I’m from the South of France, not far from le Pays Basque. Country rather than region, yes. Maybe because it covers both a part of France and Spain. Or because it has a warmer sense of colour, a passion for life, a wonderful generosity, sunshine in every dish. You can imagine how exciting it was to hear Chef Eneko Atxa had opened a restaurant in London, in One Aldwych on less. This culinary superstar is on every foodie’s list: his Bilbao establishment Azurmendi has been rewarded with 3 Michelin stars four years in a row… Talk about an introduction in style!
It took 2 years and half to complete the project and transform part of One Aldwych (where the Axis restaurant used to be) into a masterpiece. The decor was designed by Casson Mann, known for their work on museums and exhibitions: the British galleries at the V&A, the Churchill War Rooms, the Caves at Lascaux and the newly opened Cité du Vin in Bordeaux. The outside structure might be the one of an Edwardian building but oh, quite a journey awaits! A copper staircase first takes you to a floating bar space, beautifully dimmed. Time to relax, maybe indulge in some sliced Iberica ham, beautifully aligned anchovies, decadent skewers of Gordal olives and pepper… I had forgotten quite an explosion of flavours the Basque bring in their cuisine. Even the simplest ingredient should be powerful.
Ready? Let’s go down one level more, to where the magic really happens. The room suddenly opens up. It reminds me of the palette of a painter, touches of colours and shapes, already a composition of sorts. It is, in fact, a real ode to the Basque country. Look at the leather banquettes in slightly different shades of red, for example… The architect took a piment d’Espelette (a specific kind of chilli often found in the region drying in garlands) back home and was fascinated by how it changed along the days. The wood grain of the tables is admirable, call for a caress. So does the very theatrical, hand chiselled wall, which effect is mirrored on the glasses. There are steel pillars too, an iconic link between the original building (which in 1907 was home to the Morning Post newspaper) and the industrial past of Spain. All in all, it’s sculptural yet perfectly balanced, each table creating a little universe of its own. Don’t forget to have a look at the open kitchen to get a piece of the action and at the dessert trolley…
Welcome to Eneko Atxa’s world… and table. An innovative take on the Basque cuisine. Take his Memories of the Bay of Biscay, for example: a delicate trio of sea food served beautifully over dry ice and seaweed, bringing a gentle marine scent (the trick is pouring salted water). A dish and an immersive experience all at once! Tender spider crab served in its shell, a superb oyster (one of my many weaknesses) and in the porcelain urchin, a wild prawn tartare – a nice bite to it – topped with a spoonful of caviar. I swear if you close your eyes, you can picture yourself having dinner on a beach on a warm summer day.
Another signature is the Txerri Boda Pork Festival – all summed up in the box cover, really! The chorizo on milk bread, the glazed sweetbread and suckling pig tempura simply melt in the mouth… Vegetarians are well catered for too: the tradition corn talo, topped with the smoothest tomato mousseline, dots of avocado cream and incredibly fragrant heritage tomatoes. Add a few herbs and edible flowers: you barely need to eat it, really, looking at it is satisfying enough!
But if you choose only one dish in the menu – make it the duck. Very few restaurants cook it to perfection. The meat must be pink, the skin slightly crunchy but still have a layer of fat. This was pure perfection: pan roast, juicy, tender, a conversation stopper. Stunning jus, pickled onion on top, adding a sharp contrast. No need for any seasoning, nor sauce, although the jus on the side is superb. Well done, Eneko… On the side is a King Oyster mushroom julienne woven into a quenelle shape. Amazing how much flavour you get from each thread.
Fish lovers will definitely fall for the hake and confit vegetable, wrapped in a thin tempura with accents of parsley emulsion on top and red pepper sauce below. Add a side of Piperrak but be warned, these grilled Gernika peppers, sprinkled with salt flakes, are incredibly addictive. You will go through two plates without even noticing.
My favourite time always is dessert. To that day, I still select the sweet part first then match the rest of the meal to it.
Although, that duck… That duck erases everything else in my mind.
Yet the dessert trolley had an amazing selection – jewel-looking, haute-pâtisserie worthy cakes. It was a tough, excruciating call. To the question “What would you like?”, I really wanted to say everything… And yet, Instagram worthy usually helps in that case. I did not choose the obvious star of the show, the Torrija stole my heart instead. The menu describes it as a Basque vanilla sponge cake and while this is correct, it does not tell you it tastes exactly like a pasteis de nata. And that it will ooze a sumptuous custard cream (there’s vanilla but also a touch of nutmeg) when you cut it. That it is a more like a brioche pain perdu in texture than a simply sponge cake. It comes, like all desserts on the menu) with a scoop of homemade sheep milk ice-cream, smooth, snowflake smooth and just the right level of natural sweetness. You will want to take some back home. Preferably a giant tub. I’m petitioning for them to do that…
The cherry on the cake? The price. Lunch and theatre meals at Eneko are £25 for two courses, £28 for three courses, and include a side dish (again, I urge you: Piperrak!). Michelin quality at that price – incredible.