Basque Country is nestled in the north of Spain near the western border of France. The autonomous community sits at the foot of the Bay of Biscay and celebrates a culinary culture that’s unique to mainstream exported Spanish cuisine.
It’s this small but influential region that has captured the inspiration of Zoko 822 executive chef Ryan Martin, who’s looking to bring a taste of Basque to Grand Rapids.
Martin, who most recently captained the kitchen at Osteria Rossa, and his team took a whirlwind taste-testing trip through the region to gastronomically known cities like San Sebastian while planning the new restaurant concept.
“In researching Basque Country, we found there are a lot of similarities with Michigan, which makes it a great fit for Grand Rapids,” said Martin. “Both areas are passionate about using ingredients from local farms, and direct access to water means there’s plenty of fresh fish.”
To the Zoko team, it seemed a perfect fit.
The menu is a mélange of dishes inspired by traditional Spanish bar menu items like pintxos (Basque-inspired bar bites), tapas (Spanish-style small plates) and raciones (larger share plates).
Spain is known for its ham, and the pig plays a key role on the menu. Look for specialty ingredients like jamon serrano (dry-cured Iberian ham) and nduja (spicy, spreadable pork sausage) for dinner.
With a strong community of vegetarian eaters in town, it’s pleasing to see a well-balanced menu of vegetable-first items, like blistered shishito peppers and grilled scallions with almond and carrot romesco.
For diners new to the flavors of the Basque Region, don’t expect the picante heat of chipotle and jalapeño peppers as in Mexican food. Martin describes his food as milder fare, using fresh sweet peppers and spices like paprika.
“I cook with clean flavors, simple ingredients and acids like lemon juice and vinegar,” he said.
On Sunday, stop by for an egg-celent Sunday brunch. Starting at 10 a.m., enjoy a mix of egg-based dishes (like bread pudding) and select brunch-friendly items from the dinner menu. For example, Zoko is elevating the piperrada, which is a tomato and peppers side dish to the ribeye for dinner, for brunch with chickpeas and basted eggs.
Lunch will solely be serviced through Zoko 822’s Bodega 822, which consists of simple, grab-and-go lunch foods, such as two for $5 empanadas and $5 bocadillos (sandwiches), as well additional items, like salads and fruit. Beverages, including cocktails and beer, are also available through the bodega. Should customers choose to enjoy their bodega purchase in-house, open seating is available.
The bar focuses on the Spanish classic gin and tonic. It features 10 gin-based craft cocktails – and has more than 45 varieties in stock for the spirits connoisseur. If you prefer grapes over juniper, Zoko has 16 different wines by the glass on the menu, hailing primarily from Spain.
If you’re looking for a European cheese plate to pair with your vino, you’ll have to wait a little longer. Zoko is not debuting with a cheese program; instead, it’s waiting to get past the initial opening to focus on putting it together “right.”
Cider is also a popular Basque beverage, and Zoko has five varieties, along with beer (including local favorites) in bottles and on draft.
“We designed the space to be nice, warm and welcoming,” said general manager Megan McAllister. “The inside is very open, and the bar is smaller and intimate.”
The front of the restaurant features a bodega counter for neighbors to grab the essentials to-go, like small bites, milk, wine and beer. It’s a welcome convenience for the growing Belknap neighborhood.
If you’re wary of the restaurant’s unique culinary focus, this might be the spot to expand your palate. Where else in town can you get octopus confit on the same menu as croquetas?
“Grand Rapids is a great place with a growing restaurant scene,” said Martin. “But, how many more of the same restaurant can open? If the city is going to grow, the food scene needs to progress as well.”
*Photos by Anna Harrington, CDKI Dining