Legina Auzoa, S/N, 48195 Larrabetzu, Bizkaia, Spain
+34 94 455 88 66
3 Michelin stars since 2012
1 in Europe : Opinionated About Dining
16 : World’s 50 Best Restaurants
1st Visit: Lunch Saturday 11th November 2016
As close to perfect as I can ever expect a restaurant to get : 19.75/20
Travelling along the motorway some way between Bilbao and San Sebastiaan, Restaurant Azurmendi appears in the distance, a vision in glass and steel, high up on a hill and jutting out over the Autumnal Basque countryside, looking half greenhouse, half minimalist Hollywood Hills mansion. The restaurant itself hasn’t even been there that long to have soared to the giddy heights of 3 Michelin stars, best restaurant in Europe on the OAD list, 16th on the worlds 50 best list and winner of the 2014 Sustainable Restaurant Prize. Indeed such is the reputation that chef Eneko Atza, trained at Martin Berasategui and Murgaritz, and still early in his 30s, has built in such a short time, that taxi drivers, even if you aren’t on your way there, enthusiastically point the restaurant out from the highway, brimming with a combination of pride and reverential excitement.
Immediately you are somewhere in the Basque version of Alice in Wonderland. Delicious morsels are served from a mini picnic hamper with bone dry Basque white wine…
On arrival it’s not immediately clear what all the fuss is about. As usual in Spain no one even thinks about having lunch until about two in the afternoon, so we were alone, but for another starving Northern European couple, waiting in the drizzle outside the doors for the restaurant to open at 13:00. Indeed we were so early that we allowed ourselves a quick inspection of the kitchen garden and the seed bank they have on the roof. There is a strong concentration on sustainability in Atza’s food, and this applies as much to growing locally as it does to maintaining traditional preparations, and cataloging and preserving local species of flora and fauna.
Act 1: Picnic : Eel sandwich, Garden vegetables, Txako-Rose cocktail, glass of Txakoli
When we eventually managed to get inside, the mood turned rapidly from ‘err’ to ‘ooh’ as the first act was upon us. Eating at Azurmendi is a carefully choreographed dance, a performance with four distinct acts, each with a different set, actors, and theme. The first is the Picnic; Guests are welcomed with a glass of crisp Txakoli and presented with a mini picnic hamper of amuses. Immediately you are somewhere in the Basque version of Alice in Wonderland. Delicious morsels with bone dry local white wine… no fuss, no hurry, a great start. And here the generosity, hospitality and attention to detail first rears its head; a glass of juice for my daughter and vegetarian bites for my wife, both presented in precisely the same way as the ‘standard’ offering. It’s often the case, especially in this part of the world, that vegetarians are treated as at best a curiosity to be tolerated, and at worst are largely ignored. Not so here.
The tour lead shortly after into the cavernous kitchen where we were greeted by a thunderous choreographed shout from the whole staff. This was the second Act – and how appropriate to see where your food comes from before you eat, not what more usually happens, as part of some tipsy tour after you’ve already been in situ for 3 hours. Some further bites were served whilst the cooking sections pointed out and explained. I tried not to stare, but I love professional kitchens and would have been more than happy to perch on a stool there for the rest of the day just eating scraps from the garde manger. To the significant relief of my family however they insisted we go and actually eat in the restaurant, but not before we were introduced to the third act.
Arriving in another room, again flooded with light coming through the floor to ceiling glass, we encountered ‘The greenhouse’, where we were invited to find some more amuses hidden around the planting tables. A 3 star egg hunt. Herb biscuits and cheese, Asparagus cotton, Mushroom leaf… not the most obvious items for a fussy 4 year to be eating, but something about the light, the smiles from the chefs, the warm welcome, put Sophia totally at ease, and she started trying everything. I knew at once we were in for something very special.
Act 3: The greenhouse
And so it was with some significant excitement that the dishes proper started. … And immediately fell flat on their face. The opening foray of an egg yolk injected with truffle sounded amazing, but something about it set off some serious revulsion reflex in me. I still don’t know what, but let’s just say it wasn’t my favourite mouthful ever. And of course I had to eat it twice as Nadya, as per the standard play book, rejected the runny yolk without a second ‘s thought.
So after the combination of egg yolk and truffle, two of my favourite things on this green earth, failed to come anywhere near working for me, I was beginning to feel it might all be a ruse. Maybe it wasn’t such a good restaurant after all. Maybe it was another Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester….all pomp and no trousers.
Thankfully again, not so.
The unloved inside out egg with truffle
Thankfully, the next dish came back off the ropes swinging and set the tone for the rest of the meal. Extraordinary. This was thoughtful, delicate, intricate, but powerfully delicious cooking. And amongst the space age techniques going on, all the dishes managed to preserve and amplify the essence of one main ingredient. This was the single most moreish 3 star meal I’d ever eaten. Finger-lickingly tasty. And that’s relatively rare amongst the restaurants ranked amongst the best in the world. Normally intellectually interesting, often artistically extraordinary, regularly taking creativity to new heights, but very rarely do they make you want to lick the plates clean… of all 12 courses.
Oyster tartar, oyster leaf, cucumber granita, seaweed
Great rustic dishes from the region elevated with impossible technical skill, but at the same time left clearly identifiable for what they were. Not even made more elegant per se but just made better.
Sea urchin, jelly of sweet wine from the house vines
The first two dishes came with instructions on how to eat them from our excellent waiter. Now this is normally a pet hate of mine – being told how to eat as if I’m some naughty toddler – but I bit my lip and did what I was told. Thankfully so, as the two dishes did eat better following the instructions. The flavour of oyster was indeed elevated by first nibbling on an oyster flavoured leaf. And the aggressively powerful urchin found a perfect foil in the sweet wine jelly. The second dish we were told to just mix up, which I couldn’t bring myself to do to such a beautiful plate, opting rather to painstakingly make sure to get a bit of everything in each bite.
The comically simply titled : “Garlic mushrooms”
The great classic lobster preparation came after an staggeringly good dish of mushrooms cooked as pasta with garlic mushroom bonbons. Beautiful, technically faultless. The essence of lobster. Perfect. Meanwhile Sophia was given a huge plate of the highest quality Jamon I’ve ever seen…. and low and behold, faced with such a thing for the first time in her life, so suspiciously placed a piece in her mouth, turned and made a loud hmm of appreciation. It was almost drowned out by the sound of her mother’s jaw hitting the floor and the quiet sobbing of utter joy emanating from her father. The front of house waited on her impeccably, treated her with respect as a child, were not demanding, waited patiently, engaged her, and listened when we asked for something simple for her main. I can’t tell you how often Michelin kitchens are incapable of just making something uncomplicated for a child. She was given a perfectly cooked piece of haddock, which she loved.
Lobster, its crunch, and mayonaise
Next up for me was a croquette of sucking pig with a basil emulsion. Faultlessly executed. Extremely rich but balanced and not in the slightest bit greasy. And here the locality of the dishes became so clear…the pig tasting of the spit, the kokotxas (cod cheeks), the pilpil sauce. Great rustic dishes from the region elevated with impossible technical skill, but at the same time left clearly identifiable for what they were. Not even made more elegant per se, but just made better.
Spicy fried suckling pig with basil
Kokotxas, potatoes and herbs pil-pil
Pigeon, deuxellle and legume flowers, with foie gras
By the time the deserts came I was really stuffed. So blissfully, perfectly happy that I even managed to enjoy a banana dish. Bananas are probably the only food stuff I truly can not stand, so really that’s high praise. And we finished with the most wonderful interpretation of a Snickers bar I could imagine. Again, filled with technique but never seeming needy or showy. Just clever, fun, insanely delicious food.
Bananas and coconut
Chocolate, peanut and liquorice
This was one of the standout meals, standout restaurant experiences of my blessed life. I would return in a heartbeat, clambering over many world class restaurants on my way to get back. Really as close to a perfect few hours as I can ever hope to experience. Food, service, location, family. Magical.