To say that expectations were high as I entered Eneko for lunch this week, would be an understatement.
The new restaurant at One Aldwych hotel is an offshoot of Azurmendi Bilbao – renowned chef Eneko Atxa’s three Michelin-starred restaurant (in the gastronomic haven that is the Basque Country), voted no.16 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
And the premise, beguilingly simple: an unpretentious, modern take on traditional Basque fare, to be enjoyed in relaxed surroundings…
I’d arrived on a slightly flustered note (it had just been one of those mornings)… but walking through the imposing Edwardian-style entrance (located off the Strand), I couldn’t help but instantly slip into a state of ease as I started descending the copper-clad staircase, past the mid-level wine bar and into the cavernous dining area.
Even though the restaurant is below ground-level, it’s a light, bright and airy space, meticulously designed to reflect as much daylight as is possible in our fickle-weathered city (through skylights and clever sloped-walls at the far end).
The interiors echo an essence of the Basque region too, with traditional materials such as wood, stone and copper, featured throughout. There’s a subtle sense of heritage here, with even the hand-made tables imported from Bilbao – these are the works of a generations-old family-run company, Mosel (which also designs the furniture for Azurmendi).
But a contemporary touch isn’t amiss, with deep crimson leather banquettes and larger-than life floral arrangements (which One Aldwych is particularly famous for), adding a stylish edge.
My friend and I had originally planned for lunch to be a quick catch-up, with both of us efficiently back at our work/ errands right after… But we lost track of time as soon as we sat down, basking in the sunshine that beamed down on us from the skylight positioned directly above!
To start, we helped ourselves to the hearty selection of breads making their rounds – choosing from mixed seeds, sourdough and pumpkin seed-coated wholegrain (we ultimately tried each of them), and liberally slathering a ridiculously creamy, herbed-butter on top.
Sometimes, the best things in life are just as simple as this particularly heavenly combination of bread and butter. Truth be told, it took an immense amount of willpower to stop myself from making a meal out of it, instead saving room for what was to come…
First up, was a beetroot tartare, studded with little molecules of olive oil, an emulsion of basil, sourdough crisps and a dollop of vegetable barbecue sauce on the side, which imparted a distinctive tang to offset the subtle sweetness of the beetroot… It was a dish that sang a harmony of complex but artfully-balanced flavours once mixed together.
The traditional talos were also rather enjoyable – crisp and crunchy corn talos (a Basque take on tortilla chips) glistening with fresh herbs, heritage tomatoes and edible flowers…
As for mains, my Pisto Bilbaina was essentially a warm hug in a bowl – another hallmark of chef Atxa’s cooking style, as I’ve read that he was brought up with the kitchen at the heart of his home and so strives to evoke the same homely experience for his guests.
The dish involved an earthy combination of soft courgettes, green peppers and tomatoes with a perfectly-poached egg on top, that I was encouraged to mix in with the veggies until all that yolky-goodness had completely soaked through. Each bite, scooped out onto the sourdough crisp served alongside, epitomised pure comfort!
I’m not all that well-versed with Basque cuisine (something I’d really like to rectify) but I learned that the sourdough crisp actually represented a modern twist to the classic Basque recipe, as it’s also made with egg yolk (which the traditional recipes typically eschew).
As this cuisine is also particularly known for grilled fish (usually cooked over hot coals), Anika opted for the grilled salmon, which arrived colourfully layered with charred vegetables and chive emulsion.
It was pleasant enough, but not the most exciting of dishes to be honest. In hindsight, we might have played it a bit safe seeing as the menu clearly has a few show-stoppers in it’s hat…
… As does the dessert trolley, wheeled to our table for our perusal for afters.
Oh to have tried it all, from the rice pudding lollipops to bigger-than-my-fist raspberry macarons laced with basil ganache!
We finally settled on a traditional Basque vanilla pudding. Glazed with a delicate layer of burnt sugar, the spongy yet irresistibly dewy dessert was the sort that leaves you with a nostalgic longing you can’t quite pin down…
The pud was nicely balanced with a side of dark chocolate, which encompassed everything you’d want of such a pastry – it’s scrumptiously crumbly biscuit base, working remarkably well with the rich and bittersweet textures of the dark chocolate!
Both desserts were served with liberal helpings of vanilla ice cream made with sheep’s milk (as is the custom in Bilbao). Silky-smooth and radiantly creamy, it had a certain je-ne-sais-quoi about it… but let’s just say that my love for ice cream (which by now, I’m sure you’re overly familiar with) scaled new heights on this fine afternoon.
It was quite late, almost early evening, by the time the last spoonful had been scraped off the plate.
Fully imagining myself on holiday by this point, I couldn’t quite resist a little aperitivo on my way way out… and the restaurant’s signature Etxano 75 was all-too-drinkable!
The twist on the French 75 involved a refreshingly sharp mix of Gin Mare and herbs (rosemary, thyme and basil), a sweet touch dark sugar syrup, a hint of lemon, topped off with some cava for good measure.
It was a fabulous note on which to round off our luxuriously lazy escape from just another weekday afternoon.
Eneko at One Aldwych, London WC2B 4BZ
The restaurant is running a soft launch during August, with 50% of food for the entire month.