Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Basque Guest Chef

What a change it has been since the last time we experienced Chef Eneko Atxa's cooking at his flagship restaurant Azurmendi near Bilbao - when he only began to be on the radar of foodies around the world as a promising young Basque chef having just received his second Michelin star for his restaurant. We still remembered that meal as the highlight of our Catalan/Basque trip in the most beautiful setting. Now almost 7 years later, Azurmendi is on its fifth year holding on firmly to the most prestigious 3 Michelin stars, been voted one of the world's top 50, moved to a new location nearby, opened another Michelin-starred restaurant next door, and since then Chef Eneko's wings have spread as far as ventures in Phuket (now defunct), London and Tokyo.

So with the fond memory it didn't really take much to convince us to join our friends to dinner at the Hong Kong Jockey Club with him being the guest chef at Derby Restaurant in the Happy Valley clubhouse. The dinner was booked for Friday, the first evening of the dinner series, which stretched over the weekend with lunch and dinner and a special wine-pairing evening. Our menu was the 8-course degustation menu based on some of Chef Eneko’s signature dishes served at his restaurants.

We began with a small bite of Kaipiritxa served like a fresh tomato on the vine topped with tiny edible flowers on top. It’s a slightly sweet bonbon filled with txakoli served like an amuse-bouche or welcome drink. Then it’s the Huevo Trufado, or Truffle Egg, served in a silver spoon. That was the most memorable dish from our meal at Azurmendi and it’s still as wonderful as I remembered, with the warm black truffle sauce injected into the egg yolk which “cooked” the egg “inside out”. It’s bursting with flavor, combining two strong but complementary tastes with a nice aroma.

We moved on with a pair of small bites served side by side as a single course. On the left was the “Bloody Mar” in a shot glass, and on the right, the Japanese uni (sea urchin) prepared 2 ways served inside a sea urchin shell. Inside the shell at the bottom was the sea urchin mousse, followed by tongues of sea urchin, a light sea-water foam then edible flower. We were supposed to eat both alternatively, with the usual tomato based ingredients in "bloody mary" being mixed with juice from sea urchins in the shot glass. It’s a true umami bomb and our friend mentioned this version was even better than the one they had recently at Azurmendi – perhaps it has to do with Japanese uni being used instead of one from the Basque Coast.

The Garlic Mushrooms was another famous dish of the chef and every mushroom lover’s dream course. On the plate was mushrooms prepared in all shapes and form – the sauce at the bottom, the finely cut mushroom threads like Japanese somen, and the espuma on top. On the sides were the “tempura egg” – tiny half-cooked quail egg with deep-fried batter crust, and we were supposed to eat it with tweezers. Probably a bit over the top in terms of presentation and I didn’t get much of the garlic taste to be honest, but I did like the different textures presented and the egg brought everything together in a well-balanced way.

Our first substantial course was the lobster, with a small piece of lobster tail served with “aromatic herbs”, which was majority chives, with chives oil, chive mousse, and a crispy cone infused with herbs with lobster brunoise and chives filling. And on top of the lobster was what I thought as roasted tomalley. I think the lobster was a tad bit overcooked, but I like the overall flavor, matching the chives with the slightly smoky lobster meat.

The second main course was pigeon. I had an excellent pigeon dish the night before but I was happy for an encore, this time prepared quite differently. It’s served as two parts – the main part was the piece of pigeon breast (cooked sous vide at 62C, as we were told) served with finely diced pigeon duxelle underneath, then smoked eggplant puree and the jus reduction. And on the side was a tiny piece of pigeon foie toast topped with chives as accompaniment. I do like the subtle smokiness of the dish bringing out the earthy rich flavor of the meat.

After the interesting combination of pineapple sorbet and slightly pickled celery “ribbon” as our palate cleanser (something I will definitely try to make at home at some point), our main dessert was chocolate, peanuts and licorice, and again, Chef Eneko played with various preparations to present those ingredients in various textures to great effect.

We decided to bring our own wines to go with the menu, starting with one of our favorite grower champagne house then appropriately with a vintage Rioja. The subtle smokiness on the palate with dominant pencil shavings and tobacco, and some red fruit characters further back did worked wonderfully well with the pigeon course, which was almost on the smoky side. I regret not opening the Barolo earlier to let it breathe, but it did show some potential with some dark fruits and strong tannins towards the end.

While the dinner was not a perfect substitute for the dining experience at his restaurant completed with touring the crazily spacious kitchen, picnicking in the roof-top garden filled with plants and herbs and eating with a view of the Basque wine country in the countryside, but I think the team did execute reasonably well to replicate some of the signature dishes of the restaurant to let us have a taste of what it’s like eating at the real Azurmendi. And until he has decided to open one in Hong Kong (which is not a far-fetched possibility given he just opened Eneko Tokyo too) and sans a trip back to Basque Country, I think we got the best we could have right by our doorstep.

More photos here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/albums/72157689110080591

When? December 1 2017
Where? The Derby Restaurant at Happy Valley Clubhouse, Hong Kong Jockey Club, Shan Kwong Road, Happy Valley
Menu Highlights? Pichon Asado y Duxelle - Roasted Pigeon
Champagne Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru NV (disgorged July 2015)
1995 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890
2007 Prunotto Barolo DOCG

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