Basque Kitchen by Aitor Isn’t Just a Typical Spanish Restaurant
Ask a room full of foodies which city they would like to explore, and you’ll probably hear someone ramble on about San Sebastián. Nestled in Spain’s northernmost region and lying beneath France, the Basque Country is well known for having the highest density of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.
It’s pretty much a self-sufficient province with fertile land for grains and vineyards, ample grazing ground for livestock and direct access to the Bay of Biscay for fresh seafood. Fuelled by unparalleled access to the best ingredients in Europe, Basque Country could well be the real food capital of Europe, a fact that might be justifiable with the recent two new additions of Nerua and Elkano in Spain to the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list announced in Singapore just two days ago.
In Singapore, it is represented by Basque Kitchen by Aitor, and it can’t get any more transparent than that. Upon first perusing the 8-course experiential menu, you’ll notice the queer appearance of a couple of ‘X’s in the wordings, that’s because Basque (or Euskara in Basque language) is one of the few surviving pre-Indo-European languages. This isolated language is derived from Latin and predates the romance language of its neighbours. Talk about exclusivity, similar oneness is demonstrated in its cuisine.
If you’re expecting regular Spanish at this joint, brush those prospects aside. Whereas the rest of inland Spain might rely on heady saffron and smoky spices to power their dishes, Basque cooks celebrate the country’s indigenous produce from the sea, soil (watch out for the white asparagus) and land (eggs galore!) with much aplomb. Kick off with a quintet of snacks, there are billowing cushions of steamed brioche filled with cream cheese and chorizo, battered amaebi shrimp topped with prawn aioli and shaved scallop roe.
Anchovies are probably right up there with artichokes when it comes to things I do not particularly like ingesting. But when presented with the gorgeous 3-bite snack package that is the pan con tomate, “no” escaped my vocabulary. Bay of biscay anchovies is laid over tomatoes on crisp crackers like an expensive fur coat, the usual splash of olive oil condensed into glistening spheres. This is succeeded by Japanese blue mussel stuffed with Japanese rice that is given a headier dosage of Japanese influence with white miso. It glints like a smoothed pebbles but its sophisticated integrity is marred by the overall gumminess of the grains.
We return back to solid ground with the Txangurro. Here Sri Lankan Mud Crab is removed from its shell and mixed with smoked tomato essence that has formed a secret alliance with Japanese dashi, taking the cue from Chef Aitor’s travel inspirations in and around Asia. It’s a sensitively cooked dish that should be eaten with deliberate delicateness.
White asparagus that is easily at one’s disposal in the region during the height of its season, is grilled and topped with a translucent veil of lardo that has been heated just till it hugs the edges of the stalk with warm adoration and then laid over a gel of Jambon ham. It welcomes innovation in the form of ingredient scrabble, the cured egg yolks working to shine a spotlight on the separate components, or even as a whole. Jaynusha, who is part of the tireless front of house is quick to dismiss my aversion to ciders and assures me playfully that the serving of Basque original cider is capable of changing my mind. In a quick ‘teh tarik’ motion, she breaks the sediments of the cloudy fermented cider. And hurrah: it’s drop-dead delicious. The quintessential Basque beverage of Sidra (cider) carries a farmhouse funk with dryer roots than the usual sugar-laden bastardised versions we are used to, and it proves to be the perfect sidekick to the asparagus.
The simplest dish where conceptualisation is concerned is also the one that brings the widest smile to your face. It’s a safe haven for guests who haven’t stepped down from the ‘Spanish promise land’, combining the unctuous grains of bomba rice with fragments of braised oxtail and dollops of chive aioli. The usage of sea succulents—ice plants may not have seemed intentional but its unique icy exterior and burst of freshness provide a pleasing crunch to the plush dish.
Patriotism is strong in the next course with the showcase of cod (yes, Basques love cod fish). Kokotxas, or gelatinous fish throats are bathed in pandan infused pil pil sauce. And in case you were wondering, this traditional sauce is called pil-pil because of the noise made when the fish skins interact with hot oil. Maintaining respect for the cuisine, I would have loved to appreciate this dish more than my intellectual understanding of it. Unfortunately, for its combined efforts of ‘gummy’ on ‘brash grassiness’, it didn’t cooperate with my palate.
This was salvaged by the next dish of Txuleta, a charcoal-grilled Angus Beef prime rib that gave a top drawer performance. Fetched from cows that have been reared to 18 months for more flavour merits, the slab of meat possess a visually gratifying char with a bright red centre. It’s stellar and rarely in need of the lustrous jus for reinforcement.
Dessert is a no brainer. Gâteau Basque, a traditional dessert hailing from the Northern Basque region of France has a flaky crust with pastry cream in the centre, and is accompanied by a quenelle of cinnamon ice cream. No matter how satiated you are, you can’t stop yourself from cleaning the plate.
At Basque Kitchen, Chef Aitor may shy away from the limelight as he meticulously works the stoves of the open kitchen, yet the warmth and heart of Basque cuisine can be experienced through the run through of smart, evocative dishes. The attentive and passionate service staff add a stupendous bonus to the experience.
$135 for 8-course experiential menu