‘SAGARDI’, booms the website for the Basque group’s first London restaurant. ‘Eating at SAGARDI.’
‘SAGARDI’, like a newspaper headline, like your dad’s text messages for the first six months after he got that smartphone, ‘SAGARDI’, like something you should know about urgently.
In person it’d be eye-catching even without the capslock, one side of the restaurant’s entrance taken up with enormous, wine-dark slabs of beef hanging from butcher’s hooks. And maybe they’ve earned the right to bellow about their meat, if you take Grupo Sagardi’s restaurants – this is the 30th, with footholds in Latin America, mainland Europe and now EC2A – as proof of concept.
We meet the day after the US election fallout, so I’ve already told Toby there’s going to be a definite feel of Doomsday cult to the evening. Low conversation, drinking to repress and eating in the expectation of nuclear winter. Just your average casual End of Days night out. He’s prepped. I’m prepped.
But nobody prepped the staff at Sagardi, where the waiters are radiantly sunny and have accents that make the menu sound like a sonnet and a deep emotional investment in your finding a Pacharan cocktail you love as much as they do. Waylaid at the door and hypnotised by the butcher’s hooks – you can choose your own cut, to be cleavered off by the chef and taken off to the open kitchen – we start in the bar at the front of the restaurant, with their pintxos. Cold, to choose yourself from the bar, and hot, to be talked into by the bartender when you think you’ve already reached any reasonable person’s pre-dinner barsnack limit – if it weren’t for already having an attachment to that side of beef we chose, there’d be a danger of spending the whole evening in a metre-radius of the front door and the pintxos bar.
But there are smells of the wood-fired grill and aged ox steak curling out from the open kitchen, along with the promise of hard-as-nails Basque cider. We get drawn to the back of the restaurant, with its low lamps and large, farmhouse tables, where the cider turns up, and the dinner really starts.
It’s difficult to give each dish the detail, sometimes reverence, it deserves – the tapas-style succession of sharing plates hit the heavy wooden tables hot on each others heels and almost invariably brilliant. There are stars, though, even from a menu full of hits jostling for best place. Those include small, carefully-built pintxos, one of hot pork belly, one of cold sardine spiked onto a piece of crusty bread, and two of the bigger, seasonal dishes: Tolosa black bean stew and Txuleton steak.
Provenance is everything at Sagardi, and every dish has a narrative behind it for the asking – no lectures inflicted on the unwilling. That black bean stew? The beans are grown on the banks of the Oria river, running through Basque country and inspiring their own Week of the Bean festival every November in Tolosa. It’s ladled into bowls at the table, served with tiny, fried sausages, black pudding or pickled jalapenos to stir in. The lettuce for the salad is brought in from Basque country. Difficult but important, manager Marc Collell tells us, earnestly.
No substitutes. The steak is as mind-blowingly great as you’d expect from a restaurant group that – no matter how great their sardines or beautiful their salt cod – are always going to be most famous in the UK for championing Galician beef on our shores, cuts of meat from aged dairy cow and ox. The brilliance of the desserts are less expected, though, Toby’s choice coming with a warning from Collell that it has a very ‘particular flavour’.
No word of a lie. It’s a jug of milk curd served with a small dish of honey to pour over it. The curd’s heated in a wooden pot with a hot poker or stone to take out the impurities, a burned, charcoal taste lingering in the freshness. It tastes like the smell of wet grass the morning after Bonfire Night, says Toby, extravagantly and entirely truthfully.
It feels a little less like the End of Days than it did two hours ago. Though if it were there’d be worse ways to spend it than with a bottle of fiery alcohol and a kilo of Txuleton steak.
SAGARDI. Justifying the capslock. You should know about it urgently.
SAGARDI London, with its sister restaurants, will be launching the Tolosaldea menu, running from 14th November till 11th December, 2016. The menu is £90 per person, including Txuleton steak and products unique to the Basque region.
SAGARDI London, 95, Curtain Road, EC2A 3BS. 0203 8200478. Website.