Perhaps I’m being a bit of a twat but despite having been served some of the best and most beautiful dishes I’ve ever eaten, by a slick front of house team, I’m not going to be raving over Azurmendi… nor, would we return in a hurry.
When planning my first trip to the Basque region, as well as “eating ALL the pintxos”, I wanted to visit a couple of the region’s most celebrated and salubrious Michelin starred restaurants. My heart said I should go to Mugaritz (which we also visited and will be written up soon) and Arzak but most folk I spoke to said Azurmendi should be at the top of my list!
The truth is, the more I read about Azurmendi, the less I fancied it – descriptions of kitchen tours and appetisers hidden amongst the foliage in the greenhouse did not excite as I’m sure is the intention. Perhaps it was some kind of self fulfilling prophecy and I appreciate that some (probably most) would find these experiences as something special, but we just found it irritating.
I know this may sound churlish but we just didn’t like this part of “the experience”. Call us old fashioned but, after travelling to the restaurant, we just wanted to be shown to our table, given a drink and presented with the menu.
Upon arrival, we were seated to wait in the ‘Garden’ area. Shortly after we were greeted again and invited to follow the waiter – instead of being taken to the table, we were led outside, up a long flight of stairs, around the building and into the greenhouse. Here, waiting chefs are stood at various points where they serve the “First Act”.
To begin, the first thing we were presented was a bitter, citrusy “Cocktail” (I don’t drink so I swiftly handed this to my wife). Then we were shown a shrub with a basket attached, containing the “Citric rind” made from baked and dehydrated Jerusalem artichoke skins, topped with a citrus gellée.
Far from being a relaxing stroll around the greenhouse, what was rapidly becoming an overwhelming and bombarding experience continued. Along with too much information to digest, we were presented a canapé made with mushrooms and peanuts, fashioned into a “Peanut”.
Having to “Ohh and ahh!” with a chef and waiter looking on was becoming a quite unnerving feeling, one we repeated with the “Asparagus cotton” – it was clever and tasted great and all that but I’d have enjoyed it much more had it been served at the table so I could have enjoyed it without an audience.
Next, we were to take a “Pumpkin biscuit” from a dried, hollowed-out gourd. Of course, uncomfortable embarrassment ensued as I tried to get the thing out of the small aperture; not easy when you have hands like Ree-Yees from Star Wars. I have no recollection of what it tasted like, just a memory of my wife guffawing next to me and the waiter looking at my fat sponge fingers.
Of all the greenhouse dishes, my favourite was the “Pickled courgette” – with little wooden tongs, at least this one could be eaten in a more dignified manner.
The final thing to nibble on was the liquid centered “Avocado pit” – I popped mine in whole as instructed but this time it was my wife (who isn’t used to putting big things in her mouth) who struggled. Tottering around a greenhouse in high heels, carrying a handbag and two wine glasses whilst trying to eat a series of savoury treats was starting to take its toll.
Fortunately, we were now led back down stairs. Back in the garden, for the “Second Act”, a picnic basket was awaiting. This time we were at least left to enjoy the contents at our own pace. As such, these bites were way more pleasurable. The “Homemade salted anchovy’s millefeuille” was the pick of the bunch for me but my wife enjoyed the boozy “CaipiriTxa” with its caipirinha and local txakoli liquid centre.
Upon the waiter’s return, finally we assumed we’d be led to the table. Alas not, we were now shown to the kitchens for the “Third Act”. I never like being invited into the kitchens at restaurants, for the same reason as I don’t want to look under the bonnet every time I travel in a car. That said, having just driven for an hour to spend the last thirty minutes gasping, at least the kitchen visit gave me an opportunity to have something to drink, albeit a tiny shot of “Hibiscus infusion”.
To go with the hibiscus and awkwardness of being stood like lemons in a kitchen whilst the chefs got on with their tasks, the final canapé was a “Chestnut leaf” – made from chestnut and mushrooms, this was a clever thing but it couldn’t really be described as delicious.
Finally, we were shown to out table… and what a corker it was too! The views across out of the floor to celling windows across the Basque countryside were stunning. The menus available are called “Erroak” (their ‘best of’ / ‘classic dishes’) and “Adarrak” (their latest creations) – we selected the classics.
If the meal had started at the “Fourth Act” or of the first three ‘Acts’ had been taken at the table, then I’m sure I’d be raving over Azurmendi – but sadly, the charade of of traipsing around the greenhouse, garden and kitchen did mar our overall experience.
As mentioned (and expected from a restaurant ranked No.19 on 'The World's 50 Best Restaurants') the food itself was beautiful in terms of presentations and flavour combinations. With a meal comprised of classic dishes at 3 Michelin star level, every dish is obviously a tried and tested winner. That said, I still had a few faves – the “Squid Noodles, crunch and infusion”, “Pigeon, duxelle and cauliflower” and the phenomenal “Egg from our hens, cooked inside out and truffled”.
The “Egg from our hens, cooked inside out and truffled” is probably the best single bite of food I’ve eaten. To produce this piece of alchemy, the kitchen used a fancy pants technique involving a hot Périgord truffle broth being injected into an egg yolk which sets the proteins from the inside.
The only faults throughout the meal were with the breads – the steamed buns at the beginning were ace but the other breads suffered from drying out on one side, from either being cut too long or sitting too long under the pass lights. Not great for 3 Michelin star level.
First Act – Our Greenhouse
Second Act - Our Garden
Homemade salted anchovies millefeuille
Roe and dill
Third Act – The Kitchen
Fourth Act – The Balcony
Frozen olive and vermouth
Egg from our hens, cooked inside out and truffled
Natural prawn, emulsion, juice and avocado
Squid Noodles, crunch and infusion
Roasted lobster out of the shell on herb oil and chives
Mushrooms and lamb sweetbreads
Fried Hake, roasted red pepper infusion and parsley
Pigeon, duxelle and cauliflower
Orange, strawberry and ginger
Chocolate, hazelnuts and rosemary