Historian Jan Morris wrote “Basque is one of the world’s more alarming languages. Only a handful of adult foreigners, they say, have ever managed to learn it. The Devil tried once and mastered only three words – profanities, I assume.” Ellie Ansotegui, co-owner (along with her father Dan) of Ansots Basque Cuisine in Boise, Idaho lived in Basque Country for a year where she studied the language, enhancing the intermediate proficiency she had acquired growing up in a Basque family. Alas, she returned to her Boise hometown and without practicing it faithfully, quickly lost the additional mastery she acquired in Spain.
Ellie has advanced writing, reading, listening, and speaking proficiency in Spanish. For fear of not being understood, I didn’t speak my New Mexican Spanish to her or her father. It’s the “two nations separated by a common language” axiom that occurs literally anywhere you meet someone from “somewhere else.” There is one universal language Ellie shares with guests at her family’s restaurant. That’s the language of food. In a world in which there are is over 7,000 estimated languages, the language of food is universal! Ellie spoke food very well with me, my Kim and my dear friend Dr. John Holmes-Bennett.
John, with whom I’ve been friends for more than forty years lives in the Boise area, but had never tried the Basque cuisine so prominent in the area. When we invited him to join us at Ansots Basque Cuisine, he was a bit trepidatious (John has known me a long time). He feared our culinary explorations might include grasshoppers, lizards or some other exotic “food.” Thankfully Ellie was on hand to assuage his fears. With an effusive enthusiasm and ambassadorial skill, she described Basque cuisine and urged us on. Ellie is a peripatetic presence at the restaurant, flitting from table to table.
Dan, her dad, obviously comes from the same family tree. With a perpetually smiling face, he visits every table and treats guests like family members (the type of family members he likes). When we expressed dismay and cursed the James Beard Foundation judges for not having accorded “Best Chef – Mountain” (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming) to him, he praised the Foundation for “having gotten it right” by selecting another Boise area chef (Kris Komori of KIN) for the honor. Dan is a self-effacing man who doesn’t bask in recognition though he’s very happy to be complimented by highly satisfied guests enjoying the magnificent cuisine at his restaurant.
It was Ellie who picked up the phone when the James Beard Foundation called and notified her that Ansots had been named a semi-finalist for the “Best Chef: Mountain” award in 2022. She thought someone was playing a joke on her. Dan didn’t believe it either until the local media descended with additional confirmation. It was easier to believe they had been nominated a second time when the call came in a year later. Two James Beard Foundation semi-finalist nominations can do wonders for a restaurant. Walk-in traffic increased, the number of reservations grew and (as of this writing) Ansots has a perfect five-star rating on Yelp.
John and I hadn’t seen one another in nearly four years and had a lot of catching up to do, so Ellie must have refilled our cups of water four or five times before we really took the opportunity to study the menu. As is often the case, we saw an intriguing item being delivered to another table that we hadn’t seen on the menu. It looked like a charcuterie board. Ellie quickly ferried over a separate one page menu featuring Ansots house-cured Charcuterie board with two Spanish cheeses and assorted pickled vegetables (with Marcona almonds).
Remembering “charcuterie” is a French term, I asked Dan what the Basque term for charcuterie is. He joked that traditionally Basque people don’t cure meats, but the charcuterie board served at Ansots includes precisely the meats Basque people would cure if they cured meats. Ellie added that in Basque, the term “ji” is used as a suffix when a Basque term isn’t known. So, she told us, the basque term for the board we requested was a “charcuterie-ji.” If it sounds like Ellie and Dan spent all their time at our table, that’s just not the case. Their ubiquity and customer orientation were remarkable.
Ansots house-cured charcuterie-ji board was spectacular, easily one of the very best we’ve ever had. Perhaps because Ansots cures and smokes all its meats, the board was far more generous and at a lesser price than other boards we’ve had. Unbelievably, the cost for five house cured meats was only $18. Add two Spanish cheeses and the cost jumps to $23. That’s still a bargain considering some restaurants charge significantly more for far fewer meats. Our charcuterie board also included sliced bread, arugula with fermented carrots, pickled fennel and cucumbers in a garlic vinaigrette, Marcona almonds (the best in the world), membrillo (quince jam) and pickles.
My favorite of the five meats is also Ellie’s favorite, one she refers to as “meat candy.” That’s the Solomillua (cured pork tenderloin). The tenderloin is cured with salt, spicy pimienton and a touch of cayenne. On the photo above, you’ll see three thin slices somewhat resembling beets. That’s the solomonillua. Most pork tenderloin is sliced into medallion sized portions, but solomillua is somewhat smaller than the other meats on our charcuterie. Size not withstanding, there’s so much flavor on this meat candy.
Other favorites included the lomo embuchado (cured pork loin), a velvety and smooth cured meat reminiscent of Jamon Serrano. The loin is made using Snake River Farms kurobuta pork (qualitatively the equivalent of Kobe beef). It takes sixteen weeks to cure and dry. The depth of flavor and time it takes to achieve it may be the reason this is Dan’s favorite. Amuma’s Chorizo (cured chorizo) showcases a chorizero pepper sauce that will grab your attention and hold your taste buds. It’s a superb chorizo, so different and so much better than the Mexican chorizos we tend to use.
Ansots Jamon, cured and aged for over a year, is slice very thinly and literally melts in your mouth. Curing time can’t be rushed. Nor will the Alsots family which values quality over sales. They will not compromise on very exacting standards. The fifth and certainly not last in our hearts or taste buds is Lepoa (cured pork collar). It’s similar to an Italian capicola but cured in the Basque style with salt, garlic and spicy pimienton. I should have asked if there’s a Basque equivalent term to gabagool, Italian slang for capicola. Ellie would probably have called it gabagool-ji.
The five dollar upcharge for adding two cheeses is a bargain, especially when you consider the quality and especially if you’re a turophile. One cheese is the Mahón Spanish cheese which is made from raw cow’s milk. Mahón cheese actually comes from Menorca, an island located between the Valencian coast of Spain and the Italian island of Sardinia. Mahón is one of the only purely cow’s milk cheeses made outside of northern Spain. The salty Mediterranean winds give the cheese a very slight flavor of the sea. Spanish chefs use it with everything from filling cannelloni to topping vegetables. Ansots sliced it into thin wedges presented on the charcuterie board for our delectation. There was none left when we were done.
The other cheese was a smoked sheep’s milk cheese called Idiazabal. This one does originate in Basque country. Queso Idiazabal is made from the raw, unpasteurized milk of Latxa and Carranzana sheep and is cured for a minimum of two months. Idiazabal is lightly smoked, adding to its smooth, nutty flavor. Idiazabal goes perfectly with a thick spreading of homemade membrillo, a sweet red quince paste. There wasn’t enough membrillo to go around, but what we did have was characteristically sweet flavor tinged with sharpness.
The Ansots menu lists eight bocadillos, a Spanish sandwich served on a baguette or similar bread. I asked Ellie to tell me what her three favorite bocadillos are and then to bring us any of the three, knowing that we’d enjoy them. Her choice for us was the Chistorra (two smoky and somewhat spicy Chistorra sausages with grilled onions and pimentos on a baguette). As with all the chorizos on the menu and those offered as bulk products, the Chistorra is hand-made using family recipes that have been passed down over the years by the Ansotegui and Inchausti families. The Chistorra was magnificent with an assertive personality barely offset by the caramelized onions or sweet, mild pimentos. The baguette was superb, too, a magnificent canvas for a masterpiece.
Let’s revisit the language of food as mastered by Dan Ansotegui. Dan has been involved in the Boise food scene for more than forty years, starting both Bar Gernika in 1991 and The Basque Market in 1999. Dan is a genuinely kind man with an extroverted nature (much like my friend John). We didn’t know that about Dan, but when researching where to dine in Boise, cognoscenti were unanimous in declaring his restaurant one of the very best in “the city of trees.” Virtually every source listed it as the best Basque restaurant in a city heavily populated by Basque people. The Basque population in Boise, by the way, is large enough that there’s an area in Boise known as the “Basque Block” with numerous restaurants serving excellent food.
Both Dan and Ellie speak the language of food in the way they interact with their guests. Beyond that, Ellie expresses herself through her mastery of baking. Somewhere between welcoming and serving guests, she manages to bake some of the very best pastries we’ve ever had. Though the three of us were satiated, we couldn’t pass up the luscious post-prandial offerings. I was most intrigued by the burnt Basque cheesecake described on the menu as “a creamy cheesecake with a texture somewhat between flan and NY cheesecake.” This is a crustless, almost alchemic masterpiece, an intentionally burnt cheesecake which provides a bitter outer layer and extra creamy inside.
Wonderful as the burnt cheesecake was, it may have been the third best dessert on our table. “Best” honors might be accorded to the tarta de manzana, a house-made puff pastry with an Italian vanilla pastry cream, thinly sliced apples glazed with an apricot marmalade. The apples crowned the pastry with a thinly shaved floral design. The combination of flavors ranged from sweet to tart to absolutely decadent. It’s probably what love would look like as a pastry. John showed what a good friend he is by sharing it. I may put him in my will for that act of munificence.
You could easily make an argument that the Kouign Amann is not only Ansots’ best dessert, but one of the world’s most unrecognized “best” desserts–in part because it’s so labor intensive. For decades it’s been a hidden gem available only in Brittany or to immigrants therefrom. Les Madeleine’s Patisserie Cafe(now closed) in Salt Lake City was our introduction to this magnificent pastry. If anything, Ellie’s version is better…and not only because it’s bigger than Les Madeleine’s. Ellie uses a bread dough (King Arthur I believe) and premium butter on her version. It makes a difference. Outstanding as it is, it’s so rich I can still only eat one. Thank goodness my Kim shared hers with John and me.
In this life, you will encounter many acquaintances, a few friends (mostly for a specific time and place) and very few friends for life. Dr. John Holmes-Bennett is one of the latter. There is no one with whom we would rather have shared our first experience with transcendent Basque cuisine. There is no one better to have served it to us than Ellie and Dan Ansotegui, restaurateurs who know it’s all about giving their guests a great experience through the language of food.
Ansots Basque Cuisine
560 West Main Street (The Pioneer Building)
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LATEST VISIT: 7 June 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Cured Meats Plate, Christorra Bocadillo, Tarta De Manzana, Kouign Amann, Burnt Basque Cheesecake