By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
The thing about Basque cuisine is that it is hard to nail down.
Considered to be the most quintessential food in the ample portfolio of Spanish haute cuisine, Basque cookery includes a seemingly endless array of specialties.
From hardy tuna stews and delicately dried cod fillets to cured Iberian ham brochettes and burnt manchego cheesecake, there are so many different dishes in the Basque gastronomic repertoire that it is practically impossible to define this regional dining experience in just a few words. The one consistent factor in Basque cooking is its use of local ingredients, and a preference for letting the food’s natural flavors prevail over heavy sauces or excessive seasonings. Outside of that, you can expect a plethora of different aromas, cooking styles and visual presentations.
Part of the reason for this epicurean diversity is tied to the Basque region itself, and its resilient people, one of the oldest surviving original ethnic groups in Europe (predating even the ancient Romans), with their own language, Euskera (that bears no resemblance to any other linguistic group), and a fierce sense of regional identity.
And while the gastronomy of Spain’s famed Basque Country has been influenced by countless outsiders over the centuries, including from France, Italy, Germany, and even Asia and the Americas, the intractable Basques have always reshaped any foreign dishes by wrapping them in the banner of their own red, white and green ikurrina flag to make them uniquely their own.
Fortunately, the Emilio restaurant in Polanco, the leading Basque bistro in all of Mexico, has a large enough menu selection to provide a bountiful sampling of some of Euskadi’s most iconic dishes. Set in the bustling Zona Polanco dining and shopping hub, directly across from the Parque de Lincoln ponds, and elegantly decorated in a posh and invited style, Emilio has carefully captured the true essence of Basque cookery.
Also fortunately, Basque cuisine includes a lot of pintxos (tiny portions of appetizers that allow you to try a bit of everything, instead of filling up on just one dish), and at Emilio, there are enough pintxos to make for an entire meal of starters.
Topping the list of pintxos is the restaurant’s award-winning fresh clams in a savory white wine and garlic sauce, The white wine coulis is so good that you will want to lap up every drop of it with the fresh crusty bread that accompanies your meal or with the shells of the clams themselves.
Also on the must-have list of Emilio pintxos are the homemade foie gras with figs and cashews (even tastier than the French variety that was the prototype for the Basque rendition of this goose liver delight) and the duck taco rolls with prune and tamarind sauce (you can taste the Chinese roots, but again, made Basque by the subtle addition of tamarind).
Although Basque food is not generally piquant, the grilled pimientos de padrón green peppers will quench any desire you may have for chilies, and since some are picked young and others are mature, each pepper is a burst of surprise, ranging from mild to ultra-fiery.
Be sure to order some of the pata negra Iberian ham, sliced razor-thin and served up with thick, crusty toast and chopped tomatoes. If you are a fan of salty flavors, the bonito and anchovies taste like they came straight out of Bilbao. There is also a wide selection of salads, including a baked parmesan and serrano ham asparagus agglomerate and a peppery artichoke hearts salad with manchego cheese.
By this point in the meal, you may be tempted to skip any pasta or soup course.
Emilio’s cold gazpacho is the perfect blend of fresh-picked tomatoes, cucumbers, shallots, garlic and olive oil.
Who can resist that most Spanish of all Spanish dishes, paella? At Emilio, this saffron-laced delectable is served in a black octopus ink with squid rings and cooked sesame seeds.
And nothing, nothing can compete with the restaurant’s incomparable “false risotto,” tiny pasta ribbons in the shape of rice simmered in a succulent cream of manchego cheese and black truffles.
Emilio’s caldereta de mariscos — the Basque answer to bouillabaisse — is definitely a meal in itself.
The main dish menu is beef-heavy, with the USDA Prime solamillo steak leading the pack, and all options slow-cooked over an open-flame grill. But there are also lamb, pork and veal options, each served with your choice of mashed potatoes, grilled vegetables or fries.
And, in keeping with the Basque tradition of variety, there are a number of fish options, all brought in fresh daily from Mexico’s Central de Abastos (the types of fish vary depending on the season, but Emilio’s head chef, César de la Parra, always opts for the freshest and tastiest).