Basque cases: the team bringing the flavours of Biarritz and Bayonne to the capital

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Steven Joyce
Image: Steven Joyce

Related tags Nemanja Borjanović Txuleta Lurra Ibai Beef William Sheard Richard Foster Donostia Basque Restaurant

A decade on from introducing Londoners to the delights of Basque cooking, Nemanja Borjanović and William Sheard have turned their attention to the French side of the region with their new restaurant Ibai.

Take a seat at one of London’s numerous live-fire meat-focused restaurants and there’s a good chance you will be presented with a menu that will feature txuleta, beef from retired dairy cows from the Basque region of Spain. Such has been the growth in Basque cuisine in the capital over the past decade, and the popularity of using ex-dairy cows, revered for their deep beef flavour, that this once largely unknown cut of beef on these shores has become one of the most prized.

The man to thank for this is Serbia-born Nemanja Borjanović, the restaurateur and Basque beef importer known as Mr Txuleta. Borjanović was largely responsible for introducing the meat to Londoners, first with his restaurant Lurra, which opened in Marylebone in 2015, and later with his beef importing business Txuleta, which now supplies Galician beef to numerous top restaurants in London and beyond.

Not content with this, he is now embarking on a new project and has formed the first UK-reared Galician Blond herd on these shores, at a smallholding at the Gorhambury Estate in St Albans. “We made a name importing Galician Blond beef 10 years ago,” says Borjanović. “With meat a lot is moving towards whether it is ethical and sustainable, and from how far away it is sourced. I love the fact that we started importing retired dairy cows and that they are now everywhere, but what everybody actually wants is a UK product. It’s great to bring stuff in from Spain but when talking to chefs they kept asking me for something similar but British.”

“It’s a big risk and will take a long time. I will only
know when I eat it if it’s worked"

Thus, the idea of creating a British herd was born, and two years on Borjanović’s Galician Blond project is starting to take shape. The process of introducing a new cattle breed to the UK hasn’t been straightforward, requiring lots of discussions with UK vets and government bodies and having to send in quarantined batches of embryos to see how the breed would fare on these shores, but the result has been the birth this month of full blood Galician Blond cattle.

As any farmer, butcher or chef knows, this is just the start of the journey. Galician cows are known for putting on fat mass naturally through grazing, says Borjanović, so whereas most cows are slaughtered after two- or three-years Galician cows are often not killed until they are at least 10 years old (some beef Borjanović serves is 14 years old), although he says he will probably try them after four to five years.

“We’re excited but the reality is that to build a herd to the point where you can take a cow to an abattoir, dry age it and serve it in a restaurant is four to five years from now. We started two years ago so it will have been seven years before we can eat it.”

What’s more, Borjanović hopes to eventually supply his home-grown beef to other restaurants, which requires looking even further into the future. “To make a commercial success of it and to be able to guarantee to a butcher a supply of two cows a month we’re looking at 10-15 years. I’m 43 years old now, I hope my daughter will want to get into farming because that’s how long it takes.”

“It’s a big risk and will take a long time - I will only know when I eat it if it’s worked. I’ve had to open a restaurant to do something else while I’m waiting for these cows.” 

Image: Steven Joyce

Exploring the French Basque Country

That restaurant is Ibai, which Borjanović has just opened in the City with business partner William Sheard and former Chiltern Firehouse head chef Richard Foster. Located in a former Lino factory (the site was previously home to Lino restaurant but had remained empty since Covid) close to St Paul’s on Bartholomew Close, the 80-cover restaurant has even more of a meat focus than Lurra and is once again inspired by the Basque region, but this time on the French side.

“I never planned to open another restaurant, I was more than happy with Lurra and Donostia [the Basque tapas restaurant he opened with business partner Melody Jayne Adams in 2012 and of which Sheard was manager from the off],” says Borjanović. “Will had left Donostia after 10 years and was working elsewhere and was itching to do a restaurant of his own. Over a few beers we decided to open one together.”

At a similar time, Foster had left his job at Chiltern Firehouse, having spent a decade at the buzzy Marylebone restaurant. A long-time friend of Borjanović and a buyer of his meat for the restaurant, Foster became the final piece in the puzzle that would become Ibai.

Unlike Lurra and Donostia, and the many Basque-inspired restaurants​ that have since opened in their wake, Ibai’s cuisine is that of the French Basque region. “We wanted to differentiate from my existing restaurants but also the whole Basque movement in London and the UK has predominantly been focused on the Spanish side,” says Borjanović. “This is great, I’m part of that, but it’s a shame because a half an hour’s drive from San Sebastian there is a whole undiscovered world - for us anyway - of cuisine.

"It’s not something we planned but you’ve got Josephine Bouchon, Bistro Freddie, Bouchon Racine - all of a sudden French cooking is having its moment, so why not put French Basque cooking on the map too?"

By chance, Foster has travelled extensively in the French Basque region, from the small towns of Espelette to Biarritz. Chefs with whom he has worked in London have go on to own restaurants in that area and, in the past, he has visited them and even done shifts in their restaurants to get the full experience. 


A 'not super authentic' approach

Ibai’s menu is simple, well sourced and with not too many ingredients. Dishes under the ‘to start’ section include Cantabrian anchovies with olive oil; peas, broad beans and black truffle; beef tartare with smoked Espelette pepper; and a ‘croque Ibai’ made with carabinero prawns, boudin noir, and tomme de brebis sheep’s milk cheese.

Beyond that is a dish of octopus and piperade marmitako, a Basque stew, on the ‘from the embers’ section, while the grill section features dishes that include a turbot chop served simply with lemon and olive oil; and a slow-grilled poussin marinated in Espelette pepper, citrus and garlic; and a tuna T-bone with herb and chilli salsa.

The food is described as being ‘not super authentic’ but rather bringing traditional French Basque cuisine to London in 2024. “If you try to be completely authentic you set yourself up to fail,” says Borjanović. “The [region] is so high on the gastronomy spectrum you’re never going to be able to reach that, no matter how hard you try. You will never be Elkano or Extebarri and to try and copy them like for like is futile. Instead, you can take inspiration from them.”

Borjanović uses Donostia as an example. When it opened in 2012 the idea was to replicate the pintxo bars of San Sebastian, but it was quickly established that the Basque tradition of eating something from a counter and then moving on couldn’t be replicated in Marylebone, where he says people would question how long the food had been out for and would want to stay longer than for just one or two bites to eat. “Some things should be left the way they are. We still did pintxos, but they were made to order. It was tweaked for the city we live in.” 

Image: Steven Joyce

Beefing up the menu

The jewel in Ibai’s crown is the beef section of the menu. Options include Black Angus from Castile and Leon, Galician Blond from Pontevedra, and a fullblood wagyu from Norfolk.

“The intention is to have a beef-focused menu that doesn’t have a season. Parts of the menu have been designed for consistency - maybe a quarter of the menu will change with the seasons,” says Foster, who will next month introduce a selection of specials that will change once a week.

"You go to steak restaurants with their blackboards, and it
can be quite overwhelming. Having only one size option
is beneficial to us and the customer” 

The preparation and service of the beef has been considered in minute detail. Ibai uses a three-levelled grill that also includes a resting cage, providing Foster with four different areas at which to control the temperature of the beef. In comparison to how one might cook steak in the frying pan or grill the cooking process at Ibai is considerably longer, with each piece of beef taking between 45 minutes and an hour to cook.

“I’m a big believer in searing it quite hard and then from that letting the heat transfer through, rest and settle, to bring the temperate up, and then repeating that process,” says Foster. All the time the meat is cooking it is being brushed with a combination of butter, rendered wagyu fat, and confit garlic that has been blended with a sprinkling of sea salt and black pepper to finish.  

“The result in a strong crust and edge to edge medium rare temperature throughout, with a nice pink colour. Medium rare coming towards medium is the perfect way to cook a steak for me, you get the rendering of the fat through that muscle meat, and it has the perfect texture. When we carve it’s already been rested properly. You don’t want to see a plate swimming in blood.”

Unlike some other restaurants, Ibai doesn’t have a blackboard with various weights that when they are gone, they’re gone. Instead, every bone-in steak is 1kg in weight and available as a T-bone, rib, or sirloin, with the exception of the wagyu, which is available as a 1kg rib, 400g sirloin, or 300g fillet. “It’s a simple process,” says Foster. “You pick a breed and a cut. You go to these steak restaurants with their blackboards, and it can be quite confusing and overwhelming. Having only one size option is beneficial to us for consistency and for the customer.” 


A flat hierarchical kitchen

This approach to serving steak is not the only thing that is being simplified at Ibai. The kitchen currently employs a team of seven chefs - eight is its target - and Foster has moved away from the traditional French style kitchen hierarchy to create a model that he believes is more nurturing for chefs. The kitchen employs no commis, demi-chef de partie, or junior sous chefs but rather has a head chef, a sous chef and then just ‘chef’.

“Everyone gets paid the same, and works the same hours,” says Foster. “I want people to stand shoulder to shoulder, help each other out, take responsibility and ownership, and think of it not just as a day-to-day job but as a career. It’s important they have progression as in any other industry, and they are all helping each other, and learning together.”

The chefs will participate in elements including ordering, management, and running different sections. Some haven’t ever cooked on a grill before, which Foster says will soon be remedied. “A lot of stagnation happens if you don’t move around. It’s all about consistency and that requires repetition, but for the young chefs who are inexperienced, they see that as boring, so you need to refresh things and give them the tools to succeed. I’m a big believer in giving people the confidence to get on with their job.”

“It’s different when you’re opening a restaurant
when you’re 43 not 33. In that respect I’m a bit calmer"

This approach might be seen as a response to Foster’s previous place of work at Chiltern Firehouse, where its scale means it employs around 55 chefs in the kitchen as well as 30 kitchen porters. Foster says he left the role after a decade following the birth of his second child to get a better work-life balance and because the demands of the role meant he was inevitably more involved in meetings and logistics rather than cooking.

“The hardest part of the job was managing all the staff,” he says of his time there. “I had never intended to stay at the Firehouse for that long. I could feel my career would either be the same for another 10 year or I could re-engage with cooking and get more hands on. I’m recalibrating myself and regaining that passion for food.”

Image: Steven Joyce

A decade on

Having just opened its doors, Ibai marks a nine-year gap between Borjanović last project. In restaurant terms this is a significant breather, and much has changed in the industry in that time. How different is it this time round?

“We are a bit older now,” he laughs. “It’s different when you’re opening a restaurant when you’re 43 not 33. In that respect I’m a bit calmer, I sleep on things, we have meetings in the morning instead of after service. But the excitement is still there. Are people going to like it? Will it be popular? Will people like what we discovered the same way we did with Basque cuisine on the Spanish side? That anxiety and anticipation creates excitement, which is part of every restaurateur’s DNA.”

A child is now part of the equation, which wasn't the case with the opening of Lurra, and that has also had an impact. “I manage my time better because I don’t want to lose any time with my daughter. Whereas before I wanted to be in every service touching every table.” He will still work the floor as a waiter, he insists, but says delegation is a big part of the game these days.

One thing Borjanović seems unlikely to delegate with, however, is his long-time obsession with beef. As well as the Galician Blond project, he is experimenting with a Galician Blond and wagyu cross breed, which he says is the first time this has been attempted. “You will have the depth of flavour of the Galician beef with the marbling and tenderness of wagyu. It should be the best of both breeds from Spain and Japan coming together for this super cow - we’ll think of a better name for it.”

The results will likely come quicker than his Galician Blond project. “Unlike the Galician cows, wagyu cattle are traditionally slaughtered at 30 months so we may taste that first,” he says. “But I’m not going to rush it.” Good job he’s got a new project to keep him occupied in the meantime.

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