Basque in all its glory: the best restaurants in the region
Basque – as distinct from Spanish – cuisine is taken incredibly seriously in the region, which is an autonomous community in north-east Spain with its own government and language. Restaurants in San Sebastián have 16 Michelin stars between them in a population of under 200,000.
Basque food is wide-ranging, based on fish and seafood from the Cantabrian sea, plus fresh and cured meats, fruits, vegetables and legumes from the fertile Ebro valley behind. So important is gastronomy to the area that in 2009 the state-of-the-art Basque Culinary Center (BCC) was set up by a group of prominent chefs as a training and research project to run degrees and master’s programmes (the design of the ultra-modern building’s five storeys is based on a stack of plates!).
The Centre’s International Advisory Committee is chaired by Ferran Adria (El Bulli); members include Heston Blumenthal and Rene Redzepi (Noma) and they meet annually to assess the progress of the profession. On the day I visited, I spotted another group being shown around, some of whom it turns out I know: a band of teachers from Westminster Kingsway College (which my son attended) and they were, in equal measure, deeply impressed with and insanely jealous of the Center.
In September 2016 San Sebastián hosted the first Basque Culinary World Prize presentation, to be held annually to celebrate a chef (of any nationality) who demonstrates best how gastronomy can be a powerful force for change and whose impact can be felt beyond the kitchen. Out of 20 finalists the prize was awarded to Maria Fernanda Di Giacobbe, a truly amazing and inspiring Venezuelan woman who has built a massive chain of education, entrepreneurship and economic development around Venezuelan cacao.
The €100,000 award was given by the BCC, with support from the Basque government. Basque cooking is now beginning to spread globally. In the UK, the trend for Basque food being recognised as a regional speciality (as opposed to being just Spanish) began in the UK around 2010 and this year saw a batch of high-profile openings including Eneko, Sagardi and pop-ups by the Donostia Social Club (listed below).
Well-known UK-based Spanish chefs such as José Pizarro and Bilbao-born Nieves Barragán Mohacho of award-winning Barrafina constantly champion Basque produce and feature dishes from the region on their menus.
For the pure Basque experience in London, these places are worth a visit:
Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas – bite-sized snacks served on sticks and eaten with drinks. Pix have branches in Soho, Covent Garden, Notting Hill and Carnaby Street.
High-end Marylebone Basque restaurant serving top quality food. For a more modest bill, drop in to sit at the bar and enjoy a few small plates. Donostia is the Basque name for San Sebastián.
From the team behind Donostia, the emphasis is on wood- and charcoal-fired grills, notably beef from matured dairy cows, which has a sweet and deep flavour.
Ametsa with Arzak instruction
An offshoot of the legendary Arzak in San Sebastian, this ambitious one-star Michelin restaurant is located in Belgravia’s Halkin Hotel.
Eneko at One Aldwych
The London outpost of Eneko Atxa, whose restaurant Azurmendi on the outskirts of Bilbao holds three Michelin stars and is ranked 16th in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, opened at One Aldwych in late summer.
The first UK branch of this casual dining brand, with others across Spain and Latin American, is the brainchild of Basque chef Iñaki López de Viñaspre, who sources most of his produce from the Basque Country.
Specialising in northern Spanish cooking, the menu here is inspired by the flavours of both the Basque Country and Catalonia.
Donostia Social Club
With a pintxos-punting food truck and permanent residency at Pop Brixton, this Basque-inspired operation will run a winter pop-up at King & Co in Clapham.
…and in Leeds
This Basque kitchen and bar was runner-up in the Best Restaurant category in the Observer Food Monthly awards last year.