Tuesday 7 May 2013

Azurmendi, Bilbao Spain.

How do you begin to describe the greatest meal of your life? Well I'll start from the beginning. We've always wanted to go to the Basque Country. It remains one of the last regions of Spain that we've not been to. I've been diligently collecting newspaper articles about San Sebastian for several years.
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.
The food started to arrive. I'll try not to waffle on about it. I'll just say it was the most amazing food we've ever eaten. This stuff was on a different level. We've not been this stunned since we went to El Bulli in 2004.
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.
2. Oyster, salicornia iodinated tremella, sea weed and small crunchy nettles with natural aromas of the sea.
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.

Petit fours.
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.
The following night we ate at Alkelaré which was wonderful; almost as good, (the desserts were actually better for us), but it seems that chef Eneko Atxa has perhaps even surpassed the other amazing restaurants in the Basque country. He's learnt from that amazing (slightly older) generation and taken a step even further. We're going to return next year to another legendary Basque restaurant to find out how it compares, so we'll let you know!
So what are you waiting for? You have to just go to Azurmendi, and see for yourselves how good it really is.

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.
Score: 10/10.


  1. So it sounds like you liked it? ;)

  2. Regards from Basque Country


  3. Great blog. Really enjoyed it but think it might be some time before I follow in your footsteps! Fabulous photography.



  4. thanks for the review. I am adding Azurmendi to my list. I love Spain, so in this life the next (laughs), I shall get to Azurmendi. Hopefully sooner. My question: if you have been to places like El Celler de Can roca or Mugaritz, how would you compare Azurmendi. oftently, those modern places do not always impress on the flavor department, but Azurmendi sounds impressive even on that aspect.

  5. Thank you. We are going to El Celler de Can roca & Sant Pau in July so I will be able to compare. We have not been to Mugaritz or Arzak yet, but I have heard people say that the flavours are sometimes lost in the mix. At Azurmendi the flavours were extremely intense so this is why I loved it so much!

  6. I found your webpage through Andy Hayler's site, and I have now booked a table at Azurmendi. I hope we can fit it into our plans.

    I've been to Sant Pau twice and I can strongly recommend it. For me it's been one of the few three star restaurants I've been to so far that has been worth its three stars. See full review and pictures here:

    I was also at Arzak in August 2012 but I wasn't very impressed. If my meal is an indicator of the general standard at that restaurant at the moment I wouls suggest you avoid it. I have read several recent reviews that say the same. You can see my full review with pictures here:

    El Celler de Can Roca... Hmmm, let's just call it a mixed affair. Some great dishes (and probably the best bread I have eaten my entire life), but too many dishes that either had no flavour or that was simply poor. I did choose the festival menu, which was their newest dishes, so it's possible that I would have liked their "classics" menu better instead. At least some of the dishes I had seemed like they weren't quite fully developed.
    You can see my review here http://www.restaurantcritic.eu/the-reviews/spain/el-celler-de-can-roca

    When I went to Arzak I actually also had booked a table at Mugaritz but ended up cancelling it. I went to Tripadvisor and clicked on the reviews that gave it one or two stars out of five, and they all said the same thing: "At its best, the food has no flavour at all. At its worst, the food is vomit inducing". So, I ended up cancelling. I noticed that Andy Hayler subsequently went there too and had similar things to say. But as I said, I haven't been there so I can't say.

    1. Thank you that's all really helpful. We are returning to The Basque country next year, and were considering Arzak, Mugaritz or Martin Berasategui. Looks like Martin Berasategui is the favourite or a maybe a repeat visit to Azurmendi. When we go to El Celler de Can Roca maybe we will order the classics menu to be safer.

  7. There are apparently a lot mixed feelings about Martin Berasategui too. Many people say that his food is deeply ordinary, but I haven't been there. For me the best meal in San Sebastián was at the tapas bar Borda Berri. It was simple and cheap but full of flavour.
    I still find Sant Pau and Quique Dacosta (http://www.restaurantcritic.eu/the-reviews/spain/quique-dacosta) to have been the best I've been to in Spain, but they're not exactly close to the Basque Country (Quique Dacosta is in the Valencia region).
    Others love El Celler de Can Roca, so maybe you would love their festival menu too, but you know how I feel :-)

    1. Yes we went to Borda Berri and agree it was superb; http://www.bacononthebeech.com/2013/05/bordaberri-san-sebastian.html
      We'd like to visit Quique Dacosta next year hopefully.
      We're also going to Les Magnòlies in Arbúcies, Girona which looks good and in September Calima in Marbella, so we'll let you know how it was!

  8. You should not miss Akelarré either. It is a matter of opinion but I would put it ahead of Arzak, Mugaritz or Berasateguí: and the views are just superb! On another scale, love Mina in Bilbao and the relatively unknown Solana in Cantabría.

    1. Thanks, will take a look at Mina in Bilbao.
      I went to Akelarré, you can see my review here:

  9. Ah, you went already. Pedro Subijana comes across as such a nice person! Asador Etxebarri is another very unusual restaurant and pretty amazing.
    Mina and Solana are 1* Michelin as yest, but it is superb food considering their prices. 6-course (in fact the 2 times we have been they have served us 8) Tasting menus from around 55 euros.

  10. So, we went to Azurmendi in June, and we were also very impressed, although for both of us it was 9/10 rather than a 10/10. This was simply because our dessert was quite boring, and then I also started to become a little bit bored with the food shortly before the main course. The service was indeed very good, but not quite as good as I've seen several other places.
    Nevertheless, what really impressed us what the standard: Dish after dish was at a very high level. I've never before seen a long menu with such a high standard! If it hadn't been for the dessert and my "boredom" it would have been my first 10/10.
    Thanks for sending us here :-)
    See full review and pictures here:

    1. Many thanks for your comments, I agree the desserts were the weakest point for us also.

  11. Amazing. I dig your blog!