Friday, October 14, 2016

Azurmendi (05/27/2016)

We only had four days in Spain and too many restaurants that we wanted to try, so I had to be methodical.  I made a prioritized list and drew up a calendar of lunch and dinner slots, which I filled in as I secured reservations -- a particularly frustrating process.  No one had an online booking engine (in contrast to Copenhagen).  At best, a restaurant had an online form to request a reservation, which would then be confirmed or denied within a few days via email.  At worst (Ibai), Adam called, was told that there was no availability ever, only to find out that our concierge was able to secure a reservation.  In the inverse of our Copenhagen meal slotting problems, many places either didn't serve dinner at all or only served it one or two weekend nights.  But in the end, everything came together remarkably well:  Mugaritz was the only restaurant on our list where we tried and failed to secure a reservation, and Azurmendi was able to fit us in for Friday dinner, our last night.  Unfortunately, thanks to the lingering effects of pintxos poisoning, I decided that it was better to skip Elkano -- the only meal that I (begrudgingly) canceled -- so that I felt as well/hungry as possible that night.

Eneko Atxa is possibly the nicest chef I've ever met -- certainly the highest ratio of niceness-to-culinary fame.  (And he's got a bit of a sexy rockstar look!)  He recognized us from our overlapping Thursday dinners at Alchemist, where we'd spotted him but hadn't said anything, while he was making the rounds at the Saturday OAD Masters lunch.  (I wish we'd gotten a chance to ask him what he thought of Alchemist, but alas, it didn't seem opportune with Rasmus a table over.)  He was so friendly and appreciative when we complimented his dishes, and he genuinely seemed pleased when we told him that we were looking forward to dinner at his restaurant on the following Friday.  (He even pulled out his phone, which has some sort of reservation tracking app, to figure out which reservation was ours.)  Whatever notation he'd made obviously got translated to his (very well trained) staff, as it was mentioned in passing by a few people at various points throughout the evening.  He was unfailing warm when he greeted us in the kitchen and stopped by our table, even saying something about how we could call the restaurant if we needed anything during our stay in the region.  Eneko is just a delight.

As we drove up the hill towards Azurmendi -- so called after Eneko's mother's family name -- the light through its floor-to-ceiling windows beckoned.  Our "first act: picnic in the garden" began almost immediately, when we were offered snacks and glasses of Txakoli (made by the chef's family) in a high-ceilinged internal garden, complete with trees and water feature.  (When I declined wine, I was brought a lovely grape juice.)  A tiny eel and fried brioche sandwich was tasty, a vaguely brunchy smoky seafood-and-bread combo.  The excellent tomato water gel was a simple but perfect distillation of tomato flavor -- a highlight of the meal.  The liquid-filled sphere tasted more of passion fruit than wine.
Local tomato gel, Eel sandwich, Txakoli punch

We were then led into the kitchen for more snacks (and a quick hello from Eneko).  Mushroom chips with parsley cream and carrot salt made for a very enjoyable salty snack, and hibiscus juice served as a very acidic palate cleanser.  (Our printed menu confusingly says "hazelnuts."  No idea what we didn't get.)
Second act: the kitchen
We were next whisked into a sort of show "greenhouse."
Third act: our greenhouse
A tasty, chilled corn soup was their play on a local corn porridge called morokil.  Nice corn flavor but otherwise unremarkable.

I remember liking this cheesy little biscuit but nothing specific stood out.  (It was so unmemorable that I didn't even make a note of it when we sat at the table and I jotted down our snack notes.)
Basil and Roquefort biscuit

The bright white cotton candy dusted with asparagus salt was another, very cool highlight of the meal.  It was probably the most playful use of asparagus that we saw all vacation; saltiness on otherwise sweet candy was totally new and surprisingly effective.
Asparagus Cotton

A simple mushroom chip (porcini?) was just okay, less good than the more interesting kitchen snack.
Mushroom leaf

From there, we entered our "Fourth act: the balcony," which meant we were seated at our table for the night.  The olive bonbons were surprisingly frozen -- fine but not standout -- but I thought the intensely olivey, unexpectedly sweet, crunchy sticks were really good.  And the vermouth that accompanied the olives was Little Serow-worthy!
Frozen olive

and vermouth

Lovely milk bread rolls were very light and moist, reminding Adam of Parker House rolls.

The egg that we'd loved at Geranium was still delicious, a classic pairing of unctuous yolk and earthy truffle made surprising with technique.  The egg is slightly cooked by a syringe injection of truffle broth, after a bit of the yolk is removed (also via syringe) from the sac to make room.  The result is a marbled but intact yolk served liquidy and warm.  So good.
Egg from our hens, cooked inside out and truffled
I avoided the raw oyster, but the fried anemone was nicely crunchy, and the oyster and shallot tartar was very tasty.  A hit of red sorrel added brightness.
Oysters, tartar and seaweed traces

Around this point in the meal, a server noticed that I wasn't cleaning my plate and asked if everything was okay.  I assured her that it was, just that I hasn't been feeling well that day and my stomach was still a bit sensitive.  (I actually was quite relieved to get an opportunity to explain this, because I hadn't wanted anyone in the kitchen to think that I wasn't enjoying the food.  Everyone was so friendly and the food was delicious.)  Shortly thereafter, I got up to go to the restroom, and a suited up front of house person (with a managerial aura) approached to direct me and -- in one of the more seamless, thoughtful service gestures I can remember -- ask whether I would like an herbal infusion for my stomach.  (I accepted, and it was deliciously soothing when I returned.)

Our next beautiful, crimson bowl had very nice urchin flavor, bright tobiko that was almost soyish in its saltiness, and crunchy from seaweed crackers and pine nuts (the latter addition which I particularly loved).
Sea urchin, emulsion, juice
Unfortunately, I only had a bit of the seaweed waffle-uni emulsion sandwich, which was a bit too briny for my stomach.
and waffle
Sweet baby peas were lovely, and the herring roe added nice saltiness.  
Peas and roe

Next up, lobster arrived in textures ranging from the expected (nicely charred meat) to one that I didn't even realize was possible: the tuile-like stick that tasted (as Adam noted) like crunchy lobster bisque.  (Some sort of rich sauce/stock dehydrated until it was rollable, I'm guessing?  Cool.)  I loved the intense, thick sauce, and the dabs of emulsion provided a lighter balance.
Roasted lobster out of the shell, its crunch and mayonnaise

In lieu of suckling pig, we received cauliflower in textures (including puree, pearls, and fried bits).  The kitchen certainly loves "textures" of ingredients, but luckily they're done very well.  I didn't really get truffle flavor off of the shavings (done tableside, of course), but the cauliflower sweetness was very nice, and the spherified pearls were fun.  (Obviously lots of good textural contrast.)

The cod tripe was easily the most surprising dish of the night, in large part because I didn't expect to find tripe so delicious.  I'd never had any sort of tripe before -- I'd never even heard of fish tripe -- but I was wary.  The pieces of tripe were cooked to the texture of gelatinous dumplings and served with fried pillows of aoili.  Very interesting and tasty!
Cod tripe, chickpeas and herb potatoes

Monkfish was beautiful cooked -- sous vide before searing? -- served with more textures, this time of artichokes (fried silvers, quartered hearts).  Lovely basil emulsion.  I couldn't bring myself to try the innards terrine; monkfish liver stands out as one of the most disgusting things I can remember eating (and I ate that while feeling 100%).  Not a stand-out dish, but as was the baseline for the meal, well executed.
Monkfish in Iberian crust, artichokes and basil

As a sub for the pigeon (which we didn't eat in Copenhagen, obviously), we again got the hake that we had previously loved.  In another excellent service touch by the manager-esque person who had previously offered me the infusion, he asked (noting that we had eaten this dish the week before) whether we would want to have it again or try another fish dish.  I wasn't disappointed to see it again!

A lovely pre-dessert of cardamom foam, pineapple sorbet, and celery (which added a nice vegetal note) was bright and light, perfect for how I was feeling at the time.  (I don't love what a theme my less-than-100% stomach is in this post, but it's impossible to separate from my impressions, sadly.)  
Pineapple, cardamom and celery
The highlight of the next dessert was the yogurt sticks, which were very tart and spiced.  Loved them.
Yogurt, honey and five spices
More flavors in various textures.  Interesting but not an ideal combination of flavors for my dessert preferences.  Weirdly, the puree pooled on the plate reminded me of queso.  No idea why.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but strange.
Chocolate, peanut and liquorice

Finally, a whimsical assortment of mignardises arrived to wrap up our meal.  A chocolate lapsang marshmallow (in the palm of the hand plate) was excellently smokey!  The fingers balanced a pop of white chocolate, yogurt, and basil, which I think Adam liked more than I did; I'm not a huge white chocolate fan.  A refreshing shot of apple-rosemary juice was chased with tiny cubes of apple that had been compressed and infused with rosemary.  The box held red wine and lemon bonbons, a mango jelly (with a hint of chili), and a matcha financier; the latter two were the highlights of the set.
Petit fours
I skipped the coffee passion fruit macaron (because I am, as I have been described, "broken" and do not like coffee), but Adam said that the odd-sounding combination worked.  

I think I enjoyed the meal more than Adam, whose expectations were not quite met.  I'm not entirely clear on what he was hoping for; it wasn't a Saison-level revelation, but it was an excellent meal with a number of outstanding courses (and it's not Eneko's fault that we were less blown away by the second appearance within a week of a few standouts).  Service was the perfect combination of warm, unobtrusive, and solicitous.  It's a testament to Azurmendi that I enjoyed it as much as I did, and I hope I get the opportunity to return someday in better health.  
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