The brainchild of Eneko Atxa, Azurmendi is one of the most influential modern Spanish restaurants. Despite its location in the Basque Country, however, its cooking conceptually has little to do with the region it is based in, in the sense that is very modern and technical.
The first thing that strikes you when you visit Azurmendi is the impressive compound that houses the gastronomic and casual restaurants, winery and garden. Perched on a hillside between Bilbao and San Sebastian, the architecture and location are a sight for sore eyes. Having the aperitif in the garden, whilst looking across the valley is quite something, and sets the tone for the meal to come.
What Azurmendi has become famous for are boldly flavoured, avant-gardistic dishes that are resolutely different from anything you might find in traditional Basque restaurants. A perfect example of what Azurmendi is capable of doing is a simple egg yolk, into which the chefs inject a pungent black truffle coulis. The result is an almost sinfully delicious mouthful of creamy, truffly goodness.
Equally good is an oyster dish, which features a tartar, jelly and entire oyster. The various preparations feel like the essence of the sea and are refreshingly put together. This is a refined and yet fully flavoured dish that simply serves a great product in a straightforward manner.
Whilst chef Eneko Atxa’s cuisine at Azurmendi is capable of reaching impressive heights, there are moments when it feels as if the restaurant plays it a little safer. A lobster dish uses rubbery lobster, especially given the abundance of top quality seafood in the area, and feels like a somewhat undefined, rich dish that lacks focus. Another course that somewhat disappoints is spider crab and sea urchin. What sounds like a match made in heaven on paper turns out to be an incoherent combination of two products that somehow don’t really feel as if they are coming together properly.
Azurmendi is doubtlessly an impressive restaurant that deserves its status as a destination restaurant. Compared to the other heavy hitters in the region, however, we cannot help but think of Mugaritz’ highly abstract masterpieces or Martin Berasategui’s flavourful cuisine what leave a more lasting impression on us whenever we visit them. That being said, the distinct identity of each of these three restaurants showcases the diversity of the culinary Mecca that the Basque Country is.