Award-winning chef Eneko Atxa is about to launch his first London outpost in One Aldwych. Neil Gerrard discovers how he and hotel general manager Kostas Sfaltos both feel like he's a perfect fit
A word not often used to describe three-Michelin-starred chefs is ‘humility'. So when Kostas Sfaltos, general manager of the luxury One Aldwych in London, claims that Eneko Atxa, the new Basque incumbent in what used to be the hotel's Axis restaurant, is "the most humble three-Michelin-starred chef I have worked with", it's tempting to treat his statement with a pinch of salt.
But meet Atxa in person and it quickly transpires that he is exactly that. He is surprisingly approachable for a man whose restaurant, Azurmendi, in the town of Larrabetzu just outside Bilbao, was promoted to three Michelin stars in 2013 and ranks 16th in the World's 50 Best for 2016. He is innately hospitable, rarely missing a chance to feed his guests. Ask him a question and he listens intently before answering with enthusiasm, whether in his machine-gun-quick mother tongue or slightly more faltering (and still very passable) English. On the day that The Caterer turns up to photograph him in Eneko at One Aldwych, his new London outpost, he is apologetic, having to pop out for a few minutes to deal with an urgent matter, pressing his hands together almost as if in prayer as he explains his short absence.
Eneko Atxa, Edurne Martín Delgado and Kostas Sfaltos
This humility is a useful trait, considering that Sfaltos and the team wanted to install a renowned chef in their subterranean restaurant space under the coppered cupola dome just off Covent Garden, but one without an ego so grand that they would refuse a more casual restaurant befitting the current London scene.
The new venue is not, as Atxa and Sfaltos are keen to point out, a recreation of Azurmendi, and nor is it a typical Basque restaurant. "I am inspired by Basque traditional cusine, but I don't want to put Basque traditional cuisine in London," says the chef. "I want to create something current, but with Basque heritage."
And "current" in London means relaxed and relatively unfussy. Not that Azurmendi itself is particularly formal, as anyone lucky enough to have eaten there will attest, but it is a high-end gastronomic experience with a price tag to match. You need a full wallet and a good few hours to eat there, as well as a willingness to place yourself in the hands of the chef and his team as the menus are set.
Memories of the Bay of Biscay
"I think it is important for Michelin-starred chefs to have more casual restaurants," says Atxa. "We have a three-Michelin-starred restaurant and a bistro [BistrÁ³ PrÁªt Á Porter, also in Larrabetzu] and a restaurant for events. For me, what is a great challenge is to go to a city like London, one of the most important cities in the world, and create a new experience but for a lot of people. We have to democratise high gastronomy in the big cities and this way we can create a fun restaurant where people enjoy the food, feel very informal and very relaxed - like they are at a big party."
The fun can be seen in dishes like the txerri boda (wild boar) 'pork festival' (£15), which arrives in a circular wooden box with a carved pig's head for a handle on the lid. A three-part creation, it features Ibérico ham and mushroom duxelle in milk bread, suckling pig brioche and pig trotter bocata (a Spanish-style baguette). The anchovy tempura, served with a tomato and ginger granite (£16), is served in a mock newspaper that announces Atxa's arrival to the capital in Spanish and reflects One Aldwych's history as the former headquarters of The Morning Post newspaper in the 1900s.
And among the range of desserts and ice-creams to be found on the restaurant's modern dessert trolley - made of chestnut by Spanish manufacturer Arkaia - are Atxa's playful signature rice pudding lollipops, coated in white and dark chocolate. They and other desserts are created by Italian pastry chef Alice Serafini, who has worked in the pastry kitchen at Azurmendi since 2014 before moving to London for Atxa's new venture.
Basque chicken parfait and Txakoli apple
There's a genuine enthusiasm on the part of Atxa for London itself, which is shared by his head chef Edurne MartÁn Delgado who, having been brought up around her family's own bar in the Basque country, has spent more than 10 years working for Atxa in Larrabetzu before being transferred to the English capital to run the kitchen.
"We want to show our knowledge, but we also want people to see that this is simple, happy food," explains Atxa. "We are finding a lot of suppliers. We want to translate some things from Spain, but we want to discover also special small suppliers around London - that is very interesting for us."
For his part, Sfaltos is very pleased to have found Atxa, and to have done so relatively quickly after he first began his search, around two and a half years ago, for an international chef to occupy the former Axis space. "I set out to find somebody who has never been in London before and to come with a culinary concept that doesn't really exist here," he says.
Edurne MartÁn Delgado
"At the same time, that somebody had to be a cultural fit with One Aldwych because we are a small independent and I didn't want to work with a big international chef - you don't really call the shots and you don't have an involvement in creating the restaurant. I came across Eneko on one of my trips and connected with him straight away. We have become friends."
It probably helps that the two men have a shared interest, not only in hospitality, but also in running, with the wiry chef known to jog through the mountains to work at Azurmendi in the morning, while Sfaltos rises early to run the streets of London before he begins his day.
Atxa has been in London throughout most of July and August and is expected to be there during the majority of September, with an arrangement that will see him return regularly beyond that, while MartÁn Delgado has day-to-day control of the kitchen.
Space and light
However, despite the ease with which the hotel's general manager and its latest chef signing have hit it off, the project hasn't been without its complications. There's no denying that the restaurant space, in the basement of the building designed by Anglo-French architects Mewes and Davis, is a difficult one.
While Atxa was happy enough to design a kitchen around the existing services of the hotel, Sfaltos had grander plans. Having sought and won permission from Westminster Council to allow the historic street-level entrance to the building (and now to the restaurant) to be brought back into use, the hotel gutted the old restaurant almost completely. The challenge was to create a modern restaurant space that accommodated a state-of- the-art kitchen and 110 covers while still allowing in as much natural light as possible.
Sfaltos was disappointed with the reactions of traditional restaurant design firms when confronted with the site. "I engaged with many restaurant designers and the first thing everyone told me was that this was a very difficult space. That negative mindset put me off," says Sfaltos. "People found it difficult to articulate because the restaurant has the shape of the building and part of my objective was to reveal that shape again and to celebrate it."
Eventually, the hotel enlisted the services of design company Casson Mann, a firm without experience of restaurant spaces, backed up by a project manager and contractor who did have knowledge of the challenges that working in the hospitality sector can throw up.
The result is surprisingly light and airy, considering that the main dining room sits not just below street level, but also beneath a mezzanine on which there is a 35-cover wine bar. A mezzanine existed during the Axis era, but the profile of the new floor has been reduced to allow more light in and to give more headroom on the floor below. The staircase, which runs between the entrance and the mezzanine, has been clad in copper, reflecting the light coming in through the windows above.
However, it is perhaps the steel columns, part of the original Edwardian construction, of which Sfaltos is most proud. Originally encased in concrete and concealed under panels, the hotel and its design team has uncovered them once more. They have been sandblasted to bring them back to their original condition and specially treated to ensure they last another 100 years.
These, along with the chestnut tables, chiselled pine walls, large banquettes and Basque artwork, lend the restaurant a clean, modern feel. The kitchen itself is semi-open, set back from the dining room and separated by the pass and a wine store, allowing diners to see the action without being right next to it. Inside the kitchen are bespoke Athanor stoves and plenty of space to accommodate the chefs, a number of whom were trained for three weeks in Bilbao before returning for a very soft opening in July, followed by a soft opening this month (August), and then an official opening at the start of September. In total, the brigade of chefs numbers around 25, with around another 25 staff working front of house.
The whole project has been expensive. Precisely how expensive, Sfaltos is not willing to discuss, which is perhaps not surprising given the private family owners of the hotel like to keep a very low profile. However, industry estimates put the costs in the region of £2m.
"It has been two and a half years for me," says Sfaltos. "It has been painful but the pleasure overtakes the pain. You can't delegate things. I was the one who said, 'I want to make something of this', so you have to own it. And that means I have added another full-time job on top of my full-time job. It is very exciting. With all the limitations that this space had, I think we have overcome them really well, and we have even celebrated some of the abnormalities of the columns rather than trying to hide them. I am so delighted with it and we have made the right choice with the designers."
For his part, Atxa, who has been allowed to concentrate more on the food and personnel, is hopeful that the enjoyment he and his team feel for their craft out in Spain can be transmitted to the English capital.
"We are having fun. I have a great time with my people at Azurmendi, so what we really want is to translate that fun to the restaurant in London."
Roasted Iberico presa, wheat in chickpea sauce, garlic cream
- Squid marmitako - ribbons of squid and courgette with broth £12
- Basque chicken liver parfait and Txakoli apple £10
- Beetroot tartare - pickled red onion, soufflé potato, sourdough toasts and vegetable barbecue sauce £10
- Cod bizkaina - delicate cod tripe stew in traditional bizkaina sauce with crispy deep-fried cod bites £18
- Hake - Basque-style hake in tempura, red pepper sauce and parsley emulsion £21
- Oxtail - Mungia-style oxtail and mushroom emulsion £20
- Pork - roasted Ibérico presa, wheat in chickpea sauce and garlic cream £24
- Mushroom al ajillo - king oyster mushroom quenelle, mushroom cream, garlic chips £16
Raspberry macaron with basil ganache
Eneko at One Aldwych features a list of around 40 wines and all, outside of the Champagnes, are Spanish. But four of those wines have a particularly close association with Atxa, coming from Bodega Gorka Izagirre. The owner, Gorka Izagirre, is Atxa's uncle who, having run a successful logistics business, started his own vineyard, as well as backing Atxa's Basque restaurant venture.
Gorka and his son Bertol are in charge of producing the four wines "from the house of Eneko", listed on the One Aldwych restaurant's menu. They cultivate two local grape varieties, Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Zerratia, which go into the local Txakoli wine (spelled ChacolÁ in Castilian Spanish).
Around 60% of the vineyards the family uses produce Hondarrabi Zerratia. The varietal gives rise to more complex wines, according to Bertol, but they are also more complicated to cultivate, producing very small bunches that fit into the palm of your hand.
The area, which sits just off the Atlantic ocean, sees around 1,200mm of rainfall in a year - as much as in the city of Manchester.
Writing for Jancis Robinson's website, Julia Harding MW describes the Izagirres' Txakoli as "mouthwatering, zesty, beautifully taut, super dry, super fresh and very long", and superior to other local examples she has tried.
Bizkaiko Txakolina, Basque Country, 2015
£9 (per 175ml glass)
G22 by Gorka Izagirre
Bizkaiko Txakolina, Basque Country, 2014
£12 (per 175ml glass)
42 by Eneko Atxa
Bizkaiko Txakolina, Basque Country, 2014
£14 (per 175ml glass)
Arima Late Harvest
Bizkaiko Txakolina, Basque Country, 2013
£9 (per 75ml glass)
Atxa's path to Azurmendi
Eneko Atxa has made a name for himself in relatively short order with his restaurant Azurmendi, outside Bilbao.
Rooted in the traditional Basque cooking he was brought up with, but demonstrating considerable skill, flair and inventiveness, Atxa's restaurant won its first Michelin star in 2006, followed by a second in 2010 and a third in 2012 when Atxa was still only 35.
Today, the fine-dining restaurant is a modern glass-fronted venue with views over the Basque countryside, at the top of a complex of buildings which also includes an events space in which weddings are held, as well as a more casual restaurant called PrÁªt Á Porter.
Atxa was born in 1977 and trained at the local Leioa School of Catering and Hospitality before moving on to work at some of Spain's best restaurants, including Martin Berasategui in Lasarte, Etxebarri in Atxondo and Mugaritz in Errenteria.
His own restaurant is an unusual experience in the sense that a meal takes the form of a journey through the venue, starting in a rooftop vegetable garden where the chef has created a seed bank, amassing samples of all sorts of varieties of local plants, before going through the rest of the building. This includes the kitchen itself and also an indoor "greenhouse" for a series of snacks. The diner then sits at the table to be treated to a series of innovative and playful dishes, such as a truffled egg, which is cooked "inside out" with part of the yolk removed and replaced with a truffle consommé by way of a syringe - a delicate and complicated operation.