I went to Spain’s Basque Country a couple of years ago and fell in love: green hills, abundant seas, anchovies on every menu, ‘pintxos’ on every corner. I ate extraordinary food, from dazzling avant-guard post-molecular modernist cuisine at Mugaritz, to a grilled turbot that changed the way I think about eating seafood forever at Elkano, the best fish restaurant in the world.
I was excited, then, to see, that last summer Eneko opened in London at One Aldwych hotel, a transplant outpost of one of the region’s leading chefs, Eneko Atxa, whose restaurant, Azurmendi, outside Bilbao, has three Michelin stars and is No. 16 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. For its first weeks Eneko had a soft opening, everything half price. I took advantage and took myself for lunch.
Out of the London bustle, I entered into a cool, modern, elliptical space. There is a mezzanine bar and a grand copper staircase descending into a vast and unexpectedly airy underground dining room. The tall and windowless walls are napped with angles and curves, pale stone and wood. Studded steel girders, like the struts of the Eiffel Tower, interrupt the gaze. The back wall is black and carved with irregular scoops like a Tate Turbine Hall installation referencing a coal face.
Tactile, shaped and textured. High red leather banquettes enclose triangular tables. I sank into a white leather cupping chair, ran my hand over the smooth planes of the cherrywood table. A lot of thought and money has gone into the design. It is by a company called Casson Mann, who specialise in museums and gallery installations. It is beautiful and grand, almost Cathedral breathtaking.
I looked around. Profound and soaring architecture or overwrought and overconceptualised? The waiters were decked out in red and white checked shirts and denim aprons, an odd conjunction of casual-formal, country farm in a swank city restaurant. The menu was similarly juxtaposed. It had been carefully edited to intersperse the authentically unpronounceable Basque ingredients with more familiar, tempting menu buzz words: tempura, tartare, heritage tomatoes. Cod bizkaina was described as a ‘delicate cod tripe stew in a traditional bizkaina sauce with crispy deep fried cod bites.’ An exxotic unknown had been soothed by the addition of ‘deep fried cod’ to appeal to an English comfort zone. As I wondered about transition and translations I ordered a glass of txakoli the fizzy fresh local Basque wine I had gulped down happily in San Sebastian.
The waiter suggested I order the squid marmitako, a squidgy stew in a rich broth. I should have done what I was told because I fell for the Txerri Boda Pork Festival, with Iberico ham and mushroom duxelles in milk bread, suckling pig brioche, crispy pork jowl. It arrived in a wooden box with a carved piggy head on the lid which opened to reveal a glass liner over a photograph of an Autumnal wood scene. Cute, but over-thought.
I thought about form and function. Everything at Eneko was deliberately calibrated and considered. A few days later I met Kostas Sfaltos, the manager of the One Aldwych, who had overseen the search for a new restaurant for the space previously occupied by Axis, which served modern British-Mediterranean fare for almost twenty years and had grown a bit tired. Kostas told me that he had wanted to bring something new and interesting to London and had found, in Eneko Atxa, a cutting edge chef who was excited to play with a less formal approach to his cuisine in a new location.
‘We started talking a year ago about dishes,’ Kostas explained, as he ordered me the cod tripe stew to try. ‘It was a process of balancing my knowledge of with what London would like and accept while protecting and not insulting Eneko’s passion and creativity.’ From the start he had wanted to create a restaurant with an ambience that was more fun and informal than Eneko’s mothership in Spain.
He admitted that translating Basque food to a London menu had been a challenge.
‘Yes we fought over a couple of things. I told Eneko, we need to have side dishes. But in Spain there are no side dishes!’
Since the opening I have noticed the menu has changed quite a bit. There are still a couple of dishes in the thick hearty Basque tradition. A fish soup of hake, mussels and clams and the cod tripe stew. Elsewhere Basque ingredients like guernika peppers, corn talo (a kind of maize flat bread-taco) and txistorro, a spicy red sausage, appear to enliven standard restaurant dishes. There is a now brunch menu too.
A lot of this is just marketing semantics disguising what is a serious attempt to introduce the terroir and savour of Basque food in a refined and modern interpretation. But then again, it’s perhaps inevitable that something is lost in translation. Food, and our experience of it, is more about place and environmental cues than we might think.
At the end of our conversation Costas asked the waiter to pour us two small glasses of a sweet Basque wine. He wanted me to try it because, he said, it was not sticky sweet like French dessert wine. He was right, it tasted like apricots and honey and was delicious.
‘Maybe it’s a taste which depends on its habitat, like drinking retsina on a hot beach in Greece with a bowl of olives,’ I said, ‘perfect and refreshing, but it doesn’t work under grey London skies.’ Kostas smiled, ‘I was doing that last week on holiday! But you’re right, the trouble is the retsina never tastes the same when you bring it home to London.’