Azurmendi has a spectacular hilltop setting about ten minutes or so drive from Bilbao airport. Set around a 40 hectare vineyard, the building housing the original restaurant now contains a banqueting suite and a casual restaurant offering a €35 menu. The main gastronomic restaurant is now set in a glass and steel building higher on the hillside. Alongside the new building is an extensive vegetable and herb garden, and inside is a state of the art, computer controlled greenhouse. The building has photo-voltaic cells generating power, as well as using geo-thermal energy, so is about as environmentally friendly as it could be. Azurmendi has had a meteoric rise up the Michelin ladder, after opening in 2005. It was awarded a first star in 2008, a second star in 2011 and a third star in 2013. Chef Eneko Atxa was born in the Basque country, having previous worked at the restaurants Baserri Maitea, Asador Zaldua, Andra Mari, Etxebarri, Martín Berasategui and Mugaritz.
As you enter the building there is an atrium, and indeed the meal began here with a picnic served in a hamper. In the picnic basket were mushrooms coated in Iberico ham powder, a foie gras peanut and an onion infusion. The infusion had impressive depth of flavour, the onion very sweet, and the other nibbles were also enjoyable (18/20). After this we moved in to the large dining room, which can at capacity seat 60 diners with ease. Tables were very well spaced, and the very large kitchen had 15 chefs working on the evening of our visit.
The wine list was exceptionally fairly priced, with numerous wines under €40, some wines available at €23 and the markup levels throughout the list negligible. Kanonkop Pinotage 2006 was €42 for a wine that retails at pretty much exactly that price, and we drank Alion 2007 at €56 for a wine that in a UK shop would cost you slightly more than that. Similarly, Andres Romeo 2008 was €110 but that is pretty much what you pay for it in a shop in Britain. The tasting menu was priced at €135.
Farmhouse milk bread was made from scratch in the kitchen, and had very soft texture, served with olive oil from southern Spain. A truffled egg was presented on a spoon, the egg yolk having been injected with a truffle consommé, which cooks the egg from the inside out. This was technically innovative, but more importantly tasted lovely, the warm egg yolk beautifully complemented by the earthy truffle flavour (19/20). Even better was a cornetto of truffled potato, the cornet ultra-light in texture, the potato having lovely flavour, lifted by the truffle (20/20).
The first formal dish of the meal was the "garden" an attractive display of vegetables grown on the premises, set out as a little garden on a slate. The "soil" was made from dehydrated beetroot, in which nestled courgette, cauliflower, carrot, broccoli, peas and cherry tomatoes, with tiny potatoes to be found within the soil, along with an emulsion of tomato. The flavour of these vegetables was superb, and the presentation very appealing (20/20). A spelt bread appeared at this point.
Roast lobster was superb, with a tapenade of lobster, mushrooms, black olives and spring onion emulsion. The lobster had fabulous flavour and was perfectly cooked, nicely complemented by the vegetables (20/20). Peas from the garden were topped with pea flowers and served over a purée of broad beans. The depth of flavour of this was remarkable, the peas stunning (20/20). One person in our party had sashimi of bluefish in tomato water, which he felt was "stunning".
Iberico pork and wild garlic flowers was served with cream of broad beans, which again had fine flavour (19/20). "Ravioli" of oxtail was wrapped in corn bread rather than pasta, served with a legume broth involving chickpeas and herbs. This was very enjoyable but extremely rich, and I think would have been improved by some dish element with acidity to cut through the richness (18/20). Squid with cream of squid ink, croquettes and dried onion featured remarkably good squid, without a trace of chewiness, and combining nicely with the onion (19/20). Confit of pork came on a breadcrumb base salted with pork bones and acorns, with pork jus, herbs and pork crackling. This was a lovely dish, and it was a neat touch to combine the pork with acorns, which would form part of the pig's natural diet (19/20). One nice touch happened when one of my dining companions praised the crackling to a waiter; moments later an extra dish of crackling appeared.
Roasted "chestnuts" were really made from chocolate, with a vine shoot scent, presented in a little paper bag. This had a dust made from burnt chestnuts as a base, cream of chestnuts, chocolate and chestnut powder, the chocolate shaped like a chestnut (19/20).
This was followed by an "egg flan" that was really a white chocolate egg served with caramelised nuts, and an intensely flavoured coffee pudding with rum ice cream (19/20). Even the coffee served at the end of meal was exceptionally good, offered with a lovely biscuit and a delicious chocolate with a passion fruit centre.
Service was faultless throughout the evening, the waiters friendly and knowledgable. The bill, with plenty of good wine, came to €187 (£160) per person. This seems to me a bargain for the feast that was delivered. It may have seemed controversial to elevate this restaurant to 3 stars so quickly, but Michelin got this spot on. The food here is remarkably assured, the produce exceptional and the cooking technique faultless. Although there were one of two very minor quibbles (the bread was fine but not outstanding) this was a genuinely impressive meal, innovative yet highly enjoyable. Objectively it was between 19/20 and 20/20 but I am giving this the benefit of the doubt, given just how good the best dishes were. This is a world-class restaurant.
Further reviews: 24th Sep 2014