James D, Watts Jr. And, at first, Amelia Eesley thought that was all she needed to know to call her latest venture Restaurant Basque, 114 N. Boston Ave. It occupies the space that formerly held Amelia’s Market & Brasserie, and Hey Mambo and Sette before that.
“I thought with that name, we could offer a mix of French and Spanish foods,” she said. “Fortunately, Chef Andrew knows all about Spanish food and Basque cuisine, and he knew if we had the word ‘Basque’ in the name, then we would need to deliver on providing authentic Basque food.”
Chef Andrew Donovan, who came on as executive chef for both Amelia’s and Restaurant Basque in 2020, served as executive chef at New York City’s Tia Pol, which under his guidance was named best Spanish restaurant in the city by the Zagat Guide.
It was during his time at Tia Pol that Donovan spent several weeks traveling around Spain, “where I did nothing but eat,” he said. The trip gave him a deeper insight into Basque cuisine, which he has put to use for Restaurant Basque.
Within the relatively small confines of the Basque region is a remarkable diverse geography, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pyrenees Mountains and everything in between, which means the area’s unique cuisine draws equally from the oceans and rivers, farms and fields.
“One thing that impressed me about Basque cuisine is that, while the techniques and procedures involved can be quite complex, there is a simplicity to it,” he said. “I’ve always been a proponent of ‘less is more,’ and that’s a characteristic of Basque cuisine. A dish may have five or six relatively simple ingredients, but it is the way they are brought together that elevates it to a new level.”
Still, Donovan said, there are some popular Basque dishes that might not find as enthusiastic a welcome on this side of the pond. One such dish he prepared for the staff to sample as the menu was being created was a whole baby squid braised in its own ink — the blue-black fluid the cephalopod uses as a defense mechanism.
“Personally, I love it,” Donovan said, “but not everyone else did. So while we are making every effort to be authentic, we also want to make the food we serve approachable.”
So the calamari dish served at Restaurant Basque takes the elements of that original dish — the rice ground to a flour, the onions and peppers sauteed with the calamari, the squid ink used as a dressing — to create something that looks similar to the fried calamari found at many restaurants, but packing a flavor that is unique.
Another tradition of Basque cuisine is its communal nature — most dishes are designed to be shared among those at the table, like the tapas popular throughout Spain. But instead of strolling from bar to bar, at Restaurant Basque it all comes to you, beginning with a loaf of brioche bread and roasted garlic piquillo butter.
The menu is divided into six sections, including cheese and charcuterie selections; small-bite offerings called Pintxos and Montadiltos; and Raciones, which are small-plates meant to share. The entrees are divided between Carne (Meat) and Mariscos (Seafood), with Verduras (Vegetables) making up the final group.
Our server, Trip, said one did not need to follow the typical progression of appetizer to entree to dessert, encouraging guests to select dishes that appealed at random. “There’s no wrong way to order,” he said.
My three companions for the evening and I decided to pass on the cheese and charcuterie because we — all right, because I — wanted to try everything and one needs to demonstrate some measure of restraint whilst among the public.
Instead we started with two variations on serrano ham, the ham croquettes ($8) and the “bikini” ($9), which are two-bite-sized grilled cheese sandwiches made with serrano ham and manchego cheese.
The gumball-sized croquettes had a nicely crunchy outer shell; the interior was a tad doughy with just a few shreds of ham. Much better was the bikini, where the ham was more of a presence and matched the assertive taste of the manchego.
We moved on to the shareables, selecting three: the charred Spanish octopus ($16), the Basque-style snails ($14), and the albondigas ($10), lamb meatballs in broth.
Let me pause here to sing the praises of the snails — the snails themselves were perfectly cooked, tender to the point of creaminess, and the sauce of bacon and choricero peppers was lively and potent. One could live on these things.
The octopus had a light char and meaty texture, and skewered with chunks of fingerling potatoes and topped with a mix of Manzanilla olives and roasted pine nuts. The meatballs had rich lamb flavor, but not even the clear broth in which they were served could remove the dryness.
We went with two entrees — the salt-baked petrale sole ($26) and the cast-iron roasted rib-eye steak ($44) — and at our server’s suggestion, the crispy potatoes ($11).
The sole was melt-in-the-mouth delicate in texture, with the olive-forward salsa verde adding a piquant note. The rib-eye, which came to the table cut into bite-sized pieces, has a good crust that did not rely entirely on salt, and was the requested medium-rare. A few of the pieces, however, were mostly fat — when every bite is supposed to deliver a special experience, a little more judicious trimming of what goes to the table might be in order.
The potatoes were crispy as promised, and almost didn’t need the aioli drizzled over them. The steak also came with crushed and crisped fingerling potatoes, which were tasty all by themselves.
We shared two desserts, Pears Belle Helene, a wine-poached pear with chocolate sauce ($12), and a burnt Basque cheesecake ($11). The pear was well-poached, slightly toothsome, and the slightly bitter chocolate was a good contrast. The cheesecake, which came with a slightly scorched exterior and a handful of berries, was unlike any other cheesecake I’ve tried as far as texture and taste go. It had an almost salty, savory taste, and an airy texture.
Donovan’s wife, Ashley Whitworth Donovan, a sommelier, created the cocktail menu and oversees a wine list that focuses on Spanish wines.
“We import most of the products we use from Spain,” Donovan said. “The oils, the vinegars, the seafood — we made every effort to use authentic ingredients.”
The interior has not changed much from its days as Amelia’s Market & Brasserie. A new patio added about 30 additional seats to the existing 40 or so inside. The Market, specializing in Oklahoma foods, remains the entrance to the restaurant, but Eesley said it’s likely that the market area will be converted to restaurant seating in the future.