John Walsh visits Eneko, London offspring of Azurmendi, the thrice Michelin-starred restaurant in Bilbao
Spanish historians like to claim that Basque culture, cuisine and all, goes back 50,000 years. And you can believe that the citizens of this vividly independent Franco-Spanish region in the south-east corner of the Bay of Biscay have always been keen foodies since records began. With the North Atlantic crashing on their doorstep, Basque fisherfolk have always plundered the ocean for tuna and cod (salt cod is their invention). Roast lamb, anchovies, mushrooms and cider are also Basque favourites, and the thought of all these dishes on restaurant tables in Bilbao or San Sebastian can make you groan with anticipation. How pleasing, then, to discover that two new Basque-themed restaurants have just opened in London: the earthy, steak-tastic, wood-fired and amazingly over-priced Sagardi in Shoreditch, and the more sophisticated Eneko in Covent Garden.
Eneko is the new restaurant at the One Aldwych Hotel, which opened in 1998. It’s named after the 39-year-old, Basque-raised chef Eneko Atxa, whose Azurmendi restaurant in Bilbao picked up three Michelin stars, in 2007, 2010 and 2012, and was this year voted No 16 in the World’s Best Restaurants.
Mr Atxa was there when we visited, boyish, enthusiastic and gleaming with sweat at the pass, where he introduced us to his head chef, Edurne Martin Delgadoto, who’ll be running the place. She is, if I may get all Masterchef, basically Monica Galetti to his Michel Roux Jnr. She’s been with him at Azurmendi for 12 years and has his blessing.
The restaurant, accessed down a copper staircase from an imposing Edwardian doorway, is huge (110 covers) and Hispanically cool in shades of gunmetal grey, pale wood, white chairs and crimson booths. It’s dark, but sexy rather than gloomy. The waiters emerge from the crepuscular shadows with slightly over-done urgency, as though auditioning for an Almodovar film.
Basque cocktails were uninspiring: an Etxano 75 (gin, lemon juice, Cava) was just a John Collins without the cane sugar; a Golden Mary was a Bloody Mary with, oh dear, celery foam. Starters came in three categories – Itsasotik, Lurretik and Ortutik, meaning, respectively, ‘From the sea,’ ‘From the land’ and From the garden’. We ordered practically everything. A tempura of fresh anchovies with aioli sauce, amusingly wrapped in what seemed to be the Basque version of the Daily Mirror, was crunchily delicious. Chicken liver parfait was over-whipped but came with a lovely apple compote soaked in Txakoli wine. The Txerri Boda Pork Festival brought Iberico ham, sliced very fine and delicate as a communion wafer, and black pudding on tiny bao buns with mustard, chive foam and crackling – a bonsai piggy banquet.
Eneko’s signature dish is Memories of the Bay of Biscay – a starter of oyster, crab and wild prawn tartare. There’s a would-be-Blumenthal panache and drama about the way they serve this – the three dishes arrive on a wrought-metal platter over a bowl of seaweed, through which the waiter pours dry ice. As you sit trying to evoke the Bay of Biscay, you get a faceful of steam and a pong of seawater and bladderwrack.
The prawn tartare was a characterless mush, surmounted by what looked like caviar but was herring roe. The white crab meat, served in its shell, had allegedly been soaked in a sauce involving onions, tomatoes, leeks and brandy, and was nice enough but lacked excitement –its best component was the nosegay of lilac flowers that lay on top. As for the oyster, words fail me. It was warm. No, actually it was room temperature. But when you’ve eaten oysters for half a lifetime, and they’ve always been ice-cold, it’s a tepid shock to taste one that isn’t cold – like having some creepy sea creature stick its tongue in your mouth. This starter wasn’t the greatest advertisement the Bay of Biscay has ever had. Perhaps if the dry ice had chilled everything – as I suspect was the idea – it wouldn’t have been such a disappointment.
Given the region’s devotion to fishing, I expected a lot of the main-course “Basque-style hake.” Would it be grilled with chanterelles? Roasted with a slather of anchovies? But no, it was a tempura-ed tranche, the size of a softball, on a bed of confit vegetables with a red pepper sauce. It was tasty, in its fish’n’chips-y way, but owed more to Yorkshire than Bilbao. The red pepper sauce was weirdly full of onions, and the whole underwhelming dish benefited from a side order of green Gernika (read padron) peppers. My friend Tony ordered the ‘delicate cod tripe stew in a traditional spicy bizkaina sauce.’ It was indeed hellishly spicy, but the stew itself wasn’t great. We expected hearty; we got gloopy. The gelatinous cod swam in a hot but slithery tapioca-like liquid. It wasn’t unpleasant, but the texture felt wrong. The same goes for a vegetarian dish which blended cauliflower cream, egg yolk and mushroom foam into a thick leguminous smoothie, as though intended for sophisticated Basque toddlers.
Puddings arrived on a charming, old-fashioned wooden dessert trolley – but its effect was neutralized by the fact that all the dishes were individually plated in white bowls, so you couldn’t see the gallimaufry of delights that’s the usual visual message of dessert trolleys. Having said that, the meringue sandwich with raspberries and basil puree was excellent, as was the rum-Baba-like vanilla pudding, and the sweet Arima wine that finished everything off.
I suspect that Eneko, as currently constituted, is keen to show London how terribly cheffy and Michelin-tastic Basque food can be. Perhaps a little too keen, when the results are an over-emphasis on creamy textures, juliennes, emulsions, foams – and battered fish. I’d like to see Ms Delgadoto turn her undoubted skills to teasing out the flavours of Signor Atxa’s native land, rather than concealing them behind fancy technique and flawed experimentation.
Eneko at One Aldwych, 1 Aldwych, London WC2B 4BZ. Tel: 020 7300 0300
Lunch for two, before drinks and service £96
Food ⋆⋆⋆ Ambiance ⋆⋆⋆ Service ⋆⋆⋆