Azurmendi [near Bilbao]
The chef Eneko Atxa has had a meteoric rise up through the Michelin stars getting t 3 stars in only 5 years after opening his restaurant. He got his first star in ’08, second in ’11 and third this year. Is it deserved? Yes, totally. It has been the best meal/experience I have had for some time.
It's a modern restaurant in a winery near Bilbao airport and just off the A8 freeway. The doors open at 1:00pm so don’t get there early. You start in the atrium with a picnic basket with a wonderful ball of “Txakoli and Spicy fruit” cocktail, some aged/fermented/smoked anchovy on toast and some liquid filled reconstructed peanuts (shades of El Bulli). It's a great start and really whets the appetite.
Once ushered into the dining room after a tour of the kitchens where the chefs do a sort of Spanish/Japanese greeting all saying “Hola” in unison as you enter, you have a choice of a classics menu (€135) or a modern menu of new dishes (€160). We ask if we can add some of the modern dishes to the classic menu and do a mix and match – they are happy to oblige.
First: milk bread with superb olive oil. All the bread is made in house and they take pride in making lots of varieties that are served through the meal
Second: “egg from our chickens, cooked inside and out and truffled” . The egg yolk is injected with truffle then slowly cooked so it stays liquid – it’s very interesting. This comes with a cornet with pureed potato and truffle shavings.
Third: an oyster with oyster leaves, tempura seaweeds, nettles, and Chinese black fungus (tremella?) mushroom cooked in seawater. A really interesting dish bough alive by a pot of dry ice pored over seaweed to generate a wonderfully briny smell.
Fourth: a dish called “The Garden” which is a black log made of tomato and sweet potato and planted with micro vegetables and flowers, and little spherified liquid tomatoes - novel and very interesting.
Fifth: An amazing “Foie Gras Ashes” which foie gras on toast covered with frozen black/ash foie-gras shavings. Its an amazing dish with the frozen foie acting a little like ice cream.
Sixth: A small piece of confited lobster with essential herbs from the garden - a nicely balanced and interesting dish with the herbs forming a sort of tapenade.
Seventh: sweetbreads on a cauliflower puree with a sliver of deep fried cauliflower as garnish and a little deep fried pillow of liquefied garlic potato - an outstanding dish of flavors and textures.
Eighth: “Beitzu” cow tail ravioli, except it’s cubed slow cooked oxtail wrapped in a very thin layer of corn bread and deep fried and then served on the richest “legume broth” sauce you can imagine.
Ninth: Salted Stew, which an almost gelatinous meaty stew with anchovies with Idiazabel cheese spheres floating in it. Very syrupy and almost too cloying but the cheese provides an interesting contrast.
Ten” “Squid, black croquet and crispy onion” some perfect squid with the most intense and deeply flavoured squid ink balls in a rich squid ink sauce. A simple classic raised to a completely different level.
Eleven: Confited baby pig, breadcrumbs, vegetable acorns and meadow aromas” the aroma comes from dry ice poured over thyme which fills the table with amazing smells, the pork belly is perfect and the vegetable acorns were intensely flavored acorn sized cold purees with the texture of avocado.
Twelve: “Chestnuts and vine shoot scent” arrives in a little paper box which when opened releases smoke to give the vine shoot scent. The chestnuts are a sort of ice-cream coated in chocolate powder – very light, very different.
Thirteen: A “Coffee Pudding, rum and farmhouse milk” which is served in a cup and has the texture of old fashioned blancmange. Interesting but not a great end
Fourteen: however the petit fours are something else. A passion fruit ball simply erupts in the mouth with flavor and really end the meal on a high.
It's a fantastic meal, very well paced and whilst we eat a lot of food we don’t feel it is too much. The bill for two is €360 for two, and our menu was priced at €150 each. We were modest with wine with only four glasses between us and two coffees to finish, but three bottles of water - so all in all great value for the full three star experience. The wine list is stunning with lots of really interesting local wines at incredibly reasonable prices – the cheapest on the list is €22 (and that’s for a bottle not a glass!). If I had not been driving it would have been heaven.
Go here as soon as you can – it is a real winner and will be impossible to get into when the word gets out.