- Rating: 19.5/20
- Address: Legina Auzoa, s/n, 48195 Larrabetzu, Vizcaya, Spain (exit 25, N637)
- Phone: +34 944 55 88 66
- Price (after tax + tip, coffee): ~€150 ($204 at 1 EUR = 1.36 USD)
- Value: 5/5
- Dining Time: 165 minutes
- Chef: Eneko Atxa
- Style: Modernist
- Michelin Stars: 3
Azurmendi has had one of the fastest three-star rises anywhere in the world. Eneko Atxa’s greenhouse of sustainability, a short 15 minute drive from Bilbao, was awarded 1* in 2006, 2* in 2010, and finally 3* in 2012. In fact, leaving aside the expansion restaurants of celebrity chefs like Robuchon, Ducasse, and Keller – Azurmendi may in fact have the fastest three-star rise for an original chef proprietor anywhere.
Azurmendi is named for both the mothers of Eneko Atxa and Jon Eguskiza, the chef and maitre d’ of the restaurant respectively. They were brought up in the Basque village of Amorebieta-Etxano. Eneko Atxa’s uncle, Gorka Izagirre, is “the largest proprietor of Txakolin in the Basque region.”  . Atxa has trained at Martin Berasategui, Asador Etxebarri, and Mugaritz. He also considers Yoshihiro Murata of 3* Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto a major influence:
“There was another Three Star Michelin chef that had a big impact on me in 2005. I learned a lot from Yoshihiro Murata the famed kaiseki chef at Kikunoi Honten, Kyoto) as I worked with him in Japan. I had been talking with him for a few days and asked him if I could witness his creative process in the kitchen. In response, Muratasan told me to meet him at five in the morning so I imagined he would take me to his kitchen and we could cook together. We got into his car and surprisingly, we didn’t go to his kitchen but instead to one of his producers. We had some tea and then spoke for two hours about which produce he should use because of the seasonality. It made me realize that factors like seasons and availability of various products was so important. We visited one who provided vegetables, another who dealt with general produce, who also knew things such as when the best fish are available and why. This was a very valuable lesson to me as I opened my first restaurant at the end of 2005. I was always very clear about what I wanted to do in my own kitchen – to make something from the local produce that had a universal message.” – Bruce Palling
Right when I stepped into Azurmendi, I was given a tour of three spaces (along with snacks) before settling into my table for the afternoon. The first was the environmentally sustainable greenhouse, growing an admirable variety of herbs. I was served six snacks there, some with a “found” quality, akin to a fairytale. The second was a picnic basket of three little bites in the main foyer. The third was the kitchen tour, with two further snacks. And finally I was ushered into the dining room to begin the meal proper. Elizabeth Auerbach mentions that the kitchen considers this the “four acts” of Azurmendi. It is unique among the restaurants I have visited – not least because it requires an integrated compound to have all these spaces to walk around in.
The end effect is that the diner ends at the table well-disposed to the kitchen, for adding a new experience to his memories. I had, for instance, a mix-up with the rental car company that caused me to be an hour late, but I had forgotten all my worries by the end of the tour around the greenhouse, garden, and kitchen.
LIQUEFACTION, OR THE BONBON EFFECT
I wish to draw attention mostly to Azurmendi’s liquefaction effects, which have not been remarked upon sufficiently. I consider this a signature effect of Atxa’s cuisine. I was served a “bonbon” (for definitional purposes: liquid held in a thin solid receptacle), at least eight times over the course of my meal at Azurmendi. Normally, this would be nothing more than a pleasant effect. This is what the modernist spherified amuses-bouche and mignardises at Le Squer’s Ledoyen achieve – an amusing diversion, they bookend Le Squer’s more substantial and celebrated classically-based cuisine.
But Atxa seems a veritable master of liquefaction. There are two major differences I have noticed between his approach to liquefaction and those of other chefs. The first is the variety of textures, and receptacles he uses for his liquids. His signature truffled-egg uses the natural yolk-membrane to hold both hot-truffle jus and gently poached yolk. In the greenhouse, I was served a guacamole cream bonbon with a thicker shell. He uses souffle pillows to hold ham-liquid (in the picnic basket, in the garden) and garlic cream (in the kokotxas). Somehow, he spherifies idiazabal cheese (with alginate? but the spheres are huge…). For his milk dessert, he crafts eggs with creme-caramel filling. Clearly, he has mastered a whole range of techniques for liquefaction and containment of such liquids. He has at least five good ones.
The second major difference is flavor. I do not know his techniques, but the liquids in his spheres are somehow more intense than those of other chefs. (Does it have to do with centrifuging?). In fact, this is a strength not just in the liquids, but in all of the dishes, the flavors tend to belie their minimalist and sleek geometric presentations, with flavors that dance on the tongue.
If Atxa’s cooking seems minimalist, it is – in terms of flavor profile of some of the dishes. Many of the snacks in the greenhouse were two-note bites (e.g. carrot in balsamic, tomato in vinegar, sunchoke skin with lime). While this is to be expected for the simpler greenhouse snacks, it (sometimes) makes a reappearance in his cooking at large. And so we enjoy dishes such as the lobster-chive, where a cornet of lobster tartare sits upon a roasted out-of-shell lobster, in chive oil and chive puree. Or his signature truffled-egg, which is precisely its stated two ingredients. Duck a l’Orange – is duck and orange. His successful dessert of strawberries and roses, is precisely strawberries and roses. This is ingredient-minimalism even beyond that of L’Ambroisie, typically 3-5 apparent principal ingredients; Atxa apparently can sometimes make do with just 2.
Minimalism of flavor profile, requires a great deal of conception and execution to pull off successfully. Atxa is not always successful in this. He hits extremely high heights (the perfectly roasted out-of-shell lobster; strawberries and roses) but can also overplay the unctuous nature of his creations (duck a l’orange, kokotxas). But it is exciting to witness his creations, in the dishes where he sets himself these two-flavor constraints.
Minimalism also expresses itself in radial symmetry in his dishes (nearly all of them). And since minimalism is a perfectionist’s errand, the spirit of a meal at Azurmendi is the opposite of the jazz restaurants (e.g. L’Arpège or André).
The general philosophy of Azurmendi is sustainability. Azurmendi was sustainably constructed (see this video on Azurmendi’s construction), and Eneko has mentioned his desire to be the most ecological restaurant in the world:
“The one thing that was always very clear to me was although I conceived of Azurmendi as a restaurant, I also wanted to be my home, so everyone involved has to think of themselves not as a cook or a waiter but everyone who formed part of the project had to behave like a host. And that is all of the members and staff. There will always be a host to greet our guests and then we start with a small walk. We are happy for people to arrive in electric cars because we have a free service for them to recharge.
We try and encourage this whole attitude within this complex. We have been in touch with the American authorities to see if we qualify as the most ecological restaurant in the world as we are definitely the most advanced one in Europe but we don’t know yet if we quality on the world level too. We are not completely sustainable at the moment but that is definitely the path we are striving to achieve.” – Bruce Palling
But a puzzle about Azurmendi and Chef Eneko’s philosophies remain – one specifically about his culinary philosophy – for someone who worked at Etxebarri, why does he not have a wood-fired grill in his kitchen?
“After further conversing with him I understood that he considers the a la brasa method, however subtle and nuanced it is, as is the case at Etxebarri, not suitable for a top end destination. He thinks that dishes cooked a la brasa lack refinement. This is strange because I think the very opposite. For example, Etxebarri’s cooking brings out the taste of the great ingredients, whereas sous vide eliminates textural differences between and within categories ( I am talking about meat) in favor of a cloth-like soft and UNIFORM texture.” – Vedat Milor
The flavor of smoke appeared in the fisherman’s rice, but only as if by some sort of flavor sorcery, for there was no smoke to the eye. From my meals at Etxebarri, grilling can elevate a solitary ingredient, and can be seen (with a lot of aesthetic distance) as the culmination of culinary minimalism. Perhaps the final judgement is a visual-aesthetic rather than a culinary one, for the beautiful sculpted dishes of Chef Eneko’s art seem to inhabit a different aesthetic plane from the robust ingredient-dishes at the temple of Etxebarri. Both types of cooking yield great tastes (and Chef Eneko is a master of intensifying tastes), but the sculpted cuisine offers him a greater leeway to create a visual art. Thus the centrifuge over the wood grill.
- Appetizers in the greenhouse:
- Tomato poached with vinegar (3.25/5)
- An elixir of (orange, pomelo, hibiscus) (3.5/5)
- Pumpkin-parmesan butter biscuit. (3.5/5)
- Avocado bonbon – coloured to mimic the seed of the avocado – in a dried avocado shell. (3.5/5)
- Roasted sunchoke skin, stuck on the stem with lime gel (3.25/5)
- Carrot, marinated in balsamic vinegar (3.25/5)
- A bunch of herbaceous snacks, which were more interesting rather than delicious, reminding me of Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Pocantico Hills, New York) with their amuse of vegetable crudites. But these one-note snacks were peripheral players, prefiguring the playfulness of Atxa’s vision. These were not chords (hinting at a future dish), let alone fugues (completed dishes), but rather minimalist note tinkering.
- The fun was to stumble across these dishes, as if these wonders had been placed by Providence along our path through the greenhouse. It was a novel concept (and also one that requires a surrounding bit of nature). Of those I would class the avocado bonbon as the cleverest, relying on a visual similarity between the bonbon and an avocado seed – and the ensuing texture of guacamole on the tongue enjoyable. The sunchoke skin, with its visual similarity to bark, was also very interesting.
- It was in a way, a logical extension of New Nordic cuisine, which seeks to bring the forest floor to your table. Azurmendi brought us to “nature” (a greenhouse), and served us dishes. In the future, some enterprising chef might even plate full dishes in nature. Alinea (see Ruth Reichl’s 2014 report) and Atelier Crenn in the US have experimented with “found” dishes, using carrots.
- Appetizers in the garden:
- Bread and ham (5/5)
- This really kicked off the meal. An intense hit of umami, liquid ham, hit the palate as soon as the bread pillow cracked. The senses were jolted with the first protein of the day. The meal had started.
- Bread and ham (5/5)
- Homemade Seasoned Anchovy (4/5)
- This was fairly good, but our perceptions of saltiness being what it is (very personal), I felt it was oversalted for my taste. I preferred the salting of Asador Etxebarri version.
- Homemade Seasoned Anchovy (4/5)
- CaipiriTxa (4/5)
- A liquid Caipirinha cocktail bonbon, only with Txakoli instead of rum. Good. You will note that at this point, Azurmendi has already served three bonbons. (avocado, ham, caipirinha)
- CaipiriTxa (4/5)
- Appetizers in the kitchen:
- Red bean soup (4/5)
- Blood sausage croquette (4/5)
- Hazelnut, peanut, almond and mushroom leaf (5/5)
- Atop a mushroom leaf covering three nuts. Clockwise from 10 o’clock: hazelnut, peanut, almond
- Hazelnut turned out to be a pigeon foie gras (5/5)
- Almond was amaretto liqueur (4.5/5)
- Peanut was peanut butter [possibly with addition of foie?] (5/5)
- A big part of Atxa’s aesthetic seems to be stylised set pieces. Here, a tree leaf covers three nuts. Before, a picnic in the garden. Before that, found plantstuffs in the greenhouse. All of the nuts had great mixtures of sweet and unctuousness, from the butters and foie.
- House steamed bread with olive oil (5/5)
- One of the simplest bites, but among my top memories of the place. A simple steamed bread with Andalucian olive oil, but the bread had a milky sweetness and a pillowy texture, similar to a Chinese mantou (steamed bun). It was unexpected that I would find a similar steamed bun tradition in Basque country.
- Egg from our hens, cooked inside out and truffled (5/5)
- A video of Eneko Atxa preparing the dish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqpS3UPQ30w
- Hot truffle jus is syringed into an egg yolk. The temperature cooks it through, poaching the egg.
- This is essentially a two-note dish, a modern interpretation of the scrambled eggs and black truffle combination. I thought this very clever. The bonbon effect was at play for the Fourth time again, as truffle and egg exploded in the mouth upon contact. A conceptual masterpiece.
- One wonders if it can be replicated with white truffle. Would it be desirable to replicate it with white truffle?
- Bloody “Mar” (4.5/5)
- A video of Atxa preparing the dish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyh9L14bSZ8
- Vodka, black pepper, tomato, with sea urchin and celery.
- Really strong sea urchin flavor, which was complementary to the cocktail. A bit difficult to figure out how to eat this dish, I settled for taking a bite of the wafer (halving it), then sipping the cocktail, then finishing the other half with the remaining cocktail. I found the concept and flavor pairing compelling, but the presentation unwieldly.
- Tomato, cheese and basil tartlet (4.25/5)
- Vegetable tartlets, with skinless tomatoes, tomato emulsion, and the roasted skinlets of tomato. Finished with idiazabal (sheep’s cheese) bonbon. By the side, a idiazabal cheese sorbet.
- Good. Sweetness of tomato cut the richness of idiazabal. Strangely, for a strongly flavored cheese, I remembered the idiazabal bonbons as having a bland milkiness. Profound tomato flavor.
- I was advised to eat one tartlet first without the idiazabal sorbet, and the second one with.
- Roasted lobster out of the shell on oil herbs and sweet chives (5/5)
- A great lobster dish. A lobster tail taken out of its shell, perfectly roasted to give it a crunchy browning outside, with a cornetto of stuffed lobster tartare on top. Chive oil and chive emulsion. The out-of-shell lobster was perfectly roasted to give it the crunch, while retaining softness within. The cornetto was delicious.
- I remember most the impeccable technique, to impart that crunchy browning to the lobster, while maintaining a good inner texture.
- Traditional Fisherman style charcoal-grilled rice (5/5)
- A strong smoky flavor, a hearty dish of the juices of little clam, with cream of sea urchin, and oysters smoked in charcoal. Eating this, I was transported somewhere near a burning wood campfire, eating with fishermen at the end of a fishing trip.
- This presented a different side of Atxa’s cooking. Whereas I admired some of his other dishes (like the Bloody Mar) more with the head, this grabbed me by the gut. I craved this dish.
- Duck Royal “a l’orange” and orange blossom aroma (4.25/5)
- The scent of orange zest was sprayed when the dish was served. The “orange segment” was sculpted of foie, covered in orange jelly. In the centre, a terrine of meat (and foie?).
- While I enjoyed and appreciated the technique involved in reimagining and executing the dish (orange segment especially), the tastes were dominated by the savory parts of foie and meat terrine. I rationed my little real orange bits, and the orange jelly on the foie “faux” orange segment, to provide a fruity respite from the onslaught of unctuousness. This dish felt unbalanced, as if the kitchen had cranked up the dial on fattiness to 11/10.
- Perhaps as an improvement, a lighter intermezzo course would have worked well between the Fisherman’s Rice and Duck a l’orange.
- “Kokotxas” with potatoes (4/5)
- Kokotxas – an ingredient I would become very familiar with over the next few days – was first introduced to me here. It is the cheek of hake, the most gelatinous part of the fish, and sought by gourmands for its melt-in-the-mouth texture.
- It was here confit with olive oil, and the gelatin was used for an emulsion with chilli pepper and chipotle garlic. On it, the bonbon-liquidising element made a sixth appearance, with the potato souffle pillows containing a burst of garlic cream.
- Heavy. The 4th of 5 heavy courses, the gelatinous kokotxas were indeed enjoyable, but the dial on heaviness remained at 11/10 thanks to the garlic and cream.
- Confit and roasted baby pig, crunchy pork ear and pumpkin in different textures (4/5)
- Suckling pig, a croquette of pig’s ear, with slivers of raw pumpkin wrapped around pumpkin cream
- The suckling pig was drier than I would have liked. Here we can make another observation: in an echo of the earlier snacks at the greenhouse, Atxa can minimise the basis ingredients of his “signature dishes” down to 2. I think of the egg (truffle + egg), lobster (lobster + chive), and now the pork (pork + pumpkin). I do not think it is a coincidence. Atxa’s minimalist tendency expresses itself presentation-wise in sleek geometric lines (think the cornetto) and radial symmetry (this dish); taste-wise in paring down ingredients to two principal actors, with maybe a minor third ingredient for certain accents.
- Dry Croissant of Fruits and Creamy Cheese Ice Cream (5/5)
- Fruit meringue and thyme-cheese ice cream. Tremendous and inventive flavor.
- The bare bones of a larger idea about thyme and cheese?
- The sensuous curves evoking the nearby Bilbao Guggenheim.
- Strawberries and roses (5/5)
- With violence, and dry ice, the vase containing a solitary rose exploded into wafts of “smoke”, carrying rose perfume.
- The delicate crunch of rose petals (shredded and whole), with marshmallow of rosewater, strawberry sorbet and wild strawberries. For me it was indescribable, the delicate vegetal crunch of the shredded rose, along with the light rosewater marshmallow, which captured for me the lightness of the flower. It was given body by the strawberries. Independent of the theatrical presentation (which was much appreciated), this dish had the highest gastronomic merit: the metaphorical lightness of roses was made literal with textures of marshmallow and shredded rose.
- Egg and dairy products, Farmhouse Milk Ice Cream, Butter Toffee, “homemade eggs” milk skin and gelée of yogurt (5/5)
- “It has made me fall in love with vanilla” – that was what I wrote. Bed of toffee butter, cubes of yoghurt gelatin, dehydrated spiced milk. Dehydrated milk bits, milk ice cream, along with for a seventh time, eggs with liquid creme caramel filling.
- The vanilla in the ice cream was accentuated by its supporting cast. It was the star. The taste of spiced milk; the sour of yoghurt; the richness of toffee butter. A homage to milk.
- Petit fours
- Golden – buddha hand, flan
- Chocolate jelly
- Marshmallow, chocolate dip
- Hazelnut bonbon
- White chocolate