On our recent trip to Spain, we ventured over the border to L'auberge Basque, http://www.aubergebasque.com/, a Michelin one star with a young chef who trained under Alain Ducasse - Cédric Béchade, 32. My parents read about the restaurant in Travel and Leisure, where the chef offered this lovely summary of his philosophy in the kitchen - “Every menu is built around the idea: Take what’s best, right now, then take something traditional, something of this place, and then figure out how to make them modern together.” They have an open kitchen, which we were lucky enough to be seated by, and the chef was meticulously finishing the plating for every beautiful dish that went out of the equally beautiful kitchen.
(lots of pics to bring the descriptions to life at http://bit.ly/4vwbXr - flickr set)
The restaurant is located in tiny Helbarron St Pée sur Nivelle, 7 km from St Jean de Luz, a bucolic drive out into the French Pays Basque hills. The dining room is modern and visually clean, attached to an old rustic farmhouse converted to a modern inn, and the dining room has a large wall of windows opening out onto the green countryside, farms and hills. A lovely setting for a fine meal. There were several menus on offer when we arrived - a three course set menu for 25 euro, a four course for 38 euro, plus a la carte or a larger menu degustation. Well, the first two were too good a deal to pass up - we ordered two of the three course menus and two of the four course menus, no overlapping dishes, for the four of us.
This was a meal marked by creativity, bridging Basque, Spanish and French influences deftly and artfully. The chef's meticulous nature is evident on every plate. And it is a true bargain at those special menu prices.
The room was full with what appeared to be locals to the area, but this place is definitely worth seeking out, even from San Sebastian about 40 minutes away. The service was a mixture of polish and youthful inexperience - after I got home, I read about their lauded sommelier and noticed his photo - for some reason, he was helping out with the service, but was not the one who came to our table to discuss wine (nor did he stop by to help refill our empty glasses on a few occasions). I'm willing to overlook those issues though for such a promising meal at such bargain prices, especially as the culinary highs were so very high. Two of the dishes on these affordable menus may have bested anything we had at Akelare - on par at least, if not better. Nothing we tasted was less than very good, and the Basque touches made for a meal that you simply won't find in Paris or New York.
So here's the rundown with brief commentary on each dish:
Pepper popcorn and blood sausage crisps: At least I think the crisps were blood sausage, a common Basque treat. The popcorn was crisp and enticingly peppery - from local Piment d'Espelette.
Amuse - tuna fish with pepper jelly: Very interesting, the clear gelatinous pepper jelly had an off-putting texture, but the flavor came together so nicely with the tuna fish when spread on a piece of good crusty bread.
Green apple and berry gazpacho with foie gras mousse and vegetable chips: This may have been the dish of the trip, rivaling anything at Akelare or Etxebarri. A fabulous marriage of flavors, textures, colors. The light mousse flavored with foie gras was buried under the gazpacho, adding a rich creaminess to the sharp acidity and sweetness of the fruits. Vegetable chips, basically like the packaged Terra chips (that's good in my book!), added a welcome crunch.
Le Marmitako des pecheurs, refroidi aux Txakoli, patates douces au piment d'Espelette (tuna a la Marmitako (a Basque stew), cooled in Txakoli, with sweet potatoes and Espelette pepper): Simply wonderful and perfectly of the area.
Le Merlu de Ligne de Saint Jean , au the Lapsang Souchang, pomme fondant au persil, piment doux de Gernika (Line caught Hake St. John, with Lapsang Souchang tea, potato and fondant of parsley and Gernika sweet green pepper): another amazing, incredible dish of elegance and beauty. The fish medallions were perfectly cooked, tender with just the right firmness, a delicate tea sauce underneath, and a gorgeous and enticing green and white layered "fondant" of sweet green Gernika peppers and potato. Again, as good as anything at Akelare, which is saying a lot.
Lamb loin with polenta, red and spicy green peppers: The rich meat paired well with a creamy, grit-like polenta, and a mixture of flavorful peppers. Very good.
Cheese course, les fromages: a nice selection of cheese, both local and from further afoot. Always love a good cheese course - these cheeses were clearly well taken of.
La Reine Claude, poelee au mielle de Bruyere, gaztanbera et gaufre au thym ("Queen Claude," plums cooked in heather honey, crepe with gaztanbera cheese and thyme): this one didn't do too much for me, not bad, but nothing too impressive either beyond the visual delight of the formed crepe.
Peach with cheese ice cream and almonds: Now this one was good, the cheese ice cream (one form or another of which appeared on our meals at Akelare, here and Extebarri, all fabulous renditions) was a perfect foil for the sweet poached (I believe) peaches with crisp almond and firm whipped cream.
Coffee and a few more sweet treats: we had this outside on the beautiful patio with a view of the countryside, delightful.
For the wines, we asked for local or regional suggestions and enjoyed a very interesting Domaine Arretxea Irouleguy 2007, a local tannat blend that was earthy with nice dark fruit, also a very enjoyable viognier-like Riente Albarino 2006. The wine menu was a nice mix of (mostly pricey) French and (mostly affordable) Spanish wines!