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Oct 25, 2013 08:10 PM

Trip report - Etxanobe (Bilbao), Azurmendi, Alkimia, Sant Pau and Lasarte

We recently returned from a late October trip to Barcelona and Bilbao, where we dined at five very good restaurants – Sant Pau, Extanobe (Bilbao), Azurmendi, Lasarte and Alkimia. I’ll post a more detailed write-up on each one separately, especially the ones that haven’t been covered much here on Chowhound like Lasarte, Extanobe and Azurmendi.

I’ve already thanked all the Chowhound posters who helped me plan this trip so I’ll just say thanks again to all of you – you know who you are.

The short version is that we had no bad meals at any of these restaurants. The least successful courses were OK and most dishes were pretty solid to excellent, with a few truly exceptional plates, mainly at Azurmendi.

Some observations and tips:

1) Seafood is incredibly fresh and varied, and for the most part expertly and creatively cooked. Also, mushrooms were in season – so at this time of year ordering almost anything with seafood and/or mushrooms proved to be a solid bet.

2) Wine is much less expensive than in the USA. Lengthy wine pairings at three restaurants ranged from 40-50 euros so we indulged fully.

3) I thought we’d see more ‘Modern’ or molecular techniques than we actually experienced, especially at Alkimia. Not that I’m complaining, it’s just not what I expected.

Some rankings, keeping in mind that we judged all five meals to be pretty good.

My wife’s rankings for ‘Best Food’
1) Azurmendi (not even close)
2) Etxanobe (she had different courses here than me)
3) Alkimia (ditto on the different courses)
4) Lasarte
5) Sant Pau

My ‘Best Food’ rankings:
1) Azurmendi
2) Lasarte
3) Sant Pau
4) Etxanobe
5) Alkimia

Best overall ‘Dining Experience’, taking everything (food, wine, service, ambiance) into account
1) Azurmendi
2) Etxanobe
3) Sant Pau
4) Lasarte
5) Alkimia

More details in the next few days as I have time.

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  1. Great to see you liked Azurmendi so much - look forward to hearing more.

    I do think it's bit weird so little is written about it on the board, I don't think it's an understatement to say its one of the most important Spanish restaurants at the moment.

    We are trying to get to his new place Aziamendi in Phuket this Christmas so it will be interesting to compare.

    1. The original comment has been removed
      1. AZURMENDI – this is Spain’s newest Michelin 3*, located about 10 minutes east of the Bilbao airport. It’s easily the most molecular restaurant we visited on this trip. The building is glass, with an atrium at the entrance, the kitchen and then a large dining room overlooking their Txakoli vineyard and the highway.

        Why we chose it: initially we were planning on a week near Barcelona and five days in San Sebastian, with a day trip to Bilbao to see museums, but we cut the trip to just over a week, so it was tough to spend so much time in Basque country.

        Based on what I read on Chowhound and elsewhere I was never completely comfortable with any of the San Sebastian Big Four options but finally decided to try Akelarre ... only to learn it closes the last two weeks in October, when we were visiting. So when I first heard about Azurmendi and read a couple of reviews, especially Andy Hayler’s, it seemed like a good alternative. We decided to save SS for another year when we could spend more time there. Azurmendi fit nicely with a visit to Bilbao.

        The food: They were offering two tasting menus, Menu Erroak (“Roots”) with nine courses plus appetizers and petites fours for 135 euros and Menu Adarrak (“Branches”) with twelve courses plus the same extras for 160 euros. We opted for the longer menu (more is better, right?). A couple of chef’s most popular dishes are on both menus and I noticed that my wife, who is celiac, was served two non-gluten substitute dishes from the other menu, so they are willing to shuffle things if you desire.

        We also had a semi-pairing of wines, meaning we didn’t get a new wine with each dish but rather once we finished a glass our server would bring a new wine that matched the next couple of dishes. I think we both had six or seven wines for 50 euros per person, a bargain at any top USA restaurant.

        Special shout-out to our server Joan William for digging up a bottle of ‘Antique’ Pedro Ximénez when I mentioned I hoped to try this dessert sherry while in Spain. I really appreciate his extra effort and the wine was excellent.

        I’ll just describe the courses as they were served.

        1) Before you are seated in the dining room you are given a ‘picnic basket’ in the atrium with three appetizers, listed on the menu as “Peanut”, “Txakoli and spicy fruit” and “Homemade smoke anchovy”. I forget exactly what was in “Peanut”, maybe chocolate and peanut butter. The anchovy was in a sealed bottle and you pulled it out with tweezers ... very pungent, tasty fish. The Txakoli was inside a crunchy sphere and after finishing it all I could think to say was “we need more txakoli!”. Which we got soon enough.

        I’m not sold on the whole “picnic basket” motif but the apps were nicely done.

        2) After a quick tour of the kitchen (the chef was in Thailand, where he is opening up a new restaurant) we were seated and met our server. Bread was excellent, both my ‘normal’ bread and my wife’s gluten-free serving. A pungent local olive oil was served with the bread (we were only offered butter at one of the five restaurants visited on this trip).

        First savory course was the already famous “Egg from our chickens, cooked inside out and truffled”. This is an egg yolk with part of the yolk siphoned off and a like amount of hot (70 C) black truffle juice injected, which lightly cooks the remaining yolk.

        This dish is very creative and it tastes great. Sort of like the Alinea “Black Truffle Explosion” only three times bigger and with added flavor from the yolk. (Photo below.)

        This was the first dish I gave an “exceptional” or A+ to on the trip (my wife had gone crazy with A+’s at Etxanobe but I didn’t have the same courses there).

        They also served me a small coronet of potato puree with black truffles sprinkled on top with the truffled egg yolk (photo below). Because of her gluten allergy my wife was served what looked like uni on a rose petal, probably the ‘Bloody “Mar”’ course off the other menu (photo).

        3) The next course was a single oyster arrayed on a black stone with various nibbles (salicornia, tremella, sea weed and crunchy nettles – I had to look up tremella and salicornia). In the center of the table they created a vapor that was supposed to emulate the smell of the ocean but the effect of this was pretty subtle, more visual show than olfactory enhancement for us. Photos of the dish and the vapor below.

        This dish was nicely done but not outstanding.

        4) Next up three slivers of very pungent fish, “Marinated Blue fish, tomato bush infusion and spring flowers.” Forget the flowers and infusion, this was all about the powerful fish flavor. The server said it had been marinated for two months. I’m not certain what species this was but it tasted like a mackerel and the flavor was very strong and concentrated. There was also a shot glass of broth made from the bones and juices that just served to emphasize that this was a strongly flavored fish.

        Some diners might find this dish TOO pungent but you can’t say the chef was anything but bold (photo below).

        5) The next course, “Foie-gras Ashes”, was my favorite dish of the entire trip. It looks like a pile of ash and the outer coating is feathery, flaky and ash-like in texture, but inside is a bar of baked foie gras roughly the texture of finely ground peanut butter. It’s a very creative concept, visually striking and very tasty.

        The waiter said they cover foie with black volcanic salt and bake it, then flake off the outer rind to get the ‘ash’ texture and color. A+ for sure from the Willyums (2 photos).

        Creative yet tasty dishes like this and the truffled egg are how young chefs make their reputations.

        6) Next up ‘The “Earth” tea service’, a small bowl of dried mushrooms, a bowl of earthy mushroom broth in which to spoon the dried bits, and a bowl with a clump of cooked, thinly sliced mushrooms. The concept is to steep the dried bits like tea and then pour this over the sliced mushrooms and eat them, drinking the broth when done (photo).

        This is an imaginative, visually attractive ‘participatory’ dish, with strong flavors but perhaps a bit theatrical for some though.

        7) Now for some red meat ... “Marinated deer loin, chestnuts, cacao leaves and roasted sweet potato ice cream”, with a shot glass of concentrated broth (photo). No wimps need apply, this is manly fare. A lot of strong flavors here but honestly I can’t remember much about this dish except it was good but not exceptional.

        8) Next was “Salted stew: vegetables, anchovies and iberics with ‘Idiazabal’ cream cheese balls” (photo). This was very gelatinous and salty but surprisingly good.

        9) “Perfumed red mullet on a red-hot coal, ravioli of its interiors and fish-bone broth” (photo) ... a small slice of tasty fish, much milder than the blue fish earlier, with yet another strong savory broth. Very tasty but the Willyums are filling up by now :)

        10) Now for our favorite larger dish, “Pigeon, hazelnuts, duxelle ...” (photo). This featured a perfectly cooked slice of squab resting on the duxelle (look it up, I had to). A couple of hazelnuts ... and then a couple of fakes, what looked like hazelnuts in their shells but were actually a molecular concoction of chocolate and foie gras. Nice touch. Another A+ dish.

        11) Finally, we leave the savory dishes behind and switch to the sweets. First “Red fruit and cheese croissant”, which wasn’t a croissant but more a delicate raspberry meringue with a thin cream cheese-like filling (photo). This was so delicate that if you held it more than a few seconds the meringue melted from your body heat.

        Next I had a ‘”Tatin” tart and almonds’, which was frankly pretty mediocre (no photo). Because it contained gluten they gave my wife a dessert off the shorter menu, “Egg ‘flan’”. This was a bowl with carmel and carmelized nuts around an oval shaped molecular “egg”, which was filled with thick pumpkin cream that oozed out when you broke the ‘shell’ (photo). My wife often gets weak gluten-free substitutions (they leave part of it out or just give her fruit or ice cream), so she was really happy to get such an exceptional dish here and she scored this one an A+.

        The final dessert was simply called “Rose” (photo), a very artistic looking plate. In the photo, from right to left, there’s a bit of pistachio sauce, then a quenelle of raspberry ice cream, then the ‘rose’, actually dark chocolate blocks assembled like the petals of a rose and placed on a mound of ‘burnt’ chocolate. A really nice final dessert visually and taste-wise.

        Finally, petite fours and coffee. Fairly standard petite fours (photo).

        What others are saying: Lots of excellent reviews of this restaurant on the net, like these. (he rates it the best restaurant in Spain

        ) (“how do you describe the greatest meal of your life?”) He had about half the same dishes as us, with excellent photos. Chowhound write-up from PhilD, who was there 5 weeks before us and had many of the same dishes.

        Tripadvisor: 1 of 2 in Larrabetzu, but there are posters who didn’t like it. 85% ‘Recommend’. (85% WTF?).

        Pros: excellent, innovative cuisine with good service in a beautiful setting. No games with the final bill, just the meals and a fair charge for wines (no add-ons for water or bread or coffee).

        Cons: some diners might not like the intensity of flavor of some of the dishes. Expensive (but worth it).

        1. SANT PAU – this Michelin 3* restaurant is an hour’s train ride on the Rodalies R1 commuter rail line from central Barcelona. The restaurant and its lady chef, Carme Ruscadella, are pretty famous and likely familiar to most Chowhound readers so I won’t rehash her impressive bio.

          There were only nine tables in two small rooms, with up to 12 staff members serving them. We lucked out with one of the three tables overlooking the garden, giving us a clear view of the sea. All in all this was the loveliest restaurant setting on the entire trip.

          Why we chose it: when we first started planning this trip almost two years ago there were two Catalan restaurants I wanted to visit, Sant Pau and El Celler de Can Roca in Girona. Unfortunately I couldn’t get reservations for Can Roca, which now has an eleven month backlog after being named “World’s Best Restaurant” in the Pellegrino rankings, so Sant Pau became our top target on the Barcelona leg of our trip.

          The food: We had the autumn tasting menu, which consisted of five small appetizers, six savory dishes, a cheese plate, a palate cleanser and a dessert, followed by ten bite-sized petite-fours in the garden. We both agreed that three of the savories (lobster, squid and gambas tails) were excellent (an ‘A’ grade) and pretty much everything else was very good, but there were no “wow!” dishes for us, dishes that were truly exceptional. Check the photo of the Romesco dashi, which is basically a lettuce leaf in tomato soup and counts as one of the six savory dishes. A bit too light.

          The desserts were notably unexciting. All in all it was a pleasant meal but not an exceptional one given the Michelin 3* rating.

          The photos below show the three courses we liked most plus the dashi (the haiku).

          We also had the wine pairing, which was relatively inexpensive at 50 euros for 11 small pours. As part of the “Km 0” initiative where restaurants try to serve local products as often as possible all the wines were from Catalonia. I’m not sure this was a good idea though as none of the wines were especially memorable and none matched the paired food dish especially well, compared to wine pairings at several other places.

          Pros: great setting, gracious chef and staff, very good to excellent food. If you like subtle dishes then you’ll probably like this cuisine.

          Cons: wine pairings were not a great match for our dishes, dessert was disappointing and we were expecting more ‘wow!’ dishes.

          What others think:

          Andy Hayler rates it one of the top three restaurants in Spain, with Can Roca and Azurmendi, based on his 2008 visit. Plenty of other laudatory posts elsewhere on the web, including here on Chowhound.

          Used to be ranked in 60-70 range on Pellegrino’s list of “The World’s 100 Best Restaurants” but has fallen out of the top 100 recently.

          Here’s a chap didn’t like it so much ... “There was simply no 'wow' factor here and no taste intensity in any dish like you get at Azurmendi or madcap twists like you get at El Celler.”

          Based on our one meal we are clearly somewhere between these two extremes. We enjoyed the meal but were frankly expecting more.

          1. ETXANOBE – lunch in Bilbao.

            Posting photos for the different restaurants in one thread is a problem because they get appended, so I'll make a separate thread for each of the three remaining restaurants we visited this trip and link to them from within this thread.

            So the Etxanobe lunch thread is at ... short version is that I had Basque comfort food while my wife was rewarded for trying Chef Canales' 'cocina creativa'. And the chef is a great guy!

            It will be a few days before I post the Lasarte and Alkimia reviews since we are out of town for a bit.