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All-Grown-Up, Txikito, A Basque Restaurant Reopens In New York

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It rarely happens. ‘Remarkable’ was the only word that came to mind as I tasted the king oyster mushroom carpaccio sprinkled with sweet Marcona almond crumbs, late-tomato dice, and bits of Idiazábal, a sheep cheese from the Basque region. Why remarkable? Because of the mix of texture—the almond pieces large enough to stand up to the mellow sensuality of the thinly-sliced mushrooms, the combination of flavors—the lightly sharp cheese adding a hint of smokiness—and the way the dish came together under a drizzle of vinaigrette.

I was at Txikito in Manhattan, the newly reopened Basque restaurant that is the brainchild of chefs Alexandra Raij and Eder Montero. For years now, this husband and wife team has labored to put Basque cuisine on the map.

“People are in love with Mediterranean food,” said Ms. Raij who was born in Argentina, “but Basque food is the ugly duckling of Spain.” Because her husband hails from the Basque region in Spain, she sees this restaurant as a love letter.

“I fell in love with Eder and then I fell in love with his cuisine,” she said.

The Basque region straddles Northern Spain and Southwestern France and enjoys its own culture, language, and of course, specialties. The chefs may have started with an ugly duckling kind of cuisine, but they have brought what is in essence regional home cooking into the forefront, letting top ingredients take the lead.

When Covid hit, in March 2020, and the restaurants shuttered, Txikito was already 13 years old and just like any teenager, had been itching to rebel.

“Even though it was located in what looked like a 1960s strip mall on Ninth Avenue,” said Ms. Raij recently, “Txikito had become a classic New York restaurant.”

The rustic-themed storefront with its references to Spanish cider houses was ready to grow up. The couple, who own and operate La Vara and Saint Julivert in Brooklyn, brought in the architect Silvia Zofio to help them rethink the space. Chelsea and particularly this stretch of Ninth Avenue would take a while to emerge from the pandemic, allowing for a complete renovation.

Today, thanks to new, contemporary light fixtures and furniture, the space, which sits 60 including ten at the bar, is brighter, happier, and more sophisticated at the same time. Maple paneling lines the walls, and behind the bar, black marble from the Pyrenees paints a striking backdrop. But the spotlight shines on the plates.

Piment d’Espelette, the Basque chili pepper produced in the stunning French village of Espelette, not far from Biarritz, gives the octopus petals arranged as a carpaccio just the right dose of thrill. Tender ribbons of squid seem to lean on pine nut puree, melding yet again textures and flavors. There’s ‘double Pil Pil’ the chefs’ take on cod Pil Pil, a typical Basque preparation made with salt cod, but the silky fish seems to be in a league all its own, as it emerges from an olive oil swim spiced with poblano-padròn chili pepper. Turbot, a long-standing favorite and a dish that was imagined as an homage to Elkano restaurant, the Basque fish temple, is roasted, served whole, and topped with what Chef Raij calls a golden garlic vinaigrette. And for the carnivore, ‘morros’ stew is the perfect mix of beef cheeks and jowl braised slowly and yielding both delicate and gelatinous morsels in a Española sauce. Espelette also shows up on a Basque cheese cake, which on the menu appears as la Viña-esque cheesecake, an homage to La Viña, the casual San Sebastian café opened since 1959.

In truth, the dishes the chefs have imagined may well be Basqu-esque but their origins shine through.

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