Azurmendi is most memorable for its treatment of the meal as an educational, enlightening, (maybe even moving?) experience. The event begins with a facility tour- we are walked through the lobby, the kitchen, a greenhouse, and given "snacks" along the way at each step. The tour is very showy—employees are pumping smoke into a fog generator, carefully placing small bites before arriving guests walk in—in a way that feels quite artificial. Not to say any of it was unenjoyable; it's a hell of a way to spend an afternoon, and it felt like so much more than just a meal.
On the approach up a steep hill alongside a highway, we drive past Eneko Atxa's cooking school and culinary center, and then finally arrive near the top of the hill at the restaurant itself. The restaurant itself has the look of a large greenhouse- floor-to-ceiling windows, glassy rooftop spans- lending the whole place a feel of transparency and eco-involved-ness.
SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN
PRICE PAID: $230 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10
A gorgeously-manicured eco-garden full of the flowering plants that eventually become the fruits and vegetables on our plates surrounds the building. Down the hill from the main structure are a few thin rows of wine grapes, which also end up getting consumed a few meters away as the crow flies by the restaurant’s guests. The on-site winery is run by head chef Eneko Atxa's cousin, Bertol Izagirre, who specializes in Basque txakoli wine.
After a quick greeting (interestingly, the restaurant doors open promptly at 1PM and not a moment earlier; typical, I suppose, by Spanish standards). We give our names and are brought into the back of their lovely, verdant main lobby near a small waterfall for a “picnic course.”
Tucked into a classy little picnic basket are some delicious first bites: smoked eel sandwich in a bed of black volcanic salt (9/10), tomato water with marigold leaves (9/10), and some "Txakoli punch" with a liquid center that tastes what candy would taste like if it were made out of wine. Which is to say fantastic. (9/10).
Next, we are marched into the busy kitchen, which is in full swing preparing for lunch service. Every surface gleams, and the feel of the space is open, well-lit; focused but calm.
Our small group is herded into a corner, where the lovely tree-with-snacks combo you see above is presented. Some hazelnut chocolates and foie gras "seeds" with lovely golden color (9/10) and an almost sickly-sweet floral emulsion of Hibiscus (8/10).
Next, we are brought into the restaurant's "greenhouse," for a seasonal tour that included panoramas of different natural scenes complete with a small snack to accompany. It was entirely for show (the real greenhouse was towards the back of the property, this was more to convey the idea of where some of the ingredients arose from) but it was extremely entertaining nonetheless.
Perched in a small glass container with cork stopper, some delightfully rich corn soup. 8/10.
A fragrant herb garden is the next stop; accompanied by a snack that could best be described as what Oreo cookies would taste like if they were made of rosemary and basil. 8/10.
The next stop is a "cotton field;" in a small treasure chest is some cotton candy doused with asparagus dust. The cotton melts instantly in your mouth, and the sweetness and asparagus go together perfectly. Extra points for the incredible presentation. 10/10.
Lastly, we are brought to an area with "rotting logs" that are growing a small collection of mushrooms- Oyster, Shiitake, etc. We are handed a small leaf-shaped treat made from a paste of all those mushrooms, which tastes almost like beef jerky. 8/10.
Finally, we are led into the dining room to begin the meal service. The space is open and airy, and I dig the concrete flooring.
First up, a beautifully-presented frozen olive with a liquid center made of Vermouth. Alcoholic and very strong flavors of olive, which is a loud way to start the sit-down portion of the meal. 7/10.
This is served alongside an aperitif of a tiny glass of orange juice- more of a shot glass portion, I would say. The sweetness balances the savoriness of the olive quite well.
This egg has been injected with black truffle consommé and then cooked, in a technique the chef describes as "inside-out." The result is super soft and decadent; it doesn't get richer or more delicious than egg yolk with truffle. Maybe a quarter-step too rich. 9/10
Some "Milk bread" with olive oil. Soft and sweet, almost like cakebread. 9/10
With a name suspiciously similar to the opening course served at Per Se and the French Laundry, Azurmendi's "oyster and pearl" doesn't quite live up to the standard set by Thomas Keller's restaurants. Made up of oysters with liquefied seaweed, the taste is very fresh and clean, but it doesn't exactly burst with flavor. The oyster has a firm, fresh texture. 8/10.
And then, next up, some more oyster. This one with a super, super heavy sauce with some intense flavors- totally overpowering. 7/10.
An interesting change-up to the bread service- "double-fermented" bread. Richer, much thicker than the milk bread served previously. 8/10
Next, three versions of sea urchin- above, in a strawberry-bright red broth. To the right, raw sea urchin with vegetables, and further right a sea urchin "waffle," which is basically a sandwich. Super intense flavors or sea urchin throughout; that lovely, earthy taste; but three in a row is a lot to take in. The roe in the soup brings welcome additional texture. 7/10 overall.
Some caviar peas served beautifully with fresh caviar. The peas pop in your mouth, and the caviar flavors do not overpower. 9/10.
Another multiple-choice style dish: lobster in different versions. The portion in the center is roasted and quite fresh but not terribly flavorful. The much more interesting bit is the crunchy, light shell off to the right. 7/10 overall.
Next, some Basque cheeses with fried suckling pig. The small pipes of cheese are very strong, and pair nicely with the light crisps. The pork itself is just outstanding- this dish targets bold, bold flavors and just nails it. 9/10.
Next, everyone's favorite: cod tripe, or more specifically the bladder of a cod. Just kidding, but this dish somehow makes it completely delicious. My only complaint is the somewhat sticky mouthfeel that makes the dish come off as very fatty; feels like eating cream and deep fried cream together. 8/10.
Next, the server brings over this presentation of cauliflower with egg, and then carefully shaves a small black truffle on top. This dish felt strangely autumnal (it was Springtime when we visited) but the flavors worked together very well nonetheless. 8/10.
Delivered on a plate that loosely resembles the bottom of the sea with wisps of artichokes and vegetables floating upwards like seaweed, this perfectly-cooked monkfish was incredibly fresh and awesome. 9/10. Buried somewhere within is some basil that pairs more or less perfectly.
And now onto the big show- pigeon, on a base of duxelle (a mixture of mushroom, shallots, and garlic slow-cooked with herbs). Presented simply and with large nuggets of salt gleaming from the crusted skin. Super fresh, great presentation. 9/10.
And now, onto desserts. This first dish is a really cool combination of pineapple, cardamom spice, and celery. I never would have thought celery either A) paired well with pineapple, or B) would belong in a dessert, but you live and learn I guess. 8/10.
Another mottled plate surface is brought out, this time with yogurt, honey, and a five-spice combination that seems to mostly feature cinnamon. A nice simple wind-down from the more complex flavors of the dessert previous. 8/10.
And onto the last dish- a shoe-shaped dessert made of chocolate, peanuts, and licorice. I'll admit that licorice is not my favorite flavor in the world, but once again the main flavor combinations have been perfectly balanced. 8/10.
A pretty, rich cup of coffee served in a delicate handmade ceramic. 9/10.
Get it? It's a hand waving bye-bye to you and serving you some delicious petit fours as it does. The small box behind contains chocolates of mint, lime, and mango tea flavors. They're presented on a layer of chocolate and coffee grounds that smell delightful. Well done. 9/10.
And, just for the hell of it, a few parting macarons of nutella-like flavor. 9/10.
As we exit, a small bit of evidence for how hard Azurmendi works to stay organized and give everyone a great experience. I would return here in a heartbeat.