The narrow alleys surrounding Karasumori Shrine in Tokyo’s Shinbashi neighborhood are crammed with tiny bars filled with salarymen making merry on a Friday night. In this milieu of wooden doors and shadowy interiors, the cobalt blue-framed glass storefront of recently opened Txiki Plaka draws the eye like a moth to a porch light. However, the bar stands out for more than its cheerful decor: Txiki Plaka specializes in pintxos, the unique version of tapas found in the Basque region of northern Spain.
Tapas became all the rage in the early 2000s, when the Japanese government approved the import of cured Spanish hams. While the city has no shortage of Iberian eateries, Basque cuisine is relatively new to the scene. But with the opening of Txiki Plaka (which means “small plates” in Basque) — followed by Eneko Bar, three-Michelin-starred Basque chef Eneko Atxa’s casual outpost in Nishi-Azabu — Tokyo may be ripe for a pintxos revolution.
Traditionally, the word “pintxo” refers to a snack held together with a toothpick, typically enjoyed with a glass of the local txakoli wine. Pintxos culture developed during the 1930s in the cities of San Sebastian and Bilbao, when Spanish aristocrats introduced the custom of serving drinks with a slice of bread topped with savory treats such as sliced jamon serrano (a type of dry-cured Spanish ham). Since then, the cuisine has evolved into an exciting culinary art form that focuses on quality products. Pintxos can be as simple as the classic gilda — anchovies, olives and pickled peppers — or as complex as foie gras tempura served with lobster-filled dried strawberries.
The concept behind Txiki Plaka was inspired by a trip that creative director Luuvu Hoang made to the Basque Country five years ago. He was dazzled by the “affordable, accessible and creative” food that “surrounds you at every turn,” and the relaxed style of el txikiteo (bar-hopping) reminded him of drinking at tachinomiya (standing bars) in Tokyo.
“At that time, I thought pintxos would be the perfect fit for Japan. At standing bars, it’s about sharing small plates, drinking and talking to strangers,” he says.
Although chef Remi Hachiya had trained in Spanish, Italian and French kitchens, she was unfamiliar with Basque cuisine until she visited San Sebastian earlier this year. For Hachiya, too, it was love at first bite.
“It is a place where people are highly conscious of their own food culture and pursue the discovery of new flavors through contrasts that stimulate the senses and synergy,” she observes.
Last month, I traveled to the Basque Country to find out what makes pintxos culture so special. In San Sebastian, I followed Hoang’s footsteps, stopping at Gambara — which inspired one of Txiki Plaka’s signature dishes, sauteed mushrooms and egg yolk — before heading to Bar Nestor for the gooey, creamy and frankly revelatory tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelet). At Topa, a new eatery by Andoni Aduriz, of renowned restaurant Mugaritz, I sampled the chef’s take on Basque-inflected Latin American food — tacos with fried hake in tomato sauce with capers and quesadillas stuffed with wild mushrooms and Basque cheese.
In Bilbao, I joined chef Josean Alija for a hop around the old town. Once a week, Alija and the staff at Nerua, his Michelin-starred restaurant inside the Guggenheim Museum, get together for pintxos.
“For us, it is a way to socialize. You have one drink and a couple of pintxos, and then move to the next place,” he told me, as we nibbled on tender slices of octopus dusted with smoked paprika at Florines.
After a few days, I finally understood the true meaning of el txikiteo: It encapsulates the daily joy of living, distilled into a few delicious bites, seasoned with laughter and washed down with several drinks.
Back in Tokyo at Txiki Plaka, people are clinking glasses and digging into grilled squid with chestnut sauce and braised oxtail. The crowd spills into the street, and I feel for a moment that I am back in the Basque Country.
Txakoli, tipple of choice in the Basque Country
Txakoli (pronounced “chock-o-lee”) is the classic wine of the Basque Country. Made from native Hondarrabi Zuri grapes, the whites are typically light and simple, with bracing acidity and low alcohol. However, today’s producers are showing that txakoli wines are also capable of depth and nuance.
The list at Eneko Bar in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu district features a range of bottles from acclaimed winemaker Gorka Izagirre that express the diverse terroir of Biscay province. G22 is crisp and fruity, with notes of apple and citrus. Aging on lees lends the wine a supple texture. Barrel-fermented 42 by Eneko Axta delivers more ripeness and body on the palate, with hints of peach crumble and a rounded mouthfeel.
As I learned on my recent visit to Itsasmendi winery, on the Atlantic coast near Bilbao, other locally grown grape varieties can be blended with Hondarrabi grapes to produce txakoli. The lush and golden-hued Itsasmendi No. 7 2014 contains up to 20 percent Riesling and offers smoky aromas and a touch of savory minerality in the finish. Itsasmendi Eclipse 2015, a Pinot Noir blend, is a pretty and poised red txakoli with red-berry perfume on the nose and firm structure. Hondarrabi Bezlta gives the wine muscle. Top-of-the-line Artizar 2012 is made with different grapes from different plots, resulting in a fresh but complex white wine with subtle petrol aromas, velvety texture, and sweetness in the finish.
Txakoli from the Getaria region, beside the coastal town of San Sebastian, is generally light and dry with a touch of fizziness. As in Spain, at Txiki Plaka the wine is poured from a height to preserve its spritzy character.
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