The dining experience at Azurmendi is unusual in that it goes beyond just sitting at a table and being fed. When you arrive at the hilltop building you are led to the striking lobby/atrium, complete with a full-grown tree piercing the floor. Before you see any menus you are handed a glass of the local Txakoli dry white wine. You are then offered a tour of the vegetable garden and greenhouses. Much of the produce used in the restaurant comes from these facilities. As you are shown around you are guided to little hidden treats: a tomato in one of the bushes is actually a stuffed tomato that has been pinned to the bush. Elsewhere you find something that looks like an avocado stone but is really a crisp soufflé of bread stuffed with guacamole, wrapped in Iberian ham. Lemon bark at the base of a lemon tree turned out to be a crisp that had been made to resemble the real thing, and lurking in the undergrowth was a creamy millefeuille made with crisp pastry filled with anchovy cream and salted anchovies. When you return to the atrium you are brought a picnic basket with further little nibbles.
Finally you are led through the open kitchen to the dining room, where a pair of “leaves”, actually mushroom and chestnut crisps respectively, are waiting next to your wine glass. On this visit we went for the more modern of the two tasting menus available, which is priced at €160 (last time I tried the “classic” menu at €135).
The wine list is priced very kindly. Guillemont-Michel Quintaine 2009 can be found in the high street for €19, but instead of the four times or more mark-up to retail price normal in London for lower-priced wines, this is one was on the list at €32. Egon Muller Scharzhof 2011 was €42 compared to a shop price of €31, Jermann pinot Grigio 2012 at €28 for a wine that retails at €24. Didier Dagenau Silex 2008 was €195 instead of its shop price of €121, and so on. Bread is all made from scratch in the kitchen here, with different rolls appearing during the meal: we sampled a very light steamed bread, spelt with good crust and a corn bread.
The first “proper” nibble was the signature egg yolk with truffle broth, using an egg from the restaurant’s own hens. Part of the egg yolk is removed via a needle, and then a truffle consommé is injected into the egg via a syringe; this cooks the egg from the inside out. This was just one example of modern kitchen technique that was not just to show off, but that resulted in a delicious dish – what is not to like about truffled egg? This easily scores 19/20.
A cocktail glass had a variant on a Bloody Mary, here labelled a “Bloody Mar” (as it is a sea-influenced version of the cocktail), which featured sea urchin juice in addition to the tomato juice, Tobasco and Worcestershire sauce. On top of the glass was a balanced a very delicate crisp topped with Spanish sea urchin and celery. This may sound odd but worked well, the sea urchin flavour in the drink subtle, and lifted by the spiciness of the Tabasco; the little crisp melted in the mouth, carrying with it the briny taste of the sea urchin (19/20).
Next was a superb French oyster, served on a base of mayonnaise of the shellfish itself and vegetables from the garden outside, with a flower called pentax. Alongside were two types of deep-fried seaweed (piscillata and codium) and deep-fried anemone, with a foam of tomato and oyster, along with a solitary oyster leaf. This was really terrific, the textures balancing nicely, the mayonnaise a rich foil for the oyster and the Gillardeau oyster itself brilliant (20/20).
Spider crab was cooked in it own emulsion and came with different textures of apple: a julienne, a roll of fine apple film and a hot mousse of apple, along with a separate spoon with a garnish of tobiko (flying fish roe). This was another successful dish, the acidity of the apple a good foil for the sweetness of the crab, the roe adding a further salty dimension to the dish; a pleasant surprise was the spiciness of the apple roll, which was enlivened using the chillies grown in the garden (20/20).
A pair of very pretty tartlets were next. Crispy basil pastry was extremely delicate, served on a base of tomato emulsion, and local cherry tomatoes called Antzuola. These tomatoes were skinned, roasted and placed in the tartlet, with their skins dried out and placed to give an extra texture with fried basil, along with liquid Idiazabal cheese bonbons. The same cheese came as an ice cream to the side – another dish involving plenty of technique, but where the flavour combination of tomato, basil and cheese is classic, but here served in an unusual form (19/20).
Next was roasted Cantabric lobster on a base of olive oil, spring onions and herbs from the garden, with the same oil used to produce an emulsion. This was garnished with a cornetto of crisp herbs stuffed with a tartare of marinated lobster. This was a lovely dish, the lobster extremely tender and tasting sweet, the emulsion subtle and not overwhelming the delicate shellfish flavour (20/20).
This was followed by squid “noodles”, which were actually made just from very finely cut squid, served with marinated onion rings. Over this was poured a reduced sauce made from the onions and squid, with a garnish of more flying fish roe with yuzu and a choux pastry of the squid ink. The squid was very tender, the onion bringing just a hint of sweetness, the pastry providing a contrasting texture (19/20).
I particularly enjoyed chickpea stew, an intensely reduced chickpea broth with spices containing boiled chickpeas with hot parsley and strips of bread, with ravioli made of oxtail wrapped with the fat of Iberian ham. This was a rich and thoroughly likeable dish, the spice level just right, the ham going well with the pulse. I am always impressed when a chef can make something really special out of a humble ingredient, as was the case here (20/20).
This was followed by white tuna belly that had been roasted in charcoal, served with broth (“nectar“) of red peppers and a little mirin; on the side was a marinated tartare of tuna belly pieces with hot spices. This was a nice enough dish, but by comparison with a stunning piece of tuna at Etxebarri the day before, this felt merely good rather than dazzling. At the end of the day, there are limits to just how good albacore tuna can be (17/20).
The final savoury course was roast wild pigeon, served on a base of duxelle with a reduced broth of the bones of the bird, alongside a cream of cauliflower, crisp cauliflower and a rich pate made from the liver of the pigeon. This was an excellent dish, the flavour of the pigeon lovely, the cooking accurate, the cauliflower providing much-needed balance to the richness of the other dish elements (19/20).
A trio of desserts began with a dry “croissant” of fruits and creamy cheese ice cream. This was a very light and dry meringue made of red fruits such as raspberries, stuffed with rosemary, thyme and dairy cheese ice cream. I was impressed with the sheer delicacy of the meringue, and the fruit quality was excellent, the herb flavour mercifully subtle, the overall effect refreshing (19/20).
Next was a dish more dairy than dessert. Butter toffee was served with dried milk, gelatin of yoghurt, milk ice cream, milk skin and a pair of liquid egg flans. This was all very clever and perfectly nice, but for me this was one dish where the technique seemed ahead of the pleasure delivered (17/20).
Better was apple cooked in cider, served on a rocket salad cream, with a little shaped “apple” that was really a bonbon with apple compote, alongside apple ice cream. A separate dish was brought with a dry-ice style effect bringing a scent of apple. I was worried about the rocket but it was carefully controlled, and the dominant flavor was the apple, the compote being particularly good (19/20).
Finally, coffee came with a series of petit fours: dark chocolate with jelly, passion fruit, macaron and praline, along with a white chocolate with mint, hazelnut flavoured chocolates and a further chocolate with a citrus fruit called Buddha’s hand served, in a final little culinary joke, on a carved Buddha’s hand.
Service throughout the meal was superb, something that is by no means guaranteed even in the top restaurants in Spain. The bill came to €176 (£137), which seemed to me very fair given the tremendous amount of work that had gone into the dishes, and the excellent ingredients used. Overall this was another impressive meal. With any long tasting menu there will always be the odd dish that is less successful than others, but the standard across this meal was high. As before, I was torn between 19/20 and 20/20 as an overall score, but the distinction is a fine one, and today my head will rule my heart when it come to an overall score. I freely admit to generally preferring classical to modernist cooking, but this is a restaurant where the chef manages to pull it off successfully. All the toys in the kitchen are put to use but using top class ingredients, and flavour combinations are logical and complementary rather than there to shock or show off. This is some of the best modernist food that I have eaten anywhere, and the location, staff, wine list and pricing all add up to a world class dining experience.
If you are interested in seeing some video footage of the restaurant and kitchen in action then you can do so at the wbpstars.com site.
Further reviews: 24th May 2013