We've saved the best for last of course, but there were a few reasons for this. Firstly the weather. It's generally not as warm in the north, and we like it Greek hot and constant sunshine on our holidays. (We are from Manchester after all.) Secondly until recently there were no direct flights from Manchester.
I checked again recently and noticed that Easyjet started flying direct to Bilbao. It was only £60 return as well! I booked us tickets immediately and told Mrs B afterwards.
I knew where we were going first; Azurmendi. We've seen amazing reports on this restaurant just outside of the city. So I organised our two day trip around it. We flew in late on Friday afternoon. The streets were bathed in afternoon sun, it felt like the Mediterranean with grand boulevards perhaps more French in feel than Spanish. And like a beacon next to the river, that striking modernist building the Guggenheim. (Surely one of the only Art Galleries with a Michelin star restaurant in it!)
It was fantastic to just be there, walking through the streets was like a dream. There were amazing looking pintxos (Basque tapas) bars on every corner. We tried a few at random, they were excellent. Clearly standards were high in Bilbao.
We hailed a taxi to Azurmendi a 15 minute ride away out of town. As you arrive, you see it at the top of the hill, an imposing modern glass building with panoramic views down to the valley below.
I had a good feeling about this place, but I had no idea how good it was going to be. You arrive into a kind of large greenhouse area. It is beautiful with a fountain and a large tree inside, the views out onto the valley below are stupendous.
We were greeted warmly by the staff. It was quiet, I don't even think they had originally planned to open yet, as the new menu is launched next week. Firstly we had Appetisers in the Garden: a picnic basket which housed 'peanuts', home-made cheese with basil flowers from their garden and purple onion from 'Zalla' skin infusion. We giggled at each other like children, it was fun and enchanting. Mrs Bacon declared it to be 'the best onion soup you'll ever have!'
Then we met head chef Eneko Atxa. For us it was like a Manchester United fan meeting Alex Ferguson. He was extremely warm and friendly with absolutely no big chef's ego on show at all.
Later on looking at our chosen menu through an interpreter he would ask us if we would like to try a brand new fish dish (red mullet) free of charge as we'd not got one on our menu! Would we? We were delighted to! You have to remember that we are not important people, we are not in the industry we just love fine food. Yet here we were being treated like VIP's! This is a proper three star restaurant! The service wasn't stuffy at all, in fact it was the best we've ever encountered. I even got a little stool especially for my camera!
Next we were shown to the kitchen. We felt slightly awkward at this point. We've both just read The Sorcerer's Apprentices: 'A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria's El Bulli'. We both feel that it seems a bit disrespectful to wander round taking photos of people whilst they are busy working. The kitchens were similar to the ones at El Bulli, huge, modern, industrial and industrious. We took our seat overlooking the amazing views. The interior is beautiful as well, you can see into the kitchen through glass windows.
We chose most dishes from the new menu, but a few we fancied from the classics. We were able to swap and change anything we liked. (This is not always the case at other places). So unlike many taster menus, there would be absolutely nothing on it we weren't so keen on. Normally there are a few dishes that stand out, here everything stood out!
1. Egg from our chickens, cooked inside out and truffled. One word; exquisite. Well maybe another; orgasmic.
A bit of theatre here. The smell of the ocean permeated the room from the smoke. We loved it and the taste, my god the taste of it! The freshest oyster and the crispest tempura.
3. Confited lobster with essential herbs from the garden and pork jowl. (The flowers are edible.) In one word: divine.
4. Foie Gras Ashes. I've never eaten anything like it. Unbelievable! The toast looked like the wood it was sat on. The crunch of the bread and the smoked foie. This stuff is on a totally new level. We were told we were the very first clients to eat this dish. What an honour!
5. The "Earth" tea service. John our wonderful waiter old us how to make it on Mrs B's wooden tray. I copied him. There was the tea pot which you put dry mushrooms into then pour it in the cup. The taste of the earthy mushroom 'tea' was excellent and the dish as a whole is great fun and whimsical.
6. "Betizu" cow tail raviolis wrapped in corn bread with legume broth. I think this was from the classic menu. If only I could eat this again. It was just so good I can't put it into words. The crunch of the outer layer against the most divinely soft meat interior and with the sticky meaty sauce. I think it was at this point Mrs B started to struggle so she passed over a bit. John, one of our waiters came over and enquired if she didn't like it and would she like something else! Now that folks is top drawer service.
Compare and contrast two star Michelin The Square in London. A dish that we didn't want arrived. There'd been a mix up with a swapped dish that we wanted instead. Despite it being their fault, we felt obliged to eat it not to make a 'fuss', as no other option was really given to us. I guess right there is the difference between a two and a three star restaurant. (Azurmendi has recently gone up to a 3 star.) Here it was all about making the customer happy. Some slightly stuffier places in London you feel almost like you're lucky that they let you come in at all!
7. Salted stew vegetables, anchovies and iberics with "Idiazabal" creme cheese balls.
One word: extraordinary. A sticky rich sauce and the explosion of the cheese balls in your mouth was gorgeous.
8. Perfumed red mullet on a red hot coal, ravioli of it's interiors and thorns broth. Magnificent.
9. Confited baby pig, breadcrumbs, vegetable acorns and meadow aromas. Another show stopper. The meadow aromas came out in a sea of smoke. My god did it deliver on taste as well though. We've never eaten the like and are not likely to again. Superlative.
10. Chestnuts with vine shoot scent. It came in a box with a little personal story attached. Charming.
Next the desserts.
The Pear. This was good, though we didn't feel to be quite on the same level as the savoury dishes. It actually reminded me of tinned pears from my childhood! This is a lovely memory for me actually.
11. Honey. An incredible looking dish, neither of us were sure about the unusual taste of the 'sorbet'. The honey itself was from a real hive like natural chewing gum.
So there you have it. The greatest meal we've ever eaten, by some distance.
The finest service, the most beautiful restaurant and the food; it was simply sublime, the flavours just so intense, so powerful that we've only encountered in small parts of other meals. Most importantly the creativity and fun elements of the meal were never at the expense of that exquisite flavour.
So what are you waiting for? You have to just go to Azurmendi, and see for yourselves how good it really is.
Further reading: Check out Gordo's Manchester Confidential review here.
Price: it's never going to be cheap is it?
Imagine tickets for the world cup final or the Olympic games? Think of it in those terms: World class food. Our Adarrak menu was €160 or £138 for 13 courses.
For that you get one of the best meals you're likely to get anywhere.
It's still cheaper than The Fat Duck including the airfare.
Plus you can get a decent bottle of wine for just €20.
This never happens in London restaurants of this standing!
Service: Extraordinary. Plus a kitchen tour and meeting the chef a humble man with no apparent ego on show.
Food: Amongst the best in the world right now in our opinion.
Star dishes: Uniquely every single one of the mains.