Eneko Atxa’s Ocean on a Plate

One chef’s molecular gastronomy is as tasty as a day at the beach.
eneko atxa

When last we left young Basque chef Eneko Atxa (whose main restaurant, Azurmendi, is just outside Bilbao), he was on stage at Madrid Fusion, demonstrating to the audience of high-end chefs and their hangers on a Willy Wonka-ish contraption that, he said, used ultrasound to distill the flavor of one thing (something as abstract as a garden or even sea air) and instill it in another (such as a piece of fish). But alas, they don’t hand out samples at Madrid Fusion. So how, we all wanted to know, would his dish taste?

At Atxa’s new restaurant in Madrid’s Villa Magna hotel, I got the chance to find out. It’s a surprisingly formal place for a chef who sports a mullet and wears rubber hoops in each ear, but all the subdued colors and huge tables in the world can’t keep Atxa’s enthusiasm from shining through. And here’s the thing: It took me sitting down at Atxa’s table to realize how these ultrasound distillations work. You don’t actually eat them; rather, you kind of surround yourself in them. A waiter comes out and pours a distilled essence of roses around the edge of your plate of strawberry desserts—a plate which, you later figure out, must have been rubbed with dry ice. Because as he pours, the liquid smokes up, until you are engulfed in a small cloud of roses. And sure enough, once you put them in your mouth, the strawberries have taken on a subtle floral quality, not so much a flavor of roses as a memory of them.

Same goes for the barnacles, removed from their shell and served with tiny sprigs of salicornia (sea beans). The waiter pours a distillation of sea water around the edge, and suddenly, the sweetly briny flesh becomes … more sweet, more briny, more like one of those days at the beach when it’s still cloudy, and last night’s storm has strewn seaweed everywhere.

How much you enjoy this kind of thing will probably depend on how much theater you like with your dinner, but I found it evocative. Atxa himself, however, was a little disappointed. “I’m used to collecting the seawater in the morning, making the distillation, and using it right there in the restaurant,” he said. But Madrid is far from the ocean. “Transporting it to the capital, it loses some of its flavor.” Ultrasound distillations:  one more reason to eat local.

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