Azurmendi – world’s ‘Most Sustainable’ restaurant in Bilbao
In Larrabetzu, near the town of Bilbao, Spain sits Azurmendi. Voted #1 “Most Sustainable Restaurant” in 2014, its Head Chef and owner – Eneko Atxa – pays homage to the vision of sustainable cuisine whilst tucked away off a winding road overlooking a lush rolling hillside. Handy tip: plan before hand if staying in San Sebastian as the town car and driver will cost you more than your combined meals!
Azurmendi was one of many Spanish restaurants on this trip and was chosen because of its recent “sustainable” award. The vision started from the minute Pookie and Mookie stepped through the floor to ceiling doors. Starting with a stand-up picnic basket in the restaurant atrium (complete with tree), a glass of restaurant-made dry white wine and a planned visit to the garden. Unfortunately due to the inclement weather, the garden was skipped, but this also made for an atmospheric and almost surreal experience with rain falling on the atrium’s glass ceiling. The picnic basket was a selection of amuse bouches with strange flavours to titelate the palette. The wine, made on site, was bit of a novelty which was in no way a reflection of the excellent selection available on the wine list. Pookie assumes it was purely to show the versatility of the chef. It was a interesting start.
The atrium was a precursor to the nature of the meal, with style and presentation seeming paramount at the cost of comfort though perhaps the venue felt cold due the cool weather – a visit in the heat of a sunny day might be a welcome reprieve and thus offer something more welcoming. The concrete, steel and glass contrasted drastically well to the intrinsically warm and convivial nature of the head chef (if anyone could be a global poster boy for the sustainable food industry he is most definitely “the one”) but perhaps that is the intent in having converted an industrial building and fitted it internally with a vines, pond and tree art? Once the somewhat awkward pause in the atrium is done we are lead into the kitchen and presented with another snack. The kitchen staff say hello quickly and the kitchen is an exercise is orderly cleanliness, obviously the home of a very proud chef (and rightly so) as a veritable army of kitchen staff look well mustered and focused.
Onward we march to the dining area itself – still cold concrete and lots of glass on what had now become a cold day. Pookie imagines that the view must be spectacular on a warm clear day. The geothermal heating was regrettably absent when our waiter greeted us as we sat at our table. The minimalist menu is presented and we select the “original & classic” desustation to get a feel for the original flavours of the Chef. The Sommelier introduced the wine menu and we decided on a lovely white from 2007.
Now all restaurants have a weak point, and from the ordering of the wine, this is when the experience starts to spiral down. Firstly, one of the absolute musts in a restaurant of this caliber is to have your wine and service staff as good as (if not better) than your food. Secondly, when someone chooses to dine at one of the best restaurants in the world, they are often an experienced foodie (especially at these prices) because they know the skill of the chef and the experienced researchers who rank these restaurants as one of the top in the world. Keep that in mind as you read on…
You know when the wine guy shows you the bottle before opening it? Pay attention! This is your only chance to check the label, vineyard and vintage and confirm it is what you ordered. The sommelier comes back to the table with correct wine but a newer vintage, without any explanation. He casually presents the wine for approval to no avail. When the wine is rejected, the sommelier then tells us that they no longer have that year ordered but this next year is better (Note: “it wasn’t.”). So he is asked for his own tasting notes for both years and to highlight why he considers the following year to be better. The Som assures us it doesn’t taste different and starts to get flustered because a) He probably didn’t think we would notice and b) He hadn’t updated his wine list in a Michelin starred, Top in the World restaurant.
The skilled Maitre ‘D, sensing a little dis-satisfaction, swoops in and does something that no one has ever done in the history of Mookie dining…he gracefully moves her bread plate and asks if she would like her place reset for her left handedness. We are gobsmacked, this guy is truly attentive. Some light chit-chat to ease away the tension and then the courses start to arrive. The egg is novel and delicious as expected being the signature dish. It leaves Mookie wondering ‘how did they manage to get the truffle broth inside the yolk?’. Keep reading…
The courses continue to be presented. All look spectacularly pretty! The attention to the art of the plate is sublime. Each dish is constructed for optimal visual impact. Many require instruction on how to approach devouring them. The oysters and the lobster matched well to the white wine. The savory dishes are all lovely but only 2 others leave a lasting impression for Pookie.
The first was tear peas in an iberican ham gel with a milk infusion on a base of dried mushroom. This dish, on a cold day, was easily worth a trip half way around the globe. Pookie will find himself for months to come thinking of it only to have his mouth start watering even as it is now. Such an exuberant celebration of simple ingredient defies words to explain this evocative play on pea and ham soup. Let us just say that this was Pookie’s best dish of the entire trip.
Entering into the heavier dishes after such bliss Pookie decides to put the white behind them and requested a bottle of Vega Sicilia Unico Reserva Especial 1998 with 3 glasses. The maitre’d looked at Pookie quizzically, but this being Europe assumed the glass was for our son. Momentarily the bottle arrived and Pookie was presented the cork – perfect. Pookie requests an extra large glass be poured and then sends it to the kitchen for the chef as a personal thanks for the meal. The nose coming off the wine was wonderful, all that you could want if you like Bordeaux like red, as Pookie does.
Whilst continuing to enjoy the dishes as they arrive, a waiter brings a bottle of red to pour. Pookie flags “that is not our bottle” just as the waiter was about to pour. “Are you sure sir?”. “Most definitely!”. The waiter returns to fetch the correct bottle. The next dish arrives, also good though very gelatinous for a soup fantastically rich with balls of cheese bobbing in it. Then Pookie spots his bottle of Vega Sicilia being carried to another patrons table by the same waiter previously mention only to see the wine pour into a glass containing other wine. The Maitre’d spots the look of absolute horror on the face of his patron and swoops over. Can this really be a 3 michelin star restaurant? The Maitre’d apologies profusely and explains that all kitchen staff are required to attend the floor as part of their training and that the waiter in question is an apprentice chef. Pookie comments ‘and it shows!’. Astounded that after already having flagged confusion of the bottles that they weren’t appropriately labelled, a good case for wines staying at their tables regardless that it might affect the aesthetic of the table. No offer is made to replace the bottle either bottle.
Savoury plates complete; the head chef arrives. He is thankful for the glass of Vega Sicilia. Mookie is polite when he asks how we are enjoying the meal. Pookie is silent on the matter. Mookie questions how the truffle egg is made and the chef Axta suggests after service is done that we attend the kitchen. He moves on to other tables. Desserts commence.
The desserts look lovely but lack for high notes. The best part in Pookies opinion are the lovely fresh pieces of rasberry scattered on one of the dishes. Otherwise they are generally sweet but not close in comparison to the quality of the savoury plates. The wine continues to be excellent and perhaps a little too strong for the desserts.
Coffee and Petite Fours are served and the table is invited to the kitchen.