Eighth in a series about a trip to Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada
After spending the morning at the Guggenheim, entertained by artistic pieces inspired by sexual organs, we were primed for a peak food experience at three-star restaurant Azurmendi. I now understand in an all new way why food blogging is sometimes referred to as “food porn,” but maybe it was all that subliminal messaging.
We unintentionally arrived a half hour before the restaurant’s opening time at 1 p.m. The chef himself unlocked the door for us and allowed us to enter into the restaurant’s reception area. If we were True Foodies, we would have recognized Chef Erneko Atxa immediately. We figured he was the chef, but we had no idea how famous – and recognizable — he is in international gourmet circles. (This is the equivalent of me arriving early to a SF Giants event and spending 20 minutes – alone in a room — chatting up team manager Dusty Baker, without being sure who he was. People would kill for that opportunity.)
We felt lucky to have the lush, two-story atrium to ourselves. Designed to be a meditative space, it is flanked on one side by mirrors into which a series of haikus is etched in several languages:
Our prix fixe menu
what appear to be entrees
turn out to be dreams
There stood the painter
painting us inside his cavern:
Our own planet Earth
has an undersized mirror
in this one green pea.
Clouds hasten away
cars race along, come and go
let’s us linger on
— Kirmen Uribe
Outside, clouds were hastening away. Azurmendi is a glass box that sits on a hill overlooking a valley and hills, the bodega (winery) where it got its start nestled on a curving road immediately below. But inside the atrium, we were sheltered, peacefully enjoying the Jurassic-sized ferns and plants, and soon, a glass of cool txakoli made by their own Gorka Izagirre label.
I’m one of the fortunate few who dined at El Bulli before it closed, at the time the hardest reservation in the world to secure. Azurmendi lived up to that experience, not only because of intriguing, palate-pleasing food, but a dining experience imagined in theatrical acts and actually presented in four different locations. Chef Atxa earned his first Michelin star after just two years in operation at Azurmendi, and his second not long thereafter. Now he has three.
While we waited in the atrium, another early bird arrived, a catering director for a restaurant owned by one of Hollywood’s most familiar faces (at least to my age group). We casually struck up a conversation, and soon decided to take the proferred tour of the garden.
Unbeknownst to us, the tour would be the first act of dinner delivered as theater. Jon William Herrera, the restaurant’s sommelier, escorted us outside and explained the history of the winery. We then went upstairs to the garden at rooftop level. He pointed out the special peas that are only grown there as well as local spring onions. He explained that the building uses geothermal energy, making it possible to grow plants for a longer season (as well as explaining the giant plants in the atrium). The vision for the restaurant included not only world class food but leading edge eco-friendliness.
Entering the greenhouse that sits directly above the restaurant, Jon pointed out a tomato plant that he said had been brought back from extinction. Then he casually invited us to try a cherry tomato from the adjacent plant. In a magical slight of hand, there, nestled between the leaves were tiny prepared tomatoes perched on tiny metal holders attached to the upright vine.
And not just any tomatoes, but tomatoes that were roasted and peeled and enhanced with an injection of raspberry.
On and on went Act I, with increasingly clever presentations: an infusion of blood orange and hibiscus in a vial, molecular avocado and guacamole (mimicking an avocado pit), tree bark (which, of course, wasn’t tree bark), savory biscuits topped with pumpkin seeds, and a baby carrot soaked in vinegar, presented to look as if it was still growing.
We returned to the atrium, where food theater continued with Mauricio’s presentation of our “picnic.” He described the contents of the small picnic baskets: anchovy set on a rock in a bed of salt inside a small glass bottle, a tiny crisp puff tart, and a caipirinha bonbon (made with txakoli wine but tasting of caipirinha).
The food foreplay continued, now in the kitchen. John explained the purpose of each of the stations. Busy men and women manned the fish table, the grill (where they do not grill food, but use the smoke to impart flavor), the pastry area and more. At Azurmendi, we had learned, you don’t just tour anything. We were already salivating. Jon presented a blood sausage croquette and red bean soup, which to me tasted of ham hock (although Jon said it did not contain pork). “Agur,” the kitchen staff trilled. Those rolled “r’s” in Basque country go on for some time.
And now, after 11 tastings, we were ready for lunch.
Jon grabbed the handle of the gigantic black door in the foyer area to reveal the cool grey interior of the restaurant, which looks out through a wall of glass onto the valley below. To preserve the intimacy of each party’s dining experience, translucent screens with images of nature created separation. Light danced around the room.
We tucked into course after course, with wine after wine:
Molecular “hazelnut”, “peanut” and “almond” on a mushroom dusted leaf
An egg, drained, turned inside out, injected with truffle broth and then cooked
Steamed bread with very green olive oil
Pairing: Augusti Torello Mata Reserva 2009 cava
A tomato filled with a dab of idiazabal (Basque) cheese served in a spinach cup with a small dollop of ice cream, also made from idiazabal
Pairing: Alsace Domaine Schlumberger Reisling 2009
A coronet filled with tartar served atop a young lobster on top of small dots of spring onions
Arroz marinero – fisherman style charcoal-grilled rice (similar in texture to risotto) with parsley and clams
Accompanied by: Kiminiz-Spinola late harvest made from two soleras (a blend of older and younger barrels)
On an opalescent black plate: squid, thinly sliced, with spring onion, onto which a sauce was poured (Collette had duck misted with orange, layered with foie gras)
Kokotxas (jowls of fish) with small, salty potato puffs
Pairing: Baigorri 2009 Garnacha (Our dining companion was served the 2007 temperanillo from the same bodega)
Crispy suckling pig served with pumpkin “cannelloni” and a crunchy baby pig ear
Strawberries and roses – a dried ice presentation that produced clouds of rose-scented fog, served with wild strawberries on a lighter-than-air, almost meringue-like mousse
Pairing: Capricho D’Goya Vino Dulce (a delicious coffee-colored late harvest wine)
Ice cream, butter toffee, and then the “Hand of Buddha” – a presentation of a gold-covered liquid fruit, various chocolates, house-made marshmellow and more. The “and more” bit is intended to cover up the holes in my notes, which, understandably, had degraded by this point.
Feeling full (and a bit drunk) just reading this?
Jon Ezuskiza, the maître d’, explained as we paid our bill (which was about what you’d expect) that their goal is to offer a food experience in the Basque way, “If you feel it in your heart… (as if) your Mom is going to make lunch or dinner and you would like to impress her, that’s what we do.”
Our evening should have been over. But it was only 6 p.m. We walked around the Casco Viejo and stumbled across hundreds of people folk dancing in the Cathedral square as part of the “Dantza Plazetan.”
At 9 p.m., Bilbao was just coming to life on a spring Saturday night, with couples and families crowding the bridges, streets and river promenade. We went to bed, dreaming of art big and small, edible and not. As Ernesto Neto says, the mind can lie but the body cannot. We were in heaven.