How does one get a Michelin star? I confess that I only had a vague idea. Culinary’s highest accolade is handed out by the French tyre company in its annual Red Guide, which was first complied in 1900, not for the sake of gastronomy but as a means to sell tyres. The aim of the Guide Rouge was to get French drivers in their cars driving between towns. The sound theory being that they would ultimately need to buy new tyres.
Today, it’s the world’s last word in dining. Michelin, whilst operating on the infamous French culinary code of silence, highlights only extraordinary restaurants. It’s criteria for selection is possibly the world’s best kept secret. Inspectors turn up anonymously as regular diners, eat, pay and leave. It appears that consistency is key as establishments could lose a star as much as earn one. What we do know is that stars are awarded entirely on the quality of food; decor, atmosphere nor service at the establishment are considered.
One, two and three stars
One star is awarded to places worth visiting if you’re already in the area. It is believed that they are inspected every two years. Two star restaurants are deemed worthy of drifting away from your planned route. They have been rated on the quality and uniqueness of ingredients thus offering diners an experience they couldn’t have elsewhere. Two star restaurants are thought to be inspected monthly. Three stars are awarded to restaurants worthy of going out of your way for. This is an elite, prestigious rating requiring the approval of several inspectors. Chefs must display exquisite mastery of their craft and be paving the way for new food trends and unique experiences to be considered for the elusive third star.
Chef Eneko Atxa
Chef Eneko Atxa belongs to the elite group of chefs who’ve been deemed worthy of the third star by Michelin. Walk in to Eneko Basque Kitchen & Bar within the sublime One Aldwych Hotel, Covent Garden and it’s unlikely that anyone would disagree.
It’s inspired by the rustic Basque region and the dignity of fine dining. The two things have been woven into a sphere of informal sophistication that you never wish to leave. To understand the food and the space is to understand the man. Chef Eneko Axta’s Azurmendi restaurant, which earned the three stars, has been named the world’s most sustainable restaurant by World’s 50 Best Restaurants. So you already know what’s to be expected in London; seasonal food, responsibly sourced fish, fairly treated staff, little food waste and well fed patrons.
I glided down the unfathomably beautiful brass staircase, from the ground floor bar, to an atrium of rustic finesse. It’s warm, welcoming and unimposing. Later in the evening I was informed that Chef Eneko jogs in the woods in his native Basque country. That was was my penny-drop moment. Eneko Basque Kitchen & Bar feels as intimate and comforting as woods in autumn where tables and chairs have been tenderly laid out to make us fall in love. Cushioned red seating surrounds hand-carved cherrywood tables and artisan wood panels on the walls have been hand-hammered. From the corner of my eye I noticed flecks of brass flicker in the light in the same way sun rays seep between trees in the woods. It’s little wonder then that the restaurant was awarded Best Restaurant or Bar Design 2017 at the Restaurant and Bar Design Awards.
The all-Spanish wine list includes four wines produced in Bilbao especially for the restaurant; a theme which runs through the menu. I had the light and elegant Baigorri Crianza Rioja Alavesa. It was my initiation into Basque wine and I doubt I’ll look back.
As with all reviews I redeemed myself from the task of choosing dishes. This time especially so as I had prior notice that Chef Eneko was in London for a few hours and would be in the kitchen during my visit. One sumptuous plate after another drifted from the kitchen towards my table.
La Tabla del Charcutero arrived first with home-made pickles, crystal bread and three cured meats; coppa, chorizo and salchichón. The animals are especially bred for the restaurant which made this an absolute delight. Each slice melted in the mouth. The accompanying crystal bread was so utterly divine I unashamedly asked for more. This was followed by a visually stunning traditional Talo; a signature dish of the Basque region. It’s a vegetarian dish of crispy corn Talo topped with heritage tomatoes, edible flowers and what I day-dreamed was foraged cress with basil emulsion. The dish is for sharing and celebrated in its home on Saint Thomas’ Day on 21st December. It was all that it promised to be; fresh, crispy and delightfully sweet. This was a celebration in itself and undoubtedly sanctified indeed.
A rack of lamb and a side of stir-fried courgette with pine nuts and chive oil arrived next. This was the only compromise that had been made on the menu for British tastes; there are no-side dishes in Spanish cuisine. It’s always a joy when a dish turns out exactly as it’s meant to. The rack of lamb was just that; an unpretentious, thrilling dish which delivered satisfaction of primeval proportions. It’s a thing that can only happen in the hands of one who honours the abundance of the earth instead of wasting it.
My final temptation was the victorious combination of tangy raspberry tartlet with cascading dark chocolate. Given that I’m a zealous fan of the latter it was an exercise in good judgement from the kitchen. As I write this I’m tempted to use the words, decadent or indulgent to describe the dessert. However, in hindsight, I remember that none of it was. At no point of this sumptuous celebration of food, served in the middle of the largest city in Europe, did any of it feel indulgent or flamboyant. Everything I saw, smelt, touched and tasted seemed that it had been cooked with purpose. Eneko Basque Kitchen & Bar is one pleasure on our doorstep that I humbly recommend we all enjoy. What an utterly remarkable feat to achieve.
Eneko Basque Kitchen & Bar is located at: London WC2B 4BZ. For more information visit: www.eneko.london