Everytime I recall my trips to the Basque Country, my heart aches a little, not just because we can’t travel now but also because the Basque region offers such rarified experiences that one would be hard pressed to find elsewhere.
Its myriad pintxos bars, its Bay of Biscay seafood restaurants and, of course, the stars-blinding fine-dining experiences, and that’s not to mention the “sagardotegia” cider and txuleta-pairing.
Fret not, for a fraction of the price of an air ticket, you could now dip your toes – for a couple of hours – into what I believe could be the only contemporary Basque dining experience in Singapore (and possibly Asia).
Formerly based in an Amoy Street shop house, the one Michelin-starred Basque Kitchen by Aitor (“Basque Kitchen”) from Chef-Patron Aitor Jeronimo Orive (“Aitor”) has just moved into a stately water-fronting home at the historic Fullerton Waterboat House (circa 1919)
With 38 seats – including an 8-seat private dining room – the newly reopened restaurant is bigger than its former digs and decidedly swankier. Apart from a glass-wrapped main dining room dotted with plush velvet banquettes, all in calming shades of charcoal grey and warm orange with occasional oak tones, Basque Kitchen now boasts a 33-seat pintxos bar and lounge where guests may indulge in Basque Country-style small bites, think artisanal Sanfilippo anchovies and tomato on toast, washed down with a glass of cuvee Champagne specially curated for the restaurant.
Truth be told that if you want to go it hearty, you should sign up for the pintxos bar experience. But the essence of Basque Kitchen – and its glorious water-fronting setting by the Fullerton Bay – is really about Aitor’s new Basque cuisine, which draws richly from the “merroir” of the Bay of Biscay and also from his Basque heritage – the chef’s paternal family hails from the Basque region of Andalucia and his maternal side from the Southern Basque region of Biscay. And this can only be had at the main dining hall.
Given his relatively international training at The Fat Duck (London), Mugaritz (San Sebastián) and then Nerua (Bilbao), and subsequently Iggy’s (Singapore), before planting his first Basque-centric eatery at Amoy Street in October 2018, Aitor’s cuisine is, at the heart of it, contemporary European anchored on his Basque root. While you’ll find a handful of Basque ingredients – like anchovies and besugo (blackspot seabream) from the Bay of Biscay – on the Gastronomic Menu ($248++) at dinner, you’re just as likely to find Japanese Amela tomatoes, French morel mushrooms as well as Australian aged beef.
It would be a dream-come-true for gastronomes to taste authentic Basque Country txuleta in the Lion City but due to import regulation, this thought is at best a distant dream. Essentially a Flintstone-style beef from old Basque cows reared on a grass diet and slaughtered between the age of eight to 18 years old, this annuated steak is known for its “savoury flavour of great depth and complexity” or simply put “profoundly beefy beef.” Given import restrictions, Aitor serves what he considers to be next best, Robbins Island beef from Tasmania aged at source for 30 days and further aged in the restaurant’s ageing cabinet for another 15 to 30 days. The loin is grilled in the Josper oven so that its facade is charred and inside still red and served with smoked Aomori garlic mousseline and a beef jus so intense and viscous that it resembles a thick glaze. Perfect for a tasting menu even if it’s hardly the Flintstone-size txuleta that we want (and which we will never get in Singapore).
While Aitor’s take on txuleta is suitably simple but good, his besugo (blackspot sea bream) is even better. The fish from the Bay of Biscay is charcoal grilled until its skin crisps up, then served with springy slices of French razor clams in a delicate Basque-style “Donostiarra” sauce of olive oil, garlic, vinegar and parsley vinaigrette emulsified with the fish’s gelatin until it becomes a pale and creamy sauce (a pil-pil sauce if you will).
If you’ve never had sea anemone, Basque Kitchen’s opening dinner menu is your ticket. First thickly battered then deep-fried so that it is crunchy outside and mildly gooey inside, this “marine croquette” offers a taste of a curious-looking sea creature that some liken to an oyster in flavour. Far from being briny, I thought this delicacy of the Cádiz region to be closer in its creamy taste and texture to that of shirako (or even a sweetbread). For flavour contrast, the anemone is served on a bed of bomba rice seasoned with plankton aioli and decorated with ice plants and sea succulents.
Naturally, the advent of spring brings with it a chance of morel mushrooms. Here, Aitor takes a detour to France and makes a moreish pate of chicken liver, stuffs it into the cap of the fungi, blankets the morel with a sliver of cured lardo and serves it on a bed of deeply savoury mushroom gel. Save for the lardo, the dish is as deliciously French as it gets but, as you know, the Basque Country is split between Spain (4 provinces of Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya, Navarra and Alava) and France (3 provinces of Labourd, Basse Navarre, and Soule).
The Basque Country’s most famous dessert export is the Basque burnt cheesecake but you will not find it here. Instead, Aitor sends out contemporary European and locally-inspired creations. What’s more noteworthy is the restaurant’s beverage programme curated by Basque sommelier Vincent Jaureguiberry, who also doubles up as general manager. Apart from looking after the restaurant’s wine collection, Jaureguiberry also brings in interesting Basque beverages like the non-alcoholic Basque apple juice and funky Basque cider, the latter a must-try.
If you’re looking for Txakoli to wash down that delicious pil pil sauce, you’ll just have to wait a bit longer.
3 Fullerton Road #02-01/02/03, The Fullerton Waterboat House, Singapore 049 215; basquekitchen.com; +65-6224 2232