6 Rue Mazarin
Tel. +33 5 59 08 01 23
BY NEAL MARTIN | OCTOBER 11, 2019
artichoke with grilled hazelnut
served two ways, rillette, samphire
with a lemongrass emulsion
Langoustines en tartare, melon and white
peach served with an Earl Grey bouillon
risotto with sheep’s cheese, organic vegetable tempura with ewe’s curd cheese
hake with squid ravioli, onion compote and a salsa verde sauce
sea bass with artichoke and eggplant, clams, calamansi and an artichoke
chocolate soufflé with tonka bean
|2018 Ekologikoa G. 1200 Txakolin
Mourguy Irouléguy Rosé
Basque region is a Mecca for holidaymakers: an idyllic assemblage of quaint
villages, vistas dappled with squat baserri attired in their vivid red
timber frames, lush rolling verdure set against the Pyrenean/Atlantic backdrop,
isolated beaches and, not least, a mouthwatering gastronomic nexus that cherry-picks
the best of France and Spain. The mass migration of tourists means that there
are countless restaurants to choose from, and in general the standard is high
compared to many regions. As you would expect, the Pays Basque has its own regional delicacies: Kintoa
ham, gâteau basque (the cherry-filled
individual ones from Pariès are to die for) or Espelette peppers from the
namesake village, the secret ingredient of chefs around the world. It is easy
to eat well.
coastal port town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz is surfeit with bistros and restaurants.
No doubt somebody will add to my brief list, but research uncovered four that
regularly attract gastronomes: Chez Mattin, Le Kaiku, Xaya and Zoko Moko. Alas,
Chez Mattin and Kaiku were both fully booked, but I reserved tables at the
latter pair. They made for an intriguing comparison, one of them coming out on
top; I shall explain why over two Vinous Table reviews.
A fine trout starter, though it left me praying that the main course was more filling.
Moko translates as “cozy corner” in the Basque tongue. “You must go,” a friend
told me. The restaurant lies just off the busy, noisy central square in
Saint-Jean-de-Luz, thankfully out of earshot of the buskers’ booming PA system.
It is a small restaurant, with around 40 covers plus a couple of tables outside.
Families are welcome, and it was pleasing to find plenty of well-behaved
children on the night of my visit, lending it a casual but respectful atmosphere.
The kitchen is located toward the rear, separated from the dining area by a
small corridor. The menu is Basque cuisine, though it is far less rustic than
many others. The presentation of every dish was meticulous, obligatory edible
flowers sprouting up between almost every main ingredient. Aesthetically, Zoko
Moko is the best I have found in the area – but more on that later.
began with a small amuse-bouche of
creamed artichoke and grilled hazelnut. The artichoke could have done with a
little more seasoning, although the nutty bite of the hazelnut gave it a much-needed
Langoustines...or maybe that should be singular?
shared three starters. The trout served two ways came with rillette, cod roe, samphire and a lemongrass emulsion. The quality
of the fish was outstanding but there was not much of it - several mouthfuls
and it disappeared into a memory. The samphire was perfectly cooked, although I
found the lemongrass emulsion lacking in intensity. It was a well-thought-out
dish that could have been executed better.
langoustines en tartare came with
sliced fresh melon and white peach, served with an Earl Grey bouillon. I was
attracted by the bouillon; however, like the aforementioned emulsion, its flavor
was difficult to discern, which was a pity, as the langoustines were moist and delicious. Best was the spelt risotto
with sheep’s cheese and organic vegetable tempura with ewe’s curd cheese foam.
It was the most substantial dish of the three and delivered the most flavor,
the risotto cooked supremely well, likewise the tempura.
My hake dish with its watery
salsa verde and rubbery ravioli.
mains, we stayed faithful to the fish course. The grilled hake with squid
ravioli, onion compote and salsa verde sauce was hit and miss. The hake was
perfectly cooked with a light, crispy skin, but again, the portion was stingy. I
wondered whether a memo had been sent to the kitchen that I was on a strict
diet. Unforgivably, the salsa verde was watery and bereft of flavor. It is
extremely rare for me to send back a dish and cause a kerfuffle, but I came
close. The squid ravioli was decorated with purple edible flowers, which was very
pretty, but it was overcooked and consequently rubbery in texture, not to
mention exhibiting negligible squid flavor. The ravioli tasted rather neutral
and forgettable. This dish left me perplexed, and the meal sagged at a crucial
Delicious sea bass and
clams, but the eggplant was overcooked.
dishes, I hoped to find compensation elsewhere. The grilled sea bass with
artichoke and eggplant, clams, calamansi (a citrus fruit otherwise known as calamondin
or Philippine lime) and an artichoke emulsion was not without fault. The
eggplant was (again) overcooked and rendered inedible. Such a shame, as the sea
bass had a lovely meaty consistency and, like my hake, was cooked to
perfection. Given the reputation of the restaurant, I was beginning to wonder
what the fuss was about.
Saving the day – this
fabulous deconstructed peach Melba.
at that moment, my wife was informed that the chef preparing the desserts was
from her home country of Japan, so all I can say is: “Omodeto gozaimasu”
– congratulations. This young chef saved the day. He hit the ball out of the park
with his stunning deconstruction of a peach Melba. Like the other dishes, it
looked a million dollars; the difference was in the execution. There was complete
harmony of flavors, the white peach revitalizing the senses, the panna cotta lending sweetness and
texture, the hazelnut crumb adding bite and a boule of vanilla ice cream and strawberry sauce rendering it
utterly seductive without overwhelming the peach. The edible flowers added
subtle flavor instead of mere aesthetic enhancement. Blissful! Alternatively,
there was an excellent Guanaja chocolate mousse: perfect in consistency, not
too heavy and served at exactly the right cool temperature. It was
terms of wine, there is a very limited selection, although I was pleased with
my choice of 2018 G. 1200 from Ekologikoa. It offered lively fresh
apricot and nectarine scents and an undercurrent of sea spray. The palate was well
balanced with a taut thread of acidity, although I was seeking a little more
tension and salinity on the satisfactory but rather forgettable finish. I
ordered a glass of rosé, a 2017 Irouléguy from Domaine Mourguy.
This was disappointing: quite deep in color, showing some signs of volatility
on the nose, heavy and flat-footed on the palate. I felt that it was served a
degree too warm, but still, it was not good enough, and after a couple of sips,
I could drink no more.
looked forward to Zoko Moko more than any other restaurant during my time in
the Pays Basque. Many had sung its praises, and eating out in Saint-Jean-de-Luz
is always a pleasure. I enjoyed the evening; the service was excellent, I appreciated
the casual atmosphere, and the desserts sent us out the door on a high. It was only
when dissecting the dinner for this article that its shortcomings struck home.
The photographs flatter the standard of cooking. Maybe I caught the restaurant
on a bad night, but quality was so uneven that I can only conclude Zoko Moko is
focusing too much on presentation and – dare I say – what might appeal to a
restaurant inspector, making glaring and often basic errors in the process. It
would not take much to improve, but I feel that Zoko Moko’s head chef took his
eye off the ball too many times.
one of my next Vinous Tables, I will turn my attention to nearby Xaya, a last-minute
booking encouraged by what looked to be a promising menu. How will it fare
against Zoko Moko?