★ Azurmendi, Larrabetzu 

Our 2nd Michelin-starred restaurant meal is at another 3-Michelin starred establishment – Azurmendi, which is near Bilbao. They are also ranked #19 on World’s Best Restaurant 2015. The journey from San Sebastian to Bilbao is about 1 hour plus by coach that cost about €15 per person each way. On top of that, Azurmendi is perched on a hillside along an expressway, hence the only way to get there (other than self-drive) is to hire a taxi. The journey by car from Bilbao city centre to the restaurant is about 20 mins and cost around €25-30 per trip. So if you were to add up the transport cost, it easily make up for a bottle of good wine.

Although the two cities seemed relatively near, thankfully the weather in Bilbao was better than San Sebastian. We managed to escape from the rainy weather in San Sebastian and arrived at Bilbao with some time to see the futuristic looking Guggenheim Museum before our lunch.

Upon arriving at the welcome area of the restaurant, we were given the option to either tour the Sustainable Center before or after our lunch, as part of the Azurmendi experience. The Sustainable Center is located on the upper floor of the building but the walk is not sheltered. Since the weather seemed to be holding up, we decided to have the tour first.

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The tour allows diners to visit the open garden, a greenhouse and understand Azurmendi’s commitment to sustainability. In fact the building which the restaurant and greenhouse are located in is a green building incorporating many advanced technologies that efficiently uses energy, water, and other resources. These are certainly areas that draws my attention as a building science graduate.

I read that generally guests would be served little snacks presented around the greenhouse while they toured the place. However I think since its winter season(?) or due to weather(?), the snacks for us were served only after we returned back to the main deck. Hence we were left pretty much alone to explore the greenhouse and took our time to snap as much photos as we wanted without feeling being watched. =)

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There were a huge variety of plants and crops grown both indoor and outdoor. I was amazed to see mandarin oranges (sort of reminding me that it’s Chinese New Year) and my first time seeing a live cotton plant! I’ve seen specimens of cotton flower during science lessons but not the real thing. They looked so cute!

After finishing our tour and back at the lobby of the main deck, we were offered welcome drinks and presented with the First act: Picnic in the Garden. The pretty picnic basket was filled with bite-sized snacks: local tomato curd, eel sandwich and txakoli punch. I particularly enjoyed the cherry coloured spherical ball, adorned with tiny flowers and filled with txakoli liquid centre (yeah! I’ve finally tasted txakoli it was highly recommended to try txakoli in Basque).

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The Second act: The Kitchen is where we were led to view the spacious kitchen and presented with Hazelnuts hidden on a bonsai plant. The area partitioned by the glass panels is where the lab is located, used for testing food preparations and experimentation.

From the kitchen we were then lead to an exhibition area where the Third act: Our Greenhouse was showcased. I read that most people had theirs presented in the upper deck. However even when this was moved to the exhibition garden area, it was evident that much effort were placed in replicating a similar experience akin to touring the actual Greenhouse.

We were introduced to the corns (they looked so perfect that I asked if they were real?) and were invited to taste the “Morokil”. It is supposedly mix of corn flour and milk to make porridge, is another traditional Basque dish. The one we drank at the restaurant tasted smooth and sweet, like a concentrated corn extract. Yum.

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Next was the Tomato, oregano and cheese presented next to a planter box of herbs and plants.

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Followed by Asparagus Cotton and Mushroom leaf. Can you spot the thin leaf that was to be eaten? I almost thought we were supposed to pluck and eat the fresh mushroom!

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Here are the close-up shots of some of the snacks.

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After about half an hour of exploring the building, we were finally led to Fourth act: The balcony where the main dining hall is located. The hall offers an impressive unobstructed view with its full height windows overlooking a small vineyard downhill, the expressway in front along with backdrop of hilly mountainous terrain.

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They serve 2 menus one called “Erroak” (‘classic dishes’) – which means “roots” in Basque language and “Adarrak” (their latest creations) – which means branches. Unfortunately the menu is served to the whole table and we opted for Adarrak instead of the Erroak. I suppose we can easily read about their classic dishes so we went for the new creation menu. I would really love to try the Egg from our hens, cooked inside out and truffled if I could…but nonetheless I caught a youtube video of chef demonstrating how it was made.

While we were contemplating which wine to choose to pair with our meal, Frozen olive and vermouth served in a tray of “soil” was presented on the table. As with some of the other snacks we had earlier, we were advised to pop it into our mouth, allowing the liquid centre filling to flow onto our palate.

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I shared with the sommelier that I would like to try white wine from Rioja (as we’ve tasted Rioja red but not white) if that is possible. At the recommendation of the sommelier, we decided on Vina Tondonia Reserva 2001 from R. Lopez de Heredia. The white wine from Rioja region are very different from the usual modern wines. This 15 year-old wine is possibly the oldest white wine I tasted so far and it is neither crisp nor fruity. It looked golden in colour and have been aged in oak barrels giving it an oaky flavour. Admittedly it has a tinge of saline/salt water taste when it was first opened, but became more palatable after allowing it to breathe.

Another small snack called Ounce of… was presented.  The chocolate lookalike blocks are actually made of foie gras, served before we begin our tasting meal. Absolutely enjoyed the texture and aroma of this snack.

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Started our meal proper with Oysters, tartar and seaweed traces. This dish basically present the same key ingredient in different forms/textures. Under the oyster leaf is a wholesome plump Gillardeau oyster, an oyster gelee and at the base is a layer of oyster tartar.

The 2nd dish was Sea urchin, emulsion, juice and waffle. Intrigued by the scarlet coloured juice, I went on to find out more about it. Turns out it is a mixture of sea urchin juice and tomato juice, this dish probably evolved from a dish called Bloody ‘Mar’ which was previously served at the restaurant.

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Chef once again performed magic and transformed 1 ingredient into different forms. Cauliflower, fried eggs and truffle comprises of cauliflower in caviar, mousse, dehydrated/roasted resulting in a mixture of textures along with (presumably) quail eggs.

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Roasted lobster out of the shell, its crunch and mayonnaise featured chewy and succulent roasted lobster along with an emulsion filled with umami goodness with an earthy undertone.

I was initially apprehensive about trying this next dish as I’m not a cheese person…but this dish turned out great! Crunchy quail and 3 Basque cheeses in three textures has basque cheeses made from sheep milk (I think). The restaurant checked with us if we are okay to have sheep milk as one of us don’t eat lamb meat.

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Everything had been fabulous till the dish called Red beans “Puchera” and its no fault of the chef. It’s supposed to be one of the traditional basque cuisine, so it’s always good to try authentic local flavours while travelling. However I didn’t enjoy the red bean stew as I typically didn’t like soup that are too dense, the concentrated red bean became over-cloying for me. Oddly red beans are not new to me as I’ve shared with the service staff that in Asia, we usually cook red bean soup as a sweet dessert. Guess the type of red bean and it’s consistency were factors at play here that resulted in me not finishing this dish…And for those who might be interested to know, the black ball in the bowl is black pudding – a type of blood sausage…so please notify the restaurant if you don’t eat blood sausages.

Although the dish didn’t score highly for me, receptacle used to present the stew caught my attention as it is rather unique. I went on to find out what a “Puchera” means. The medieval style receptacle used at the restaurant is actually a minature Puchera replica. The real life size puchera is like huge casserole with a compartment underneath to place combustible fuel (like coal) to cook the stew in the pot above. It is also known as railway pot as it is used for cooking on the rail. 

After the minor blip, the next dish easily made into my favourite dish of the meal – Monkfish in Iberian crust, terrine of its interiors and pickles, salted emulsion and basil. This is said to be a new dish proposed by Chef for 2016 and he totally nailed it. The aromatic iberian crust and the firm monkfish terrine was a fantastic combination. One of the most unique fish dish I’ve ever tasted in many of the fine-dining establishments that I’ve visited.

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The 2nd protein dish we had were Boneless lamb, char-roasted pepper juice and garlic mushrooms and for the non-lamb eater it’s replaced with their classic dish Pigeon, deuxelle and cauliflower. Admittedly I seldom take lamb in my usual diet, I wouldn’t crave for them but am also not adverse to it if the dish is a specialty at the restaurant. Other than having Chinese herbal lamb soup when I was young and dining with my family whereby I didn’t have the choice to say “no”, the rare occasion whereby I take them are in fine-dining establishments. In fact the lamb dish that changed my perception and made me more receptive to lamb was the meal at Gaggan (Asia’s top ranking restaurant in Asia 50 Best for 2015 & 2016, see my post here). The lamb dish at Azurmendi was quite palatable to me as well, not too gamey and the relatively small portion was much welcomed. The dish comes with a palate-cleanser that is somewhat like a marmalade (forgot what was it made of…perhaps prune?) before proceeding to desserts.

Pigeon is another fowl that we seldom eat, in fact our impression of pigeon were marred by a medium-rare squab that was slightly too gamey for our liking during our 1st encounter with this exotic meat. Meats such as pigeon, rabbit etc. are rather uncommon in Singapore. Since this is a classic dish at Azurmendi, we placed faith in the tons of critics who had nothing but good words about this dish. I loved how Chef used mushroom’s earthy flavour to balance the gamey meat.

Trio of desserts were up next, starting with Pineapple, cardamom and celery. When eaten individually each of them has their own strong, distinct flavours and characters, but miraculously they are amalgamated into a single dessert harmoniously. Almost instantly brought me back to the tropical Singapore upon the first slurp with this refreshing and aromatic dessert with a mild sweet base.

The second dessert, Yogurt, honey and five spices is light yet creamy. To me this dessert seems to be an interlude paving the way for the grand finale coming our way.

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Chocolate, peanut and liquorice was the ultimate dessert of amongst the trio.  This marvellous dessert is a juxtapose of various textures and flavours. The addition of liuqorice adds an interesting twist to the classic blend of chocolate and peanut butter.

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Petits fours include an assortment of bonbons and tiny bites to go with the coffee. At the end of our meal when the bill was presented, we received a small (and cute) sack of seeds and a certificate (passport) issued by the competent authority so that we could bring the seeds legally back to our home country, along with a wax-sealed menu for keepsake.

Azurmendi’s efforts in practicing and promoting sustainability concept is highly admirable. I’m certain that the restaurant’s fame will give them mileages in advocating the sustainability cause to a much wider audience. Having the opportunity to tour the greenhouse and garden was a refreshing experience for a city dweller like me; it further accentuate the distinctiveness of Azurmendi, leaving a lasting impression in me. For that, I shall try to play my small part by first trying to find a pot of soil to plant that sack of seeds =)

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Other photos taken at Bilbao earlier, weather was cloudy otherwise Guggenheim Museum will look even more glitzy with its dramatic architecture.

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