Soaking up the romance in Basque country
If Paris is for lovers, Basque country is for food lovers.
Chef Eneko Atxa had me proposing marriage to him at the end of our meal at Azurmendi Gourmet, a three Michelin star restaurant just 30 minutes from Bilbao. It was that good. (He gamely said “Please!” by the way, so he is now my make-believe Valentine and you are all invited to our make-believe Basque wedding!)
This is a restaurant that is truly, as the three stars indicate, worth the trip.
Diners enter what looks like a giant warehouse and are given an aperitif and hors d’oeuvres in a picnic basket to settle down. Once your table is ready, you are led first to the kitchen, where you are given a glimpse of the cooks at work.
A plant stands by the kitchen door. The receptionist encourages you to pick a “fruit”—a piece of chocolate; the restaurant’s amuse-bouche. But once you pop it into your mouth, your tongue recognizes a familiar taste. “Foie gras?!” I ask. Yes! A divine sampler of the pleasures about to come.
And then you step onto the stage—the dining room—which takes the diner’s breath away with its floor-to-high ceiling glass wall that allows you to enjoy your lunch with a breathtaking view of the Basque countryside. (Suggest lunch over dinner if you find yourself here, as dinner will not allow this view.)
My lunch date, Chef Chele Gonzalez, who had just impressed the most discerning chefs at Madrid Fusion with his talk on Philippine cuisine, wistfully pined for girlfriend Teri Echiverri while taking in a glimpse of the countryside. Sure, a long table of businessmen gathered at the far end of the room, showing the restaurant’s range of clients, but really, Azurmendi is for lovers.
This area where the dining room is located was built just a few years ago into a hillside surrounded by vineyards. But what is notable about it, aside from the romantic, picturesque view, is that it was conceived and built prioritizing sustainability in the midst of modern architecture.
The restaurant explains that the structure “reflects the canons of the Basque identity and integrates photovoltaic solar panels and a geothermic system to produce electricity, harvests rainwater to cover a number of operations, recycles waste, etc. A charging station is available for electric cars.”
So not only is Azuermendi Michelin-approved and in the top 20 of the World’s 50 Best Restaurant guide, it was also given the Sustainable Restaurant Award in 2014.
With an ambience like this, they could have served steak and potatoes. Or a simple dish of paella or bacalao. And all would have been well simply because of the view and ambience.
But the dedicated Atxa is clear with his message that a Basque chef takes modern gastronomy seriously.
The bread that welcomes you at the table is pillowy soft as it is steam-baked. This is paired with extra virgin olive oil from the area. But the real welcome comes from a chopping board of “chocolate.” This board is like the sound of the gong marking the beginning of the tricks and treats that lie ahead.
What looks like a bar of Cadbury chocolate daintily lying beside cacao beans is not chocolate. It is in fact foie gras. The refined foie gras lies on a sheet of ginger bread, which punctuates the elegance of a bite of foie.
This is followed by the great Azurmendi classic: the inversely cooked and truffled egg. Here, Atxa displays his molecular prowess. A part of the free range egg yolk is extracted using a syringe. With another syringe, the egg is injected with truffled consommé, heated to around 75 degrees Celsius. The heat from the consommé cooks the egg from the center to the exterior, which is why the egg is called “inversely cooked.” Brilliant!
The egg is followed by another indulgent starter: oysters.
Atxa likes to show off his gastronomical expertise by highlighting one ingredient but cooking it in several ways. The oysters on this plate, for instance, are presented in the raw, as a tartare, and as a water jelly.
As an accent and starting point of the dish, there is an oyster leaf—a leaf that literally tastes like an oyster—capping the tartare.
Sea urchin, the next item, is presented in its raw, meaty glory, but also as an emulsion and a concentrated consommé. The cauliflower dish that follows has cauliflower caviar as the focal point and cauliflower dust as an accent. Lobster is presented with a consommé base, a tartare side, an emulsion for an accent, with the roasted lobster as the star of the show.
As an ode to Basque history, Atxa also presents a dish with morcilla, which the maitre d’ explains, was eaten by train drivers using steam from the trains during the era when Bilbao was one of the world’s main industrial cities. The dish contains morcilla (blood pudding), leek ravioli and a red bean stock from Araña, where Atxa traces his roots.
The theatrics continue for several more dishes until you are stuffed and almost delirious. A true 3 Michelin star experience.
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If you are thinking of planning a trip for the summer, do consider visiting Basque country. Look up Margaret Carpo, one of the great Carpo sisters (sister of former Sunday Inquirer Magazine publisher Leica Carpo and ironman lawyer Amanda Carpo), who is at the forefront of Basque tourism with her company, Travel Basque Country (travelbasquecountry.com).
Aside from the Azurmendi experience, Travel Basque Country offers a peek into authentic Basque cuisine such as a Txoko dinner with heads of the Slow Food Movement in the Basque region.
A Txoko is a unique Basque concept of a communal kitchen where members can simply bring their own ingredients and cook their own food and dine with friends. You can only come in if you are a member, or you’re with a member.
Then you have a free hand in the kitchen and can cook whatever you want. Usually the members cook traditional Basque recipes.
Guests of Carpo may have the privilege of witnessing Kepa, one of the leaders of the Slow Food Movement, cook bacalao pilpil. It is fresh bacalao, cooked without the use of any sandok, but simply made creamy with the use of olive oil and garlic; then topped with artichokes.
“The garlic is just for the aroma, make sure not to burn it,” Kepa advises while cooking in the kitchen.
The kitchen where the Txoko takes place is a pre-war kitchen with walls that are centuries old. As are the methods of cooking. It is such an authentic setting it is almost surreal.
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If there’s one thing the Basque people know, it’s how to cook. Paris may have the best macarons in the world, but Basque country—which boasts of nearly 40 Michelin-starred restaurants including four with three Michelin stars (Azurmendi, Arzak, Akelarre, Martin Berasategui) plus Mugaritz which has two stars—is the destination for lovers who are food lovers.
Azurmendi Gourmet. Azurmendi Gourmet is the 3 Michelin star restaurant of Chef Eneko Atxa. For a more casual experience, there is also the Bistro Pret a Porter. Visit azurmendi.biz for details.
Travel Basque Country is an online guide about the Basque County in Northern Spain. At Travel Basque Country, Javier and Margaret help you plan and book your trip. Visit travelbasquecountry.com.
More in margauxsalcedo.com. For more culinary adventures, follow @margauxsalcedo on Instagram.
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