SAGARDI London – a tribute to the root of the Basque Country, a unique land with an ancestral culture of its own where food is at the very centre of life.
It was another beautiful day in San Sebastian. The smell of the sea, the sound of the waves, and feeling of the sun on my face. I was in a beautiful town, full of smiling faces all witnessing the unforgettable celebration of the marriage of some very dear friends in Bilbao.
After the beautiful ceremony, they set off to South America for their honeymoon; but before they departed, they insisted that my husband and I take their car and explore the Basque country – being the foodie that I am, I didn’t need to be asked twice and off we went!
For years, I had read about the amazing food in San Sebastian and knew that if I were a true foodie, I had to visit this town to try its infamous cuisine. Of course, Bilbao is of the Basque country, home to the Guggenheim, and countless other unpronounceable words; but, San Sebastian is regarded as the holy grail of all Basque cuisine in the region.
It was the only town in the world with the highest number of Michelin starred restaurants in the world at the time (2008) and still is – not that we had the budget to dine at any of them – but nonetheless, it would still be amazing to be in the same place right? Food there had to be good if any of the Pintxos (pronounced as Pinchos) bar reviews were to be believed.
SAGARDI – BASQUE COUNTRY CHEFS
So what exactly is Basque you might ask? Basque is a region which dominates the Northern part of Spain and the Southwestern part of France, boasting a beautiful rugged coastline of cliffs; very much reminiscent of the Scottish coastline, wind and all. Basque people are celebrated for their difference in culture, language, Basque pride and a rich culinary history – very much like their Southern comrades in the Catalan region.
Iñaki López de Viñaspre, an anthropologist specialising in Food created SAGARDI to showcase sincere and authentic product-based Basque cuisine that brings back those old-time flavours showing true passion about their food and spreading the magic of Basque food culture to the world and now London.
SAGARDI London isn’t really Spanish nor is it really Tapas as most would assume. The cuisine focusses on the quality of the raw ingredients, simply cooked and enjoyed for their own natural tastes. SAGARDI imports most of its produce directly from the Basque country, ranging from vegetables to wild caught fish and their infamous aged beef, Txuletón.
What’s impressive when you enter the restaurant is that on the left, huge slabs of beef are hanging in the cold room (where your steak ribs will be coming from) beautifully designed as a butcher’s; and running through the center of the restaurant and on the ceiling is a ‘Trainera’ – a long rowing boat traditionally used as a fishing boat which has now become a racing sport. It’s a sport very much like rowing but only more aggressive as they race in the open sea. True to their word, they are bringing a part of their culture and spreading the word.
THE RESTAURANT AND THE PEOPLE
The dining room is a casual yet modern and rustic space, with the whole of the back wall boasting a wide range of wines from Spain and a small selection of fine wines from other select countries.
The simple yet elegant table settings extenuate the beauty of the tables which are all made from rustic slabs of wood all imported from the Basque country. I found this combination both comfortable and casual, the perfect setting to serve up some great and fancy food.
SAGARDI London is definitely very much reminiscent of the Basque country, yet it maintains London’s much desired modern and minimal setting allowing for casual Saturday afternoon groups or a spacious but private romantic setting to take your date (just tell restaurant manager Mark that you want to impress and I’m sure he’ll do his best to wow you). I was there on a Friday evening, and true to the warmth of Basque hospitality, it’s a lively and boisterous atmosphere – it was fun.
What’s extra special is the people who work there. They’re knowledgeable, passionate and experienced with the food and culture they represent. The team is Spanish and had worked at other restaurants in the Sagardi group, and therefore are well versed in their trade. They do provide great service – for they located an order from a year ago so that their guest could have the same wine when they were there last. Now, isn’t that thoughtful?
THE COLOURFUL PINTXO BAR
Pintxos are just so different. Aren’t they beautiful? Not only that, they are yummilicious! To me, eating is an experience so why shouldn’t it be the same for everyone else?
The idea of the Pintxos bar is a casual place for friends to gather and catch up over some drinks and GOOD food. It’s informal and we just help ourselves to the pinxtos and when we’re finished, the staff just counted the number of sticks on our plates and that’s the bill! They are inexpensive for the quality you get.
This bar makes me want to just pop by anytime of the day! Specially after work, forget the pub and just get good food and drinks here! Other than the myriad of wines on offer, there’s also 4 types of beer: Txapeldun (Basque), Estrella from Barcelona, Steve’s Bitter Ale and Kernel Stout. I would recommend a Txapeldun or a glass of Talai Berri or Itsas Mendi, both Txakolí wine (a slightly effervescent white table wine) to go with some of those delicious Pintxos.
Most pintxos are served on organic sourdough bread and are crusty on the outside and soft on the inside – really delicious on its own too. Here are a few of our absolute favourites:
Gilda, the original Basque pintxo that is green, hot and salty. Well not so hot for my palate – I have horns on my head! David, our pintxos expert from Bilbao, explained, just pop the whole stick of olive, pickeled green chilli peppers and anchovy in one go and we’ll not regret it. Oh yes! It’s not for the faint hearted! The explosion of zing and salt just reminded us of the sensations when trying Sherbert powder for the first time – the flavours just whacks you in the face and wakes you up (minus the fizz) – this can be addictive if we were to stay at the bar the whole night!
Tropical Pintxos, anchovies with Lemon and Lime zest and Mango puree. Wow, it looks just beautiful with the bright green and yellow from the citrus zest on orange over a silver coat of anchovies. Just the colours alone are a feast on the eyes. The flavours are very well balanced – the citrus with the slight sweetness from the mango reduces the intensity of the pickled anchovies. Talk about giving your palate a work out.
Roast pork with mashed potatoes, from the hot pintxos selection, was rich and decadent. The crackling was sublime and the meat so soft it melts in your mouth. We just slurped the mash right up. If you like Sunday roast, this will certainly make you want to visit Sagardi for their Sunday Roast à la Basque. How interestingly exciting is that! It’s time to spice up your Sundays!
A very interesting fusion pintxos on the hot menu is the Artisanal Frankfurt served in a croissant. It’s like a mini hot dog in a high quality bun à la Française (a mini croissant). I must order it even though it seems a bit ridiculous to order a German sausage in a Basque restaurant. The Frankfurt was served with some ketchup and mustard and I must say the taste of the Frankfurt was not overpowered by the sauces as it usually does, which says that this is some good quality wurst, and the slightly sweet croissant just blends right in. One can sure swallow quite a couple of those before heading off to dinner – or will that make dinner?
Well we had stopped just in time so that we can continue on to dinner at the restaurant. We had to leave space for food from that beautiful Basque grill where the grill master (that’s what I’m calling him) Josef reigns over. And that’s the grill where the Sunday roast is prepared. I can just imagine the entire roast cooking there!
THE RESTAURANT MENU
We were spoilt with a myriad of appetisers; the Iberian ham croquettes were almost silky the way the béchamel melted in my mouth and just felt decadent. The pan-fried ‘Txistorra’ – a type of chorizo but lighter and with a distinctive taste of smoked paprika is a must.
Oh and the tuna tartare – well it’s just beautiful even if only to look at.
The vegetables, they also are imported in from the Basque region and are so fresh! Even a carnivore like myself couldn’t resist eating them all – well just about, I still had to share as I wasn’t dining alone…
The Lettuce Hearts with Getaria Anchovies are a festival of colour giving a refreshing flavour, and are so fresh and crunchy.
Grilled artichokes with Iberian cured ham – this was my absolute favourite! The artichokes were first steamed and then grilled so that they are soft on the inside and slightly crispy on the outside. Perfectly seasoned with salt, extra virgin olive oil and Iberico ham.
I love octopus and so I must order Cornwall’s octopus with green peas and pea shoots drizzled in extra virgin olive oil (I think this can be counted as a serving of greens don’t you agree?)
We paired all the above dishes with white wines, Talai Berri and Itsas Mendi. Both wines are refreshing. The Talai Berri is more full bodied and refreshes the palate for another flavourful bite. The Itsas Mendi is fragrant and lighter, and is a wine I can sip at all day long sitting in the sun so it goes really well with lighter dishes like the Lettuce hearts.
Now main courses. I bet you’re thinking, is she not full yet? With this level of amazingly good food, there is no way I’m full already!
To me, the most amazing dish was the grilled Monkfish. It was done to perfection. The fish wasn’t overcooked and the flesh succulent. Just served with salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil – simply put, it was epic.
The grilled Iparralde duck breast with cider apples had the skin expertly grilled with the texture crispy whilst the fat melted away on my tongue. The fat was offset with the slight sweetness from the cider apples, and serverd medium rare. Just perfect! We had to fight for the last slice of duck breast and stewed apple!
The beef that was offered were either matured beef or ox, or in Basque, Txuletón. Ox meat is much more flavourful. Sagardi procured the meats from the renowned ‘The Txogitxu Meat’ the very same butcher that supplies meat to top restaurants including Arzak in San Sebastien.
We decided to take a cut of matured beef and the steaks are usually cooked medium rare. As I have mentioned, the grill master is really the master – look at the picture of our steak and you’ll agree. Enough said.
Importantly, we must next have a red wine. We sampled 2. The dark ruby red wine Jaspi Negre from Tarragona was a perfect companion for the whole meal as well. The Orben Rioja from Rioja Alavesa was more full bodied and was well paired with the steak.
CLOSING THE DEAL
One must never forget the desserts, even those of us who don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I had to try them if not just so that I could tell my kids. After all, if I don’t like them, I don’t have to finish it all yet even with such a huge meal I was amazed that I enjoyed all of them even though I myself don’t have much of a sweet tooth.
I absolutely love this combination of sautéed strawberries slowly stewed in Txakolí wine (about 4 hours so there’s no more alcohol left behind), seasoned with cracked black pepper and served with yogurt ice cream. Absolutely divine! If you’ve never tasted this before, you MUST order it. To me, it embodies the simplicity of good food and the well pairing of ingredients.
Torrija. We think it’s the Basque version of our bread and butter pudding! Almost like it but a lot lighter and only just slightly sweet. Served on a side of blueberry jam and sheep’s milk ice cream. Perfect for after a heavy meal. Nothing left on my plate.
Thin crust apple pie. A simple apple pie, with fresh apple slices flambéed with Sagardoz apple liquer. Only just minimally sweet and making it a light dessert to end a very fulfilling meal. Topped with yogurt ice cream. Simple food at its best – one which is often lacking in most places.
OK – now we can roll out the door, very ceremoniously I must say. Well we needed many stomachs to eat it all, or I’m just coming here again and I must promise myself to order something new every time!
However, I believe you’re more savvy than I, and unless you have 4 stomachs and 4 hours, bring your best buddies and try everything! Or impress your date with how well you’ve researched Basque food before bringing him or her to a new restaurant SAGARDI and going on a culinary journey – perhaps the next step is to visit Bilbao and its environs?
Welcome to Basque hospitality, time is neither an issue nor a restriction. It only matters if you are having a good time whilst eating good food and wine with great service.
I’m so impressed with the food here that during the Barcelona Grand Prix, I will definitely be visiting another SAGARDI restaurant, 1881 to live it all again.
SAGARDI PINTXOS BAR
Monday to Sunday from 11:00 to 23:30
Monday to Sunday from 12:00 to 23:30