Azurmendi Restaurant, a 3 Michelin Star Gem!
Azurmendi is a 3 Michelin Star Restaurant located in the Basque Region. It's located in Larrabetzu, which is about a 10 minute drive from Bilbao. If you plan to visit Bilbao, it's a quick drive from there to Azurmendi. I however was not staying in Bilbao this time around. I stayed in San Sebastian, so our drive to the restaurant was about 45 minutes and set us back by about $100 Euros each way, so a total of $200 just for the transportation. A bit wasteful I admit but I had no other option as we didn't have enough days to stay in Bilbao and well, I REALLY REALLY wanted to try Azurmendi. Not only does Azurmendi have 3 Michelin Stars, but it's also ranked as one of the Top 50 Restaurants in the World. This year it also won #1 Sustainable Restaurant in the world. I'm talking recycling waste, harvesting rainwater...all sorts of cutting edge practices. Oh and I was star chasing on this trip:)
Was it worth it? ABSOLUTELY!!!! In fact this meal was one of the best meals I've had in the 3 Michelin Star Realm. I've had quite a few in my lifetime and to be honest, not all of them live up to the hype. BUT... this one is ranked HIGH up there on TOP FAVS. So without further ado, allow me to take you on the journey I went on at Azurmendi. Enjoy folks!
As we enter Azurmendi, the first thing you notice is the glass building. The restaurant is basically a giant greenhouse with two levels. The rooftop of the building is an enclosed garden. The main floor houses the kitchen, dining room, amuse bouche tasting room, a lobby of plants and trees.
Upon checking in you get wine and a welcome picnic basket. This is the start of your first amuse bouche course. Yes there are multiple amuse bouche courses here. This is the first 3 Michelin restaurant that I've been to, that had 10 amuse bouche courses. It's pretty remarkable how much time and thought they put into just the amuse bouches (something most restaurants offer only one of) And I mean, how cute is this course? They definitely set the bar high from the get the go.
After you polish the Welcome Picnic, you wait for your server to bring you into their kitchen, where a chef will prepare the second amuse bouche for you. It actually felt like some kind sorcery when you watch them create this sphere in front of your eyes that then gets a perfectly cooked yolk and truffle broth injected into it. And as you can see, they don't emulsify together into one mess. You taste them separately as you bite into the sphere. And then you finish off with an alcoholic shooter to complement your Truffled Egg.
After our second course of amuse bouche, we then leave the kitchen and walk to the lobby entrance, where we enter a room that's dedicated to the next 4 amuse bouche courses.
Once you enter the room you are led by one server that takes you on a guided tour of the room, starting with the centerpiece. This living tree surrounded by plants, herbs and moss is filled with either dry ice or liquid nitrogen, as it smokes around the tree when you walk towards it, creating this enchanted forest feel. Again, so much thought and playfulness from the Chef on just the amuse bouche courses.
We start with a fermented apple shooter which I forgot to take a photo of because I was so mesmerized by the setup of this room. The apple shooter was amuse bouche course #7. As we walk to each corner of the room, we move to the next course. #8 was nestled amongst fresh herbs, spices and grains.
Moving on to #9 of the Amuse Bouche, again hidden in what looks like a beautiful and magical forest. This dish was not only unique but pretty darn amazing. They utilize their own local goats for the milk to create a take on quark which is basically a yogurt/cottage cheese. Except here their version takes the flavors of quark and alters it to create this smooth texture similar to silken tofu. I did not expect this, but my god was this deliciously brilliant. Still wrapping my head around this.
This is our last bite and and the end of our tour in the enchanted forest of amuse bouche world. Our next journey begins in the dining room which they call the Balcony, as it juts out over the hill. This 10th course is a bit like a palate cleanser with its sharp sweet and tart flavors encased in a thin crisp chocolate shell.
And so we now have moved to the balcony (aka dining room) A beautiful modern space that is glass encased, looking over the hill and into the countryside. It's stunning.
We sit down and find our 11th course. You are to pick up the leaf and eat it. It's earthy and crispy. Another whimsical course...I mean if you're not feeling excited, enticed or challenged at this point, you may need to check and see if you have pulse.
They then bring out the next 4 courses all together. The first one is the Mushroom praline, full of umami flavors and a rather rich start to these 4 starters.
At this point I'm already pretty freakin impressed and well, we haven't even started the real bulk of the meal yet. Believe or it not, it gets EVEN BETTER...You ready for the mains now?!? Oh and I don't want to leave out the bread courses. Throughout the courses they serve 4 different types of local breads. I won't share the images of all the bread. I will only show you the one I enjoyed the most. Their warm milk bread was soooo good. My husband wanted to ask for 3rds and 4ths. It was slightly chewy, soft, fluffy, slightly salty but had this incredible sweet yeasty aroma to it. They were little heavenly pillows just waiting to be eaten.
All the main dishes have been tasty so far with the Tear Peas being a highlight. The mushroom course below although creative was a bit on the salty side. The sauce was over reduced, making the enoki mushroom "noodles" overwhelming. The truffle cream on top didn't help either. The only saving grace of this dish was the creamy mushroom croquette ( a take on the Basque region tapas favorites, the croquette)
I found the 19th course to be absolutely stunning visually. The red and white theme was perfect for the lobster course. AND it was cooked perfectly.
I wish we could show my reaction for the next 4 courses because I was nearly floored for each. The amuse bouches were creative and tasty. The next 4 courses however was just EFFING GOOOOOOOD. I'm talking close my eyes, palm over my face, jaw dropping good.
Lets start with the 20th course. It looks rather simple and unassuming right? In fact the description is rather vague "Beans" and "assorted meats" -what does that mean?
I don't know how to describe the little micro-beans or pods, whatever you want to call it, they had this beautiful dense but soft texture to it while tasting like pureed beans. The sauce it was sitting in was divine. You bite into this super crisp, tempura like morsel to find a piece of tender pork belly (probably some baby Iberico pig they raised just outside of their green house that eats baby acorn harvested by elves all day) and then you lick that sauce off the spoon. Words can't describe the amaziness of this piece of pork belly and sauce. LIFE IS GOOD RIGHT NOW
At this point, it's hard for me to even focus because I just had such a darn delicious dish. In fact, I got so distracted by this dish, I forgot to take a photo of the next course. Yes, that pretty much never happens to me. I always take photos but, I was truly taken away by that pork belly. So I'm sorry to not be able to share the Red Mullet in Three Services. All I can say is, the Mullet was probably the most perfectly cooked fish I've had to date that didn't come out of a Michelin restaurant in Japan or Hong Kong. I'm sorry but when it comes to preparing fish, the Japanese and the Chinese win it every time. But Azurmendi showed me that they can smoke and flame roast a fish into a velvety, silky smooth texture that melts in your mouth.
OK now comes the show stopper. At this point, I'm stuffed beyond belief as we're approaching 4 hours for this lunch and we're not finished yet. So you can imagine, I'm starting to slow down and my eyes are not as big as they were before. I feel like I can stop here because the last two were so so good that it can only go down from here. They bring the Iberian Pork " Castaneta" and I barely notice the dish because I'm still talking about the last one. I take a photo of it and am immediately drawn by the sauce. This right here is perfection on a plate. Look at that sauce, it's done so perfectly it has a glossy sheen to it that reflects the lighting. As a chef, I'm amazed by their craft here. Most restaurants would not give the time or the OCD care to making a sauce with just the right viscosity that it sits perfectly glazed on a piece of food with a glass like coating. You feel like you can take a fork at it and it will crack.
When I took a bite, I was at a lost for words. I've never had this cut of pork before. This piece of Iberico De Bellota is a non muscular structure that comes from the mandibular salivary gland. It reminded me of sweetbreads except slightly meatier. It was juicy, moist, tender, meaty, and coated in a thin crisp exterior with a perfect sauce. No WORDS. I just want to get up and clap.
So if it wasn't bad enough that I forgot to take a photograph of the Red Mullet which I enjoyed immensely, I also forgot to take a photo of the Stewed Hake and anchovies from Bermeo. I'm embarrassed to say that I was so impressed by some of the dishes Chef Eneko served us that I would blank on the next course. Course 22 however was not memorable for me. I think I was crushing so hard on the last few dishes, the bar was just set too high for me to be able to match it again.
Course 23 - DESSERT! Excited to finally complete my culinary adventure. 4.5 hours in, I'm just about to bust out of my dress from fullness, so needless to say I'm thrilled that we are coming to the end. First dessert was fruity, tart, sweet and slightly creamy. For those of you who live in San Francisco and have been to Kokkari, this dessert here is the elevated version of the Fruit Granita with Yogurt Ice Cream (one of my fav desserts). The dessert was tasty but not that original or unique.
Course 24, Dessert #2 Now this one looks pretty plain (brown and white) but tastes incredible. It challenges what you think of in terms of taste when you look at it. You're expecting something in the sweet realm when you hear honey and cinnamon. But when you bite into it, it's got all these amazing textures and flavors. The yogurt whipped cream paired with the honey ice, cinnamon sponge cake and the crispy sweet macaroon like sticks was phenomenal. You got crunch, pillowy softness, creamy goodness, cold icy bits all in one bite. SUPER GOOD and memorable.
Course 25, Chocolate, peanuts and licorice. I was beyond stuffed at this point and had to turn down the last dessert, along with the mignardise and petit fours. The petit fours came in these beautiful boxes with so many confectionaries to choose that I just couldn't touch. And normally I would just suck it up and do it but I had planned a Pinxtos Tasting with some friends for dinner that night in San Sebastian and I didn't want to feel sick from too much overeating. So I stopped and was happy to end at course #24. The tasting itself had 27 courses, so I did pretty darn well.
Thank you Chef Eneko Atxa! You are truly an artist. I was taken on this incredible journey through food and learned quite a bit about the classic Basque cuisine through your interpretation of it. I'm in awe of what you have accomplished here both with your food and with the restaurant space itself. Truly a remarkable experience!
After leaving the restaurant, we took one last look at this building with the skies turning grey and it starting to rain, I felt a sense of satisfaction. I just had one of the most incredible meals in Europe. Azurmendi is honestly a very special place, it's where magic happens.