Basque cuisine has a long history in the western United States, but many chefs across the country have recently discovered the unique ingredients and storied history of the region that straddles northeastern Spain and southwestern France. Traditionalists will revel in the regional flavors that mark Basque cuisine while modernists will exult in new interpretations that are emerging from forward-thinking chefs around the country.
New York-based chef and restaurateur of three Spanish restaurants, Alex Raij, whose Basque restaurant Txikito turns eight this year, has a new cookbook out (with fellow chef-owner Eder Montero) called The Basque Book: A Love Letter in Recipes from the Kitchen of Txikito. The book — and the restaurant — are Raij’s ode to Basque cuisine. “Basque cuisine is remarkably elegant and the ingredient quality is exceptional,” said Raij. “Thanks to chefs like [Ferran] Adrià and [Juan Mari] Arzak, ‘Alta cocina‘-and ‘la vanguardia‘-style cooking put all eyes on Spain.” Cooks like Raij responded with a revived interest and rediscovery of regionally distinct cooking traditions. “Chefs like myself want to bring the same high standards and creativity to the traditional cooking of Spain. We have turned our attention to the distinctive features or each of Spain’s regional cuisines and to me the Basque is perhaps the least understood and yet so easy to love.”
Here are eight Basque-inspired dishes that celebrate the culinary flair of la cocina vasca.
The Gilda Pintxo, Bellota, San Francisco, California
Named for Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale character in the 1946 movie Gilda, this traditional skewered snack of Castelvetrano olives, anchovy, boquerones, and pippara pepper from chef Ryan McIlwraith is the perfect introduction to Basque cuisine. Rather than having to roam the neighborhood, trying snacks at numerous spots, the team at Bellota bring the pintxos, or small snacks, to you on a cart. Gilda pintxo is traditionally served at the start of the evening, a first taste of the heady flavors of Basque country. Make a reservation at Bellota.
Ma Premeire Foie, Teleferic Barcelona, Walnut Creek, California
Every year, the city of Barcelona invites its restaurants to compete for the title of Tapa of the Year. Just before opening their blended Basque-Catalan outpost in America, Teleferic Barcelona won with their tapa, Ma Premeire Foie. Grilled and caramelized foie gras swaddled with a bit of cherry jam in house made toast reaches nirvana with caramelized red onion and a slick of apple mousse. Refresh your palate with a hit of Basque cider, served as a special off-menu item, straight into your mouth from the traditional Basque porron. It’s enough to make a Euskaldunak swoon. Make a reservation at Teleferic Barcelona.
Chistorra in a Blanket, Cooks & Soldiers, Atlanta, Georgia
Its name a tip of the hat to the Tamborrada festival in San Sebastian and the citizen’s defiance towards Napoleon’s occupation, Cooks & Soldiers looks for ways to add contrarian flair to traditional Basque dishes. Pigs in a blanket, a.k.a. chistorra in a blanket, melds Basque and Southern ideas of dough-wrapped sausage. Basque chistorra sausage gets bundled into a cider-glazed croissant and served with a mustard-maple dipping sauce. Or swing vegan with tomato tartare. Chef Landon Thompson reimagined trendy tartare with in-season cured tomatoes, draining the bright red veg to give them a beefy texture and topping the tartare with a modernist, algae reverse purification carrot “yolk.” Once local tomatoes are gone, so too, this seasonal dish is gone. Basque food never had it so good. Make a reservation at Cooks & Soldiers.
Veal Tongue Bocadillo, La Cuchara, Baltimore, Maryland
Chef Ben Lefenfeld at La Cuchara loved the communal dining atmosphere of Basque pintxo bars and set out to recreate that vibe at La Cuchara, where a 40-seat square bar is the heart of the festive space. And, like traditional asadors in the southern Basque region, Lefenfeld does much of his cooking with fire. A signature, asador-inspired dish is his veal tongue bocadillo. Brined for seven days, the tongue is braised then sliced as thin as possible and served on a charred cumin roll with charred cabbage, pimentón aioli, and espelette pepper. The sandwich tastes of Basque food at its finest, an ideal blend of French, Spanish, and Basque flavors, reflecting the seasons and the flavors of the region. Make a reservation at La Cuchara.
Txipiron Encebollado, Txikito, New York, New York
Though chef Alex Raij of Txikito credits Ferran Adrià with setting a new standard for regional Spanish cuisine, her Manhattan restaurant, Txikito serves indisputably elegant Basque cuisine. Raij’s Txipiron Encebollado, or grilled squid ribbons, is a lighter, more refined version of the national Basque dish. Done without the traditional squid ink, the dish is dressed in a sweet onion and pine nut sauce — tinted a surprising winter white. “We treat the squid like linguini,” said Raij, who opened Txikito to serve this dish. To sample a more traditional version of squid in its own ink, stroll a few blocks to Raij’s sister Spanish restaurant, El Quinto Pino. Make a reservation at Txikito.
Canelones de Pollo, Jaleo, Washington, D.C.
A one-time apprentice at Ferran Adrià’s el Bulli, chef José Andrés has spent a career exploring Spain’s regions through food. New dishes at all of the Jaleo restaurants, including the D.C. location, reimagine Basque flavors through the lens of his native Asturias, Cataluña, and others. With canelones de pollo, Andrés riffs on a traditional Catalan pasta dish, adding prunes and onions to the stuffing. Known as Basque comfort food, the dish is topped with pine nuts, cheese, and, for a touch of French, béchamel sauce. Make a reservation at Jaleo.
Paella, A Basq Kitchen, Redondo Beach, California
Raised on both sides of the Spanish-French border, chef Bernard Ibarra (pictured) comes home to Basque cuisine at his latest restaurant, A Basq Kitchen. Situated on the harbor in Redondo Beach, A Basque Kitchen focuses its menu on the seafoods that define the region. Squid in its own ink is a hugely popular staple, but Ibarra breaks his own Basq rule to make paella once a week. Made with Basque sausage and seasoned with Basque chiles (espelette and piquillo), the dish is a beacon for greater Los Angeles where century-old Basque restaurants still dot the landscape. Be sure to try the bread from seventh-generation baker John Baptiste Garacochea. “It’s one-hundred-and-twenty years of Basque-U.S. culture in one loaf,” says Ibarra. Make a reservation at A Basq Kitchen.
Bacalao a la Viscaina, The Harvest Vine, Seattle, Washington
A Spanish restaurant heavily influenced by Basque cuisine, The Harvest Vine regularly rotates Basque classics onto the menu. Bacalao a la Viscaina, or cod in Biscay sauce, is a traditional salt cod recipe updated by chef Joey Serquinia. Spheres of encapsulated Arbequina oil top house-cured cod dressed with a mildly spicy red sauce made from Oregon-grown, Basque native Choricero peppers. Be sure to share with your neighbors at the communal dining table, a throwback to traditional Basque restaurants. Make a reservation at The Harvest Vine.
Christina Mueller is a San Francisco-based writer, epicurean adventurer, and culinary sleuth. Find her at http://christinamueller.com and follow her on Instagram @EatDrinkThink and Twitter @EatDrinkThink.
Photo credits: Michaela Joy (Teleferic Barcelona); Heidi Geldhauser (Cooks & Soldiers/header); Alex Raij (Txikito); Think Food Group (Jaleo).