Spanish food

Meet the Chef Bringing the Basque Country to a London Basement

Michelin-starred Spanish chef Eneko Atxa recently opened his first London restaurant on the lower ground floor of a Covent Garden hotel. “It’s like a party where everyone in London is welcome,” he says.

by Angela Hui
30 November 2016, 11:18am

Before my visit to One Aldwych Hotel in London's bustling Covent Garden, I'm told to enter via the side entrance. This door leads directly to the hotel's 105 boutique rooms, a health spa, and two restaurants—one of which is the reason I'm here: Eneko.

Secret entrance located, I'm led past the hotel's grand lobby through a series of corridors and into a checkered pink lift that takes me down to the hotel's basement, which houses the Basque restaurant.

basque-country-chef4

Eneko, a Basque restaurant in London's Covent Garden. All photos by Selina Tan.

Eneko's owner (and namesake), Eneko Atxa is waiting for me with his back turned, facing the kitchen. Fittingly, given that we are kinda in an underground lair, he slowly turns to face me and says: "Ah! I've been expecting you."

READ MORE: Why This Basque Butcher Loves Fat Old Cows

Atxa isn't actually a Bond villain, but a world-renowned chef whose three Michelin-starred Azurmendi restaurant in Bilbao, Spain was recently voted the 16th best in the world. The Spanish supercook has also spent time in the kitchens of iconic Basque eateries including Baserri Maitea and Mugaritz.

basque-country-chef1

Reimagined Basque dishes on the Eneko menu.

But for his new London restaurant, Atxa wanted to create a more relaxed version of Basque dining.

"Eneko is still very much inspired by Basque cuisine," he tells me. "One of the main differences between the two restaurants is that I'm trying to bring the food closer to people, with a more laid-back and friendly approach."

Suddenly, Atxa stops to ask: "Will you be staying for lunch?"

basque-country-chef3

Before I can reply, he turns and shouts something in Basque to head chef Edurne Martin.

"Would 12 o'clock be OK? Please, I insist stay for food," Atxa says. "And I'm sorry for cutting you off, where were we?"

And that's what Atxa was born to do. Not interrupt people mid-sentence, but give guests the kind of hospitable welcome you'd receive around any Basque dinner table.

"I'm trying to make Eneko more like a Basque home. It's like a party where everyone in London is welcome," he explains.

This ethos permeates the food at Eneko, too. Atxa ushers me into kitchen to demonstrate how he makes talo, a classic Spanish dish that has already become one of the restaurant's signatures.

basque-country-chef8

Chef Eneko Atxa constructs his talo dish, a corn tortilla with vegetables.

"Talo is the oldest street food in the Basque country and draws similarities to a traditional corn tortilla," Atxa explains. "Instead of the usual chorizo topping, we use a lot of vegetables to give it that freshness."

Atxa's years working at Azurmendi have also inspired him to reimagine Basque food traditions.

"Our txerriboda pork starter comes from a very traditional event where local Basque homes celebrate when a pig is ready to eat and have a big feasting party with neighbours," he says. "This special event is called txerriboda and it's literally translated as a 'pig wedding.'"

basque-country-chef7

Talo, a traditional Spanish dish that Atxa tops with vegetables in place of chorizo.

After seeing the talo take shape, Atxa takes me upstairs to see the restaurant's shining copper staircase, which leads to a floating mezzanine wine bar. His all-Spanish wine collection includes bottles from Atxa's winemaker uncle Gorka Izagirre.

WATCH: MUNCHIES Guide to the Basque Country

"We create a lot of homemade wine that has been brought over from Azurmendi's vineyards," Atxa says. His flagship restaurant in Bilbao produces 600,000 litres of Txakoli wine every year.

Despite Eneko's glamorous surrounds and equally illustrious wine collection—not to mention the many Michelin stars to Atxa's name—the chef doesn't seem to pay any of it much mind.

basque-country-chef2

"Me and my team act as if we're without any statuses, and everyday we cook the best that we can," he tells me. "We are pushing every day and concentrate on how we can better ourselves."

If the talo and txerriboda are anything to go by, Eneko's doing a pretty good job.