In spite of Eneko’s Theatreland location, ‘Basque’ has nothing to do with showgirls. Instead, it refers to Michelin-starred chef Eneko Atxa’s gutsy modernised northern Spanish country cuisine; served in a refined dining room which, given the bright, semi-alfresco feel, you’d never guess is located in One Aldwych’s basement.
We sit on a round red banquette, sup Basque white wine, and attempt to bat back the enticing offer of a second round of whipped basil butter by shamefacedly informing our waitress that we’ve already both piled on a stone of ‘happy fat’ in under a year. But the twinkle in her eye tells us she’s not having it and we’re rapidly cajoled (as if we ever really needed encouragement) into accepting.
That devilishly, deceptively light butter is slathered onto the bread we’re stocking up on because we’re concerned that ‘modern Basque’ means ‘nouvelle portions’. But we needn’t have worried. Chef Eneko Atxa is a master of illusion; conjuring up diminutive, delicate-looking dishes whose proportions belie their richness.
Or maybe that’s just our menu choices. Healthful options are in evidence – a beautiful beetroot tartare, cauliflower textures, grilled wild salmon – but we have our increasingly-burdened hearts set on the meatiest, most indulgent items.
But actually, given the Basque fondness for pork, we shouldn’t feel the slightest bit guilty about our decision to literally ‘go the whole hog’; following suckling pig tempura with braised pig cheeks. Because one species isn’t enough, we round things out with duck liver parfait and slow-cooked oxtail.
The parfait is delivered to the table in an apple-shaped vessel, as if Eneko’s fabulous head waiter Sebastian were a pupil trying to impress a teacher. And impressed we are by this multilayered starter with its layers of salty duck crisps, silken parfait and Txakoli wine-soaked apple compote. Pork tempura is shockingly greaseless: battered sausage gone gourmet.
Main courses are wicked in both the sense of ‘naughty’ and ‘amazing’. Lacquered pork cheeks sit atop earthy mushroom duxelle; a pile of sticky shredded oxtail is sweet, savoury, and dangerously delicious. We eat a few forkfuls of broccoli in romesco sauce and feel positively virtuous.
Aesthetic and gastronomic standards are upheld with desserts; particularly a salted caramel mousse with sheep’s milk ice-cream that helps us merrily sugar-rush up the stairs to street level.
Allow me to milk that Theatreland angle: I’d give Eneko a standing ovation any night of the week.
One Aldwych, London WC2B 4BZ, eneko.london
By Zoe Perrett