I travel frequently to the Basque country in the Northern part of Spain because this is an area where you always eat well, not only in the many Michelin starred restaurants like Mugaritz, Arzak, Martin Berastegui, Akkelare, and Azurmendi but also in the tapas bars or pintxos bars as they are referred to in this part of Spain. Not to forget the Asador Extebarri in an isolated farmhouse in the area accessed by winding roads and an “efficient” navigation system. The town of Vittorio-Gastiez south of San Sebastian is known to serve up the best tapas in all of Spain and ideal for a day trip.
The city of Bilbao of course attracts domestic and international travelers because of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum, which is only a short drive from San Sebastian where most visitors are based. The Maria Cristina, an SPG property, is where I hang my hat when in San Sebastian, but located in the small town of El Ciego is the Marquis de Riscal hotel, a property in the luxury collection of the same hotel chain which is another great choice for visitors to this area though it’s location is a little remote but yet drivable into Bilbao, San Sebastian or Getaria, the town where Cristobal Balenciaga, the haute couture fashion designer, hails from.
This breathtaking Frank Gehry designed hotel stands like a shimmering mirage in the Rioja wine country. It was where years ago I first came across a very indulgent pillow menu offering choices of pillows to ensure a perfect repose. Guests are guaranteed to sleep well at the Marquis de Riscal after tasting wines in the eponymous winery, within which the hotel is situated, and a meal at its 2 Michelin-starred restaurant. There is a Caudalie spa (a French chain from the wine country of Bordeaux, France) in house where oenophiles can pamper their bodies with grape products in view of the vineyards. The ancient church in El Ciego is lit up at night and the views from the hotel windows sometimes keep me up all night.
Bilbao has really transformed from the congested town that I remember from the 90’s being cleaned up and becoming a cultural center that is attracting young people from all over Europe. It has a more hip cool vibe and the Guggenheim of course attracts visitors though it requires more than a hurried pass through as part of a tour group. I find the museums exterior just as interesting as the collections inside and if you reserve ahead at the gastronomic restaurant located in the museum, a great meal can add to your experience at this locale.
Martin Berastgui’s restaurant group operated this restaurant before they opened the Doma restaurant on the seventh floor of the Hotel Domine in Bilbao, where you can now enjoy a meal with views of the Guggenheim. In this area a few miles out of Bilbao is the acclaimed Azurmendi restaurant by chef Eneko Atxa. This super talented young chef has managed to earn three Michelin stars in a short span of time. A couple of years ago he moved his restaurant to a hilltop location set in the middle of 40 hectares of vineyards and gardens that supply his restaurant. If you are not driving then it is possible to take a taxi to the restaurant and a daytime visit lets you enjoy the beautiful countryside. I recently had an incredible meal that Atxa and Quique Dacosta of Denia collaborated on and will be sharing my experience with readers in an upcoming post.
I am a fan of Atxa not only for his food, but also his personality, soft spoken and humble despite his celebrity. A reservation snafu had somehow made my reservation for a special event for one instead of two, and when Eneko heard about it he got on the phone right away to solve the problem. For an elaborate event it is a lot of work and stress for the team to add a diner at the last minute, but it was all handled with such graciousness and hospitality that I can never express enough gratitude.
Atxa has recently expanded overseas with his Aziamendi restaurant in Phuket, Thailand and I will post my conversation with him about this project in an upcoming article which is to be published. His mentor Martin Berastegui who is the the other Spanish chef who has successfully expanded over seas in Shangai, China, the Dominican Republic and other locales has set an example for his peers. In our part of the world we are more familiar with Jose Andres as the Spanish chef who has taken his cuisine overseas but numerous others like the Arzak’s and Carme Ruscalleda and have been just as successful.
I am posting a prior conversation with Atxa that was published a few months ago:
Eneko Atxa’s restaurant Azurmendi in the Basque country of northern Spain came into the international spotlight in 2013 with its inclusion into the Spanish Guide Michelin’s three star category. A remarkable feat in a short span of seven years while maintaining his sustainable sensibilities in his cuisine and his restaurant.
Atxa’s creations on his menu showcase both his talent and his respect for his product and environment. Meals begin outdoors with starters being served picnic style and then move into the spacious dining room with its open kitchen. The lines between the exterior and interior seem to disappear and the natural setting invades the entire restaurant.
The restaurant was relocated in 2012 to its very picturesque location in a contemporary structure with glass walls that open onto the entire valley below.The striking structures are only fitting since it is only about a 20 minute drive from the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao.
Atxa trained with some of the most known chefs in the area including Martin Berasategui and at restaurants like Extebarri and Andra Mari. These days he has joined forces with many of the largest names in the Basque country to develop the Basque Culinary center in order to encourage and grow local talent. This 35 year old chef is very calm and low key until the conversation turns to food and the environment.
I asked Eneko a few questions about his work and his life:
What inspired this novel concept for a restaurant?
I have always wanted to have a place that brings sustainability, diversity, and the native produce together…a place where the pleasure identity becomes something universal. We want our clients to have a unique experience in an atmosphere that’s alive and interconnected with the land.
Your restaurant is very contemporary and yet organic. How did the design develop?
Azurmendi is not intended as a restaurant but rather as a house. We created a space in which we didn’t want to invade the environment, but live with it. We let nature enter into the house, literally: there is nature inside the building. This is not a trend that I am following but a real desire to become a part of this wonderful environment that is my home. To me this means being fair to ourselves, with our philosophy of the importance of roots, identity, culture, environment, products and be consistent and respectful with it.
We decided to create a space in which nature envelopes the building. To achieve this sustainability, we have worked with the most advanced techniques: water tanks, solar collection on glass roofs, radiant heating by geothermal energy, photovoltaic systems, sewage plant, using recycled materials, electrical outlets for recharging electric vehicles …. are some pioneering energy techniques that make Azurmendi a sustainable and bioclimatic space.
There are many world renowned chefs in your part of Spain but
what sets you apart?
We try to provide a quality experience based on our identity and philosophy without renouncing foreign products. The cuisine is a universal language that speaks about where we came from, who we are and where we want to go.
Of all the beautiful products in your region which are your favorite ones towork with?
Everything from our environment, we use all the beautiful products that come from our territory and are in season, for example, Busturia tomato, peas from coast, Carranza or Idiazabal cheese, or basque pork “Euskal txerri”.
Which cuisine are you most curious about?
I would say the Japanese cuisine is very interesting to me because of their philosophy and way of working.
How important is technology in gastronomy?
I believe in technology as a tool to enhance the product. I think that innovation and the roots are not confronted and we should annex the roots to the future.
At what age did you enter the profession?
My path into the world of gastronomy began at the age of 15 at the Culinary School of Leioa in Biscay, and during this period I trained simultaneously at different in restaurants in the area where I studied and absorbed the traditional Basque cuisine.
Who do you credit for your interest in cuisine?
The kitchen table was the place where everything was centered and I was influenced by the stories that the older members of my family told me at this table.
Tell me about your most successful plate on your menu?
Brassiered squid, in a a mantle of its own juice, crunches and onion.
You give great demonstrations on stage. Do you enjoy doing that?
I prefer to be in the kitchen but I have came to understand that giving demonstrations is part of my work( in Mexico he demonstrated his famous truffled egg yolks by removing part of the yolk with a syringe and then injecting truffle oil into it and bruleeing it)
If you were to counsel culinary students and interns what are the three most important pieces of advice that you would give them?
To work hard, to have illusions and dreams, to be constant. First, it is important to learn the basics very well. After that travel, in addition to culinary skills do not overlook things like languages. Above all to be honest with yourself.
Name some chefs who have influenced you in Spain or elsewhere?
Numerous chefs like Murata in Japan, Pascal Barbot in France, Martin Berasategui in the Basque Country.
Which region in the world is the most important influence on chefs everywhere?
France and Italy has always been there. Japan is incredible. Each region has each own magic, why to choose only one if we can have and experiment with all.
What are your hobbies?
Running, listening to the radio, reading, being with my family.
Favorite music or band?
Mikel Urdangarin (a Basque singer)