when you were there, Eneko and Javi have created a place where you can delve deep into the region's cuisine. It may not offer the same lifetime memories as a meal at Azurmendi, but then it’s not trying to – instead, it’s all about relaxing over good food and drink inspired by traditional Basque cooking. ‘In Basque Country, you’re thinking about dinner when you’re eating lunch,’ says Eneko. ‘Eating is like a language over there, and within that language there are many different dialects. I think Azurmendi and Eneko Basque Kitchen & Bar represent two of those dialects; different, yet part of the same language.’