Josean Alija’s cuisine agitates you, makes you think, is neither fixed nor haphazard. This chef is an explorer who opened the way for a new cuisine. After seven years of stage, notably at El Bulli, he chose to look further than Basque tradition to cultivate a vegetable-centric cuisine. A risky choice in a rather conservative country and region. “In the Basque Country, the most important part of the meal is the flavor and the protein,” explains Josean. “I decided to focus my entire creation on vegetables and herbs.” He goes on to specify that the most important thing for him is his location. “Here, we have both the sea and the mountains, in other words the perfect environment in which to let yourself be guided by the ingredients.” His way of mastering the vegetable and giving it a whole new substance is simply stunning. We think back to that white turnip softened and warmed with milk, dressed like sushi and wrapped in a thin blanket of glistening Iberian pork with notes of nutmeg, striking with simplicity. Thrilling. Josean deploys both shared and singular memories through his cuisine. This one makes us think of a Sunday night dinner: little red, yellow, orange and green tomatoes, peeled and served on herbal and aromatic tomato water with oregano. We can picture ourselves going out to pluck these tomatoes right from the plant in the summer sun, taking a bite and letting them explode in our mouths, as the surrounding herbs tickle our tastebuds. A slight hint of vinegar, a mastered acidity, comes to jerk us out of our reverie.
Each composition is of an absolute grace. How can we not mention the steamed avocado and artichoke, a delightful flirtation between the two textures? The oyster, lemon and chives, is incredibly fresh, just like the cod tripes with crab broth and pumpkin, and the superb alliance between the apple, mint, potato cream and plums. Not one dish leaves you indifferent.
The welcome is also of a rare benevolence. As well as the wine, selected by the sommelier, who accompanies diners with a deep understanding, empathy, and desire to open up a new path and carry you through the moment. We are in one of the rooms of the Guggenheim museum, in the heart of a vibrant, ever-changing space. And Nerua manages to find its place. You have to take the Ria, climb the steps and ring the doorbell to enter the barely 35-year old cook’s space of expression. It’s rare to find such coherence in a cuisine within a cultural space. At Nerua, you immediately feel at ease, despite the sparse décor and the immaculate tablecloths. You arrive by way of the kitchen, drink a revitalizing smoked fish broth, and salute the chef and his smiling multi-lingual team. A sense of emulation, of joy, simply to be there, in the heart of the creation, at the service of the ideas of a chef that leaves nothing up to chance.
We worry that we will not be able to pierce through his personality and fear the perfectly prepared speech – he has only been chef at Nerua for three years – but when we listen to him speak, it’s absolutely not the case. We meet a man overflowing with sensitivity, with a spirit and a gaze that at times wander, because everything seems to inspire him. He could have followed the path of his peers, but he chose to be the initiator. His absolute role models are Michel Bras and Alain Passard, even though he speaks with emotions about his meal at Andoni Aduriz’ Mugaritz. Josean has travelled a lot to construct his identity, learned the technique to better detach himself from it, and inaugurates with each season and each vegetal revelation and new repertoire. Purity is his motto, his guiding principle.
At one point, Josean Alija mentions Assador Extebarri, and his voice becomes more hesitant, begins to quiver. Palpable emotion. And then the chef regains control and speaks of his way of conceiving a menu, of textures, odors, sensations, emotions, moments of calm, of silence. His melody. Captivating.