“To eat is to party,” chef Eneko Atxa tells us at the top of his menu, “it’s a little celebration every day.”
It’s an encouraging mantra from the Basque chef, whose eponymous restaurant, tucked below the lobby of the boutique hotel at One Aldwych, hasn’t long opened in London.
Eneko himself is not in residence on our visit, more than likely overseeing his triple Michelin-starred Azurmendi, currently gracing the 16th spot in the world’s 50 Best Restaurants, but this London enclave misses nothing of his inventiveness and Basque bravura, helmed as it is at the hands of his protégé, the effervescent and ever-smiling Edurne Martin Delgado.
Carrying none of a chef’s typically caustic proclivities, I mistook Edurne’s diffidence for that of the politeness of waiting staff as she delivered many of the dishes herself, quite often catering for my toddler’s whims personally.
That our 3-year old is with us suggests we are here for something other than dinner, and we are. As Mrs L and I are rarely afforded our own ‘date nights’, we’ve taken to adopting other times of the day for such an occasion and weekend brunch seems to have become the fashionable new dining out.
Basque cuisine might not be known for its brunch options but a glance over the menu shows several considerations given to a late morning meal. The mandatory Bloody Mary, for one, is given a contemporary spin as a Golden Mary, made with golden tomato juice and delivered in a graceful champagne coupe with a celery foam. It’s a sophisticated twist that shapes the direction of things to come.
The menu is broken out into select groups of brunch and Basque traditional respectively; eggs (‘gallinero’) are there, as is a grill option, but more tapas-style ‘street food’ and Tsoko (‘classics’) are there to satisfy the curious.
Of which we most certainly are; anything marked ‘traditional’ on a regional restaurant’s menu I’m a sucker for, and we kick off with the most fantastic crispy corn talo (like a taco, but not a typo) with heritage tomatoes, fresh herbs, basil infusion and decorated with nasturtiums. It looks like an exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show and tastes like a slice of northern Spain on a crisp, dew-flecked spring morning.
Alongside, we contrast that – it doesn’t really compliment it – with spiced Basque sausage braised in cider. Delivered in an enamel pot on a wooden plinth, it’s accompanied with soft charred talos and feels like we’re experiencing something that’s powered rustic farming folk for centuries. As I butter my bread with an oversized wooden palette knife (I assume that’s what it’s for), something inside me is yearning for a walk in the foothills of the Pyrennees.
In my book, if you have brunch, you must have eggs and Eneko gives us two to choose from; the safe scrambled eggs with jamon and sourdough toast, or fried with wild asparagus, onion and piquillo peppers served on a flour crisp. No contest, really. It’s a little like a take on eggs Florentine, but with far more nuances, textures and delights; sweetness from the onion, a piquancy in there I couldn’t quite discern, and you can’t beat eggs and asparagus.
But it’s the panoply of a menu steeped in the region we’re poring over, with words leaping off the page, anything with an X or Z in the name; Txistorra, Arraultzak, promising exotic, Quixotic flavours that feel less like five star in Covent Garden than sitting under the stars in a garden somewhere outside Bilbao.…and it comes down to something that is a Basque secret, but one London is fast getting in on: meat.
Forget Angus, Argentinian, or even Wagyu, Basque beef is the way to go. As a recent visit to Sagardi will testify, it’s hung, dried, stored and cut in ways we’re not familiar with, but which doubtless we could ever replicate. And why would we even try when we can dine at such places and experience the finest steak we’ve ever had. It could be the cut of the prime rib, or the husbandry given the cow, or even the crisp, tangy spring onion salad that perfectly complimented it, but here was a piece of beef I couldn’t compare anywhere. It was all I could do to stop myself gnawing on the bone afterward.
As if that weren’t enough, a palette-cleansing pineapple four ways and devilishly sweet salted caramel with sheep’s milk ice cream, dismissed by my daughter in favour of white chocolate bon-bons, more than made this meal memorable.
It may be the meal of lost opportunity, snuck in somewhere when a breakfast is lost and a lunch dashed on a voracious hunger, but brunch should be cause for celebration, for taking one’s time, for marking the beginning of the weekend, for watching one’s daughter hog the bread basket and the straw fries, because you know you’ll rarely get that opportunity in the week.
We may not have needed an occasion but Eneko was right, to eat is an opportunity for a little celebration.
If you did want something to celebrate, Eneko are offering a special Mothers’ Day brunch this weekend, with a complimentary glass of Cava and complimentary dessert (the pineapple is exceptional, by the way) for all dining mums.
Eneko at One Aldwych. For more information, visit www.eneko.london.