Marrying flavours across cuisines has been in practice for centuries. Well, Spaghetti Bolognaise is quite a fusion statement! If you don’t already know it was a combination of Chinese and Italian dating from Marco Polo’s days. It’s only a natural progression in our evolution as people move around and settle in different parts of the world and food is the central sharing element across cultures.
What most of us are familiar with, Modern Fusion, started to be popular in the 1980s which began from Chefs Roy Yamaguchi and Wolfgang Puck. Then it stepped into an era of bad press (coined ‘Con-Fusion’) when many chefs just threw different flavours together and what resulted was inedible fashionable food that no good chef wanted to be associated with. Then, it became taboo for their cuisine to be termed ‘Fusion’.
I absolutely agreed with that era, and often after trying these foods, I just wished that those chefs were more educated on the foreign flavours they employed and learnt what to do with them responsibly. It was just simply bad press for each of the individual cuisines represented.
Everything good will always have setbacks, and now I must say Fusion is usually really good. Well, you still have to pick your chefs responsibly. It’s all about the balance in flavours and texture, as well as appetising to the eye.
The menu at Eneko at One Aldwych (One Alydwich is a luxury 5 Star hotel in London’s lively Covent Garden) offers a mostly modern take on Basque cuisine infused with flavours from other cuisines.
Chef Eneko Atxa’s reputation precedes him, as his Basque restaurant Azurmendi has earned 3 Michelin Stars since 2012 and still is among the top 50 best restaurants in the world. Although he doesn’t cook at One Aldwych, his ideas and techniques are why one would want to try this restaurant.
So whenever a non-Japanese restaurant offer tempura choices, I’m tempted to try them as that will test the skill and technique of the kitchen chefs. It’s easy to confuse good tempura and average tempura what with multiple food outlets (outside of Japan), both Japanese and otherwise, serve this on their menu as it’s very popular specially in the Western world. Average tempura is what you find on the streets of Japan, and you go out of your way for the good ones. Just so you understand what I mean!
Hence we opted for the tempura appetisers: Egg Yolk Tempura and Avocado Tempura. Unknown to many, Tempura originated from Portugal, imported into Japan in the 16th century, then evolved in the 18th century to the tempura we know today when Japanese chefs experimented and revolutionized this into a dish that became iconic as Japanese. Thus the reason why I opened this review with a brief history of fusion.
I was first to try the Egg Yolk Tempura. It was served on a bed of mash and a side of Piperade (traditional Basque Pepper dish) but this wasn’t why we were all excited about. The big question was – would the yolk runny or cooked?
It must be runny, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything special about it – to our delight it was not only runny, but it was perfectly runny! Good prep and control. The batter was slightly crispy on the outside but not similar to tempura as it’s thick and it came across as such in the mouth.
Although the taste of the egg yolk was quite strong, it didn’t quite blanket the taste of oil as the batter was very thick and absorbed a little too much oil which to be fair is the natural process of thick batter. Having said that, it might have to be so in order to preserve the egg yolk. Then again, perhaps it’s just me, my friend Amir loved it, for him the yolk blanketed the batter. There you go, taste biases. Well some say I’m fussy, but I would order this again as I loved the bursting egg yolk experience.
Next up is the Avocado Tempura. I absolutely love this! The tempura batter is light, thin and slightly crispy. Well cooked. The perfectly ripened avocado has preserved its fresh structure, texture and shape. The creaminess pairs well with the tempura batter. Nothing else to say, it’s good, and so I’ve enjoyed every bite of it.
Triple Txakoli Delights
Naturally we have to try the Txakoli on offer. As always with us, we tasted 3. I love this slightly effervescent white wine – don’t expect this to be sparkling because it isn’t. It’s often a very light and crisp wine, perfect for extremely hot environments as it quenches thirst and offers a refreshing drench over the summer heat.
It’s also not meant to be over fruity or sweet, but slightly acidic and dry with a short linger of fruit on the tongue. I find that this often works very well with a mixture of rich, sharp (tomatoes, pickled food) or oily food (from fried to olive oil drizzles) like most Mediterranean cuisine, as the acidity and dryness cuts through the oil and cleanses the palate for the next bite with a short taste of fruit from the wine.
All 3 wines were by Gorka Izagirre, an uncle of Eneko Atxa – Gorka Izagirre, 22 and 42. Gorka Izagirre is a blend of 2 local Basque grapes: Hondarrabi Zuri und Hondarrabi Zerratia. Its dry, light, young, a little sharp some might say, otherwise it has some acidity on the palate. 22 and 42 are 100% Hondarrabi Zerratia.
The difference between them is that 22 is aged on lees whilst 42 is oak barrel fermented. 22 is a lot smoother than Gorka Izagirre and pairs very well with any of the appetizer dishes as long as it isn’t too creamy.
However, 42 is fuller and the most versatile wine. It has more structure and the wine holds its place even when paired with red meat and stews. It’s similar to those more oaky French Chardonnays and new age American whites which you feel as if you can almost bite into them. Well it’s a lot less full bodied than those American whites. It is very elegant and gives a longer finish.
Amongst the 3, my favourite was 42 by Eneko as I love fuller and oaked wine, and the way the wine works with the full range of food served – which was the intention when creating this wine.
We opted for 4 main courses: Grilled Wild Salmon, Braised Pork Cheeks, Seared Duck Breast and Arroz de Setas with sides of Tender-stem Broccoli and Piperade. I always order too much but there almost always isn’t anything left… if it’s good that is.
The Grilled Wild Salmon was served in a sauce of Mussels, Asparagus and Peas. The salmon was cooked perfectly, which was slightly under cooked. The sauce was delicious, even to someone who hates peas – yep that’s me. A slight natural sweetness from the peas, freshness of the asparagus and of the sea but all in all, a very good combination.
Braised Pork Cheeks with Ham duxelle and confit shallots. This is a very rich dish and despite the richness of the sauce, the Txakoli 42 by Eneko Atxa fits in well. For those who are not familiar with Ham Duxelle, it’s a mixture of minced mushrooms cooked with ham. The meat is very tender and the sauce very flavourful with hints of caramelised shallots. I would almost say it’s slightly fruity, a tiny bit sweet for me but when paired with 42 Txakoli, it took the slight sweetness away. I also paired this with an elegant red, a Tempranillo from Bodegas BAIGORRI, a medium bodied wine with strong notes of dark berries.
No ‘Con-Fusion’ Here
The taste of the Duck’s crispy skin is reminiscent of the Chinese Roast Duck but the flavours here are a lot less pronounced as it should be. I still remember those ‘CON-FUSION’ days when a dish tasted so overpoweringly Chinese that you wondered where’s the fusion – definitely ‘Lost in Translation’.
Here I like the pickled red onions, but this doesn’t accentuate the taste of the meat as it isn’t strongly pickled and doesn’t cut through the caramelisation. However, it’s very pretty and taste yummy on its own. Well, oyster mushrooms are always yummy, to me at least, which brings us to the last dish.
Arroz de Setas is a rice dish of Bomba rice, Oyster Mushrooms and Ceps Emulsion. For those unfamiliar, Ceps is a type of mushroom otherwise known as Porcini. Well, I must say this has got to be my favourite dish out of all. ‘You’re nuts – ordering a rice dish on top of all the rest?’ says Amir, but he knows me well. I am nuts, nuts over mushrooms!
Rice is very well cooked, tender not overcooked (you won’t expect that here I figured by now), and the taste of Oyster mushrooms is so elegantly intertwined with the Porcini. However, you must not mix it. Once you do the oyster mushrooms overpowers the porcini when it’s all mixed up. Just scoop it up as you see it and you’ll taste the differences in the mushrooms – if you love to eat mushrooms like I do.
The only traditional Basque dish in the whole meal was the Piperade. Traditionally, it’s a sautéed mix of sweet peppers (very often not skinned), tomatoes, garlic and onions. At Eneko at One Aldwych, it’s sweet red peppers, roasted and skinned and then sautéed. It’s naturally sweet from the peppers and it’s a very flavourful and rich dish on its own. I love this. Also goes great just with bread and olive oil, or with plain pasta, something I learnt from my friends in Bilboa who always have Piperade in the fridge for a quick meal – haven’t seen them in a long time, just on the FaceTime, which must be corrected!
Naturally, with so much savoury food, one has no space for desserts. Usually I don’t order desserts but I will also taste what my buddy orders. He opted for the Pineapple Sorbet with Celery Foam and Sweet Celery Ribbons (pictured right). Sounds almost like a vegetable dish. This comes across as fresh and light. Sweetness is almost not there – more natural and refreshing. A great complement to the end of a heavy meal.
Lastly, I must write about the restaurant design. Perhaps this should have been the first thing to mention! For me, it’s always food first but this is worth more than a mention. The restaurant has a central staircase which reaches a mezzanine below from street level, which is a bar, then down to the restaurant itself. This is an impressive set of gleaming copper stairs! I was wondering how they can efficiently maintain it – as with all things copper, it’s high maintenance. It exudes luxury and comfortable elegance as the restaurant design focuses on a modern minimalistic and casual setting. A little tradition is added to the interior – of curved red leather booths. To me, this set of stairs is the centrepiece of the restaurant and quite rightly so!
Below the set of copper stairs from the street level, is a dining section which captures so much natural light! I would suppose still so when it’s cloudy as the gleaming copper will just trap all the light there is and reflect it into the restaurant. The other side of the restaurant feels more cosy for there isn’t much natural light, and feels casually elegant and stylish.
I would recommend this restaurant to anyone who isn’t looking for something traditionally Basque, and one who is open to taste flavours that complement and not in competition with one another. This modern cuisine is a marriage that is happily immersed in cultures, and existing harmoniously together in a relaxed and elegantly stylish setting. Come and try it for yourself!