Chef Ben Lefenfeld has put himself through the paces in kitchens at Petit Louis and Charleston, but when he opened his own spot in April, he decided to flirt with the Basque Country, a lush, gastronomically rich region straddling the western foothills of the Pyrenees and a place long lauded as having some of the finest food on the European continent. (Indeed, it’s hard to swing a churro in the Basque Country without hitting a Michelin-starred restaurant—it boasts the most Michelin stars per capita in the world.)
Alas, the last time I visited the Basque Country, I was a backpacking college kid, too young and franc-less to eat much more than some snacks from a vending machine in the Gare de Carcassonne as I crossed the border by train into Barcelona. (It’s been 31 years, but I still shudder at the thought of resorting to gummy fish for dinner.)
So La Cuchara, in the Meadow Mill Complex in Woodberry, is my chance at redemption.
Situated inside the former headquarters of the London Fog coat factory, La Cuchara (which means “the spoon” in Spanish) is right as rain with its soaring ceilings, a stunning 40-seat bar area, an eclectic collection of spoons and vintage Biarritz plates, and fresh, fanciful
combinations of ingredients. As is traditional in the Basque area, the food is centered on a wood-fired grill, or asador, for cooking meat, fish, and poultry.
The focus here is on simplicity (with most dishes composed of no more than seven to eight ingredients) and local sourcing. And while some plates are strictly rooted on the French side of Basque Country (a classic smoked salmon with crème fraîche, or foie gras with veal tongue, endive, and aioli, for example), others are more Spanish in their leanings, including morsels of mackerel with serrano, garlic, olives, and charred onions.
Some plates are rooted on the French side of Basque Country, others are Spanish in their leanings.
As with most menus these days, the program is seasonally driven. But regardless of what’s on offer, the best plan is to order a plate of pintxos—tiny tapas and a minor investment at $2 apiece—so you can take your time to consider the other options. (A board of house-made breads, including a proper pumpernickel, is also a delicious distraction.)
My companions and I particularly loved the bold bursts of flavor in the smoked mussels pintxos paired with spicy-sweet piquillo peppers and green olives. Other pintxos we loved included a salty-sweet beet purée with poached marcona almonds served in a demitasse and anchovies with guindilla chiles and charred onions (a popular snack food in Biarritz that made the salt lover in me rejoice).
Of the tapas selections, winning plates included a hearty dish of patatas bravas (like a plate of upscale home fries) with a house-made chili powder blend and roasted garlic and onion purée, and a delicate veal crudo, paper-thin, almost translucent, slivers of veal, topped with poached porcinis and dressed to impress with borage blossoms. Even a plate of mere mesclun was divine and an excellent example of the adroit care that’s taken in the kitchen. The greens were sturdy and satisfying and a great vehicle for the earthy truffle vinaigrette.
While the small plates are great, don’t miss the mains. The fish preparations are particularly peerless, like a piece of fire-kissed bronzini with a cracker-like roof of skin and the unusual addition of prosciutto adding a smokiness that tied the dish together.
Equally of note: the delectable niçoise salad—a deconstructed riff on the French classic that included ruby red slabs of grilled sushi-grade Bigeye tuna, niçoise olives, new potatoes, and guindilla chiles. A strip steak served with rioja butter was tasty, though slightly less successful. A glob of butter added unnecessary richness and a grilled side of bitter zucchini didn’t pair well with the protein.
The desserts, made in house, are more than worth your while: Go small with a simple scoop of outstanding house-made ice cream or over-the-top with a helping of house-made churros served with chocolate syrup on the side. Given that much of the staff can list Petit Louis and other Foreman Wolf outposts on their CVs, it’s not surprising that the service matches the caliber of the cuisine.
Sommelier Greg Schwab, who never failed to recommend just the right red from the Rioja region on all of our outings, also deserves a special shoutout. On a late June jaunt, when a serious summer storm deterred us from getting back to our cars, Schwab rushed to the rescue with a sumptuous and sweet wine from the Malaga region. As we settled back into the banquettes and waited out the storm, we basked in the glow of the Basque Country.