3 Star

Azurmendi, Bilbao

We first spotted Azurmendi perched high upon a hill as our taxi roared down the motorway. It briefly disappears as we swing left to disembark the quicker roads and then rapidly grows in size again as we go around the roundabout up a very steep hill and up to the top, where the gigantic glass building stands proudly at the top. We enter the leafy reception and are immediately given a glass each of the txakoli they grow on their own vineyards at the rear, followed by a picnic basket that contains the first four courses. It would be thirty-five minutes and ten small courses from here before we sit down in the restaurant. Azurmendi don’t do things the normal way.

That picnic basket is Chapter 1, the first of four chapters that takes four hours from start to finish. Inside is a seafood broth, a dainty brioche burger with anchovy and smoked eel, and a cider parfait with chorizo crumb. What amazes me is the intensity of the flavours; everything is ramped up to the maximum it can be, the burger having the flavour of barbequed fish despite any direct heat being applied to any of the filling. My favourite is a false peanut, with uncompromisingly rich filling of foie gras and peanut, before being finished with mushroom powder. It is very clever.

From here we are taken into the kitchen for the next instalment. A chicken consommé greets us, the strong, clean chicken flavour lifted with a little sherry. Whilst we are drinking this an egg yolk has a little removed by syringe and then replaced with a hot truffle reduction that cooks the yolk from the inside out. A truffled egg yolk. Absolute filth. I am demanding this on every breakfast from now. The third chapter takes us into the greenhouse for four more nibbles, a glass of fermented apple juice, which we know of course to be cider, then the most remarkable cornet of tomato, red pepper and garlic that nods at the strident flavours of Spain. We get alchemy in a curd that transitions from water to a yogurt-like state in front of our very eyes. The fireworks are reserved for the final nibble; a caiprinha cocktail which explodes in the mouth from the thinnest of chocolate spheres. The cachaça spirit has been replaced with local txakoli which seems to lengthen the sugar and lime notes. Talk to Claire about our meal here and this is the first thing she will mention. Had there been more attached to the miniature tree she would have picked them up and made a run for the door. It’s the Macclesfield girl in her.

After these ten pretty astounding nibbles we get led to our table. The dining room is huge, the tables well distanced from one another. The art is to the left of us; the glass wall that looks out on to the Basque countryside, serving as a constant remainder of the environment and restaurant’s attachment to it. Indeed, for all of the modernist tricks that the kitchen applies here, the overwhelming feel was that of one of community; the use of local wine, of Basque traditions such as the chicken consommé, of local ciders, and a wider appreciation of the national flavours like in that cornet. There would be many, many more references throughout the remainder of the meal.

Four more nibbles arrive together before they move on to the tasting menu. The lightest of foie gras served within a followed-out lime, topped with a syrup of the citrus that works as a brilliant foil for the rich liver. There is a beignet of spider crab, and mushrooms coated in praline that attract the mushroom and liquorice powder they lay on. Finally we get txakoli infused with sea herbs that takes on a fresh dimension. We order a bottle of txakoli. It turns out that I like txakoli.

Still with me? Good. We’ll get started properly now. The first course is the only one I didn’t love, but only because I don’t like the texture of poached oysters. The mollusc is a beast, the biggest I’ve seen, with a vibrant herb oil, herb emulsion, a little apple, and a tempura of oyster topped with oyster leaf lurking in the back. This feels wasted on me and I should have swapped out like Claire did. Loved the tempura oyster though, which is meaty and still bursting with the taste of the sea.

Following this is sea urchin in various forms. Within the ceramic shell is cooked and raw sea urchin, tasting like the most pungent of brown crab meat, topped with a foam of you guessed it, sea urchin. On the side is a tilted glass of Bloody Mar, their take on a Bloody Mary, with more sea urchin, tabasco, Worcester sauce, and tomato juice. It shouldn’t work, yet it does, the urchin flavour working perfectly in harmony with the spice which sticks around for the various layers within the pot. If sea urchin isn’t your thing this will not be for you, but I liked it, it has an elegance about it and flavours that aren’t afraid of standing up for themselves.

A little veloute of asparagus is next, the flavours clean and defined with a dice of asparagus at the base. Even better is the ‘pil-pil’ of vine asparagus it is served with, which we are told to eat with our hands. The tangle of vegetable has been cooked with garlic and ancho chilli so that the heat grabs from the second it enters the mouth. Together with the veloute this course is nothing short of exceptional. The lobster which follows is beautiful, the tail meat centre to the bowl with just a glossy sauce American and pickled onions for company. It is topped tableside with a coffee butter that adds a subtle depth and richness to a dish that riffs lightly on acidity. The lobster is the best I have ever eaten, but does that really surprise you? By now I’m sold, hook, line, and sinker.

Beans and assorted meats are a playful take on the homely cooking within the Basque region. The beans have been produced using spherification, the gel membranes each releasing a different flavour note when popped in the mouth. Also in the bowl is a rich sauce, thickened, I think, with a little pigs blood. A cube of slowly braised pork sits behind it. I have no idea what the kitchen intended with this, though in my eyes it was the taste of Morcilla when all was combined. Rich and elegant, with meat and a little spice. This was an incredible course that used modern techniques to its full advantage.

We get the Red Mullet in three servings. The first a fritter of the fish innards which was a little too pokey in taste for even me. The second the most perfect piece of slightly smoked melt-in-the-mouth sashimi with charred edges and opaque centre. The last is a fillet, pan fried to a crisp skin on a circular of rich herb emulsion and stewed wheat. On top of the fish is a little potato soufflé filled with another puree of parsley. It is perfection in simplicity.

Our final soiree in the savoury section leaves me gobsmacked. I’ve done the three star Michelin thing before, I know how they like to flash their expensive cuts of meat, so to serve me a faggot as a main takes bigger balls than those I’m looking at on the plate. The faggots are made from the sweetbread of the pig, and are rich and delicate, glazed in a sauce so heavily reduced I could almost see my face in its sheen. With this are liquid balls of Idiazabel (a local sheeps milk cheese) that explode in the mouth, and cubes of salt baked turnip. It is one of the most remarkable dishes I have ever eaten, the cheese a brilliant partner to the sweetbread faggot. For once words fail me in giving this the culinary blowjob it deserves.

Three desserts to go. First up is avocado and mango, a dish that I most feared when looking at the menu. It is a delight; arguably the best of the trio. The success lies in the use of lime acidity and ancho chilli to sharpen the plate. Avocado puree is warming and spicy, with mango parfait and meringues. There is a lime cream and granita, and white chocolate leaf-shaped shards. It eats so well. Following this is red berries as various purees, the most decadent of sorbets, as well as fresh and frozen. A white chocolate sorbet and shards coated in basil join it along with a crème of something I cant recall. On the side is a bit of fun; a raspberry ice cream, aerated and frozen that disappears in the mouth leaving nothing but the taste of fruit. Drink was getting the better of me by this point so apologies for the hazy detail, but the overriding memory is of the unbelievable flavour of the fruit. With this we drink the most astonishing dessert wine I have ever tried; an iced cider which we dare not ask the price of such is its quality, and later appears on the bill for five euro a glass. Take that, extortionate UK wine prices. I know they said its not available on the consumer market, but if anyone is reading this that can source me the Malus Mama please hit me up. I could do without the air fares to have another glass.

The last dessert was possibly the one time the kitchen witchcraft didn’t pay off to its full potential. A forest scene has a chocolate leaf and twig protruding from black olive soil, with a sweetened ice cream of the sheep milk cheese from earlier and chocolate truffles. The flavours work great but the proportions are slightly out; there is too much of the soil which becomes claggy in the mouth without the moisture from the ice cream that soon runs out. We take coffee with the petit fours, which fold from a box that reveals eight gems including jellies, macaroons, and chocolates. We have these boxed up to take home, which make a wonderful breakfast the following morning. The red wine chocolate even helped ease my hangover.

This, of course, does not come cheap. The tasting menu comes in at 230 Euro each, and I’ll spare you the total bill that includes two good bottles of wine, and glasses of dessert wine to boot. Though to put it in perspective our total bill is well under half of a friend who ate in a Parisian three star around the same time, so I personally consider it value. It’s inevitable with longer tastings that there are going to be dishes you are less keen on, yet it was clear that the technique on show throughout was of the highest order. The four hours we enjoyed at Azurmendi are the absolute pinnacle of my culinary journey thus far, a carefully crafted experience that pulls in and out of their environment. My handful of other three star experiences were blown completely out of the water. If, like me, you enjoy the theatre of eating, modern techniques, and the most perfect of meals, Azurmendi may also be your idea of the best restaurant in the world.

10/10

Enjoy this? Then I have a favour to ask. Please spare two minutes of your time to vote for me here in the Best Food Blog category (17).

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

The promenade of The Dorchester hotel is full of those having afternoon tea.  It is a curious mix of ladies who lunch, those celebrating, and hotel guests.  The class and the crass, if you like.  There are pearls and gowns beside velour tracksuits.  Cut glass English accents are interspersed by shouty American ones.  It is a lovely space where new money meets old money with a shared interest in the most luxurious of hotels.

We walk through that promenade and turn left into the dining room of Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester.  It is bigger than I expected, with washed grey walls, immaculate white linen, deep chairs, and an army of staff.  The latter are everywhere, an orchestra of tailored suits and foreign accents who are trained into pouring wine simultaneously and expertly covering up stains with smaller sheets of linen.  Each are aware of their individual roles in us leaving replete and suitably poorer than when we left.

After turning down the attention of a champagne trolley we are presented with a generous pyramid of gougeres – those lovely savoury choux buns flavoured with cheese.  These are nice, a little light on the emmental cheese flavour, and not as good as those at Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road (an obvious comparison given it is London’s only other 3*).  The less said about the amouse bouche the better – a curious blend of cured John Dory, lime and peanut that was never going to work.  If 2017 serves up a more ill-conceived dish I shall be very unfortunate.

IMG_9954

IMG_9961

We tried much of the bread to mostly great success.  A farmhouse bun was as light as a pillow and delicate with the back note of pork lard, whereas a black olive was a little muted on flavour.  Best was a bacon fogasse that had us going back for seconds, thirds, and, in my case, fourths.  Who said not to overfill on the bread course has never eaten this.  It’s the ultimate breakfast of knotted bread and cubes of fatty bacon.  We smear it inch thick with a lovely salted butter that has been shaped into an onion, whilst sneering at the aerated cream cheese option that looks and tastes like hair mousse.

IMG_9959

Our first course hit the mark.  A crumbed egg gave way to the brightest of yolks that served as a sauce for the smoked corn, chicken oysters and onion stuffed with chicken mousseline.  A corn tuile was a superfluous addition that the dish did not need, but the rest was indulgent and cohesive.

IMG_9963

IMG_9964

And then, well, it all slumped for a while during mains.  A lamb rump was perfectly cooked, seasoned, and rested, with chickpeas, a hummus like puree and pickled onions.  It was nice.  In the same way that Songs of Praise is nice, or making daisy chains.  Impossible to fault, but equally hard to get excited over.  The thrill of dining here is lost amongst the fear of being anything other than perfect, as if the weight of Michelin hangs more heavily here than anywhere else I have dined at it in the country.  There are no risks being taken.  A word on the sauce though, it was an incredible thing that only a classic French approach can result in.

IMG_9966

The other main was a technically astute squid stuffed pasta, with various preparations of octopus hidden under a canopy of leaves.  The overriding flavour is one of citrus that lifts and occasional dominates all it coats.  The octopus was tender, the pasta silky, but three stars?  Really?  It’s all far too safe.

IMG_9967

You get the mignardises here before dessert, why I simply could not tell you.  What I can tell you is that they are all delicious, with some of the best macaroons I have eaten, cocoa coated almonds, nougat, and chocolates.  A lot of work goes into these and it pays off, with a salted caramel toffee disappearing to a nothing on the tongue.  Really lovely stuff.

IMG_9974

Desserts were true three star calibre.  An almond sponge has the lightest of textures, with poached apricot’s and almond granita.  Like the savoury courses there is nothing to fault but this has character; it stands up and demands attention.  Before I move onto my dessert, we were given an additional course because we were celebrating.  Its strawberries and cream for the child at heart, one perfect quenelle of milk ice cream, another of strawberry.  Little meringues of raspberry provide texture, with a singular fruit crowning it all.  The depth of the ice creams are truly staggering.  There is obvious skill in this part of the kitchen.

IMG_9979

IMG_9977

The best course of the lunch deserves a post of it’s own, but I have a liver to kill and only  limited time to do so, so you’ll have to make do with this paragraph.  Chocolate and passion fruit.  It sounds simple enough.  Wrong.  Two tempered chocolate domes, one filled with a white chocolate mousse, the other a passion fruit mousse and topped with passion fruit seeds so that it resembles a halved fruit.  Have a look for yourself.  I couldn’t believe it as I cracked into it and I was 30cm away.  More chocolate as a creme, tuile, and crispy covered puffed rice.  Central to this was a vivid passion fruit ice cream that perfectly balanced it all out.  I’m not a dessert man because they are too often an afterthought, but this is up there with the very best sweet courses I have ever had.

IMG_9976

IMG_9981

We finish with coffee and a tea trolley where you choose your own plant for an infusion.  It’s a lovely concept, typical of a place where every thought has been considered for the consumer.  Apart from the food that is. See, my biggest problem with Ducasse is a simple one:  Exactly one week one after dining here I have to refer to notes to remember much of what we ate.  I remember the splendid company and wonderful service.  I remember how charming the restaurant manager was.  I remember that the desserts were unquestionably three star level.  But the savoury stuff was mostly forgettable safe cooking, hovering around the two star level if they were lucky.  It’s nice.  But then nice just doesn’t cut it when this sort of money and reputation is involved.

7/10

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London

It was impossible to go to Restaurant Gordon Ramsay without expecting it to be a great meal. In this last twelve months The Good Food guide have scored it the perfect ten – one of only three in the country to score this – along with it being one of only four UK restaurants to be bestowed with the maximum three stars from Michelin. Everything was pointing towards perfection, though expectation is the root of all disappointment; the mother of all frustration. By building a pre-set ideal based on another’s opinion surely I was setting myself up for a fall.

And then you push through the heavy door of the bijou building on Royal Hospital Road and all is fine. The greetings from an army of staff detract from its beige interior that borders between boring and serene.  Here, amongst the four walls in loaded Chelsea, is a world where handbags require stools, toilet roll is pointed into triangles after every visit and French haute cuisine is King.

Lets start with the bits before the real food arrives.  Excellent gourgeres disappeared from the basket instantly; the ethereal choux loaded with a cheesey bechamel that put shame to the ones at any of Ducasse’s restaurants.  An amuse came in a egg shell precisely trimmed and sprayed gold – I pity whoever has this as a job.  Inside a baked potato mousseline marbled with yolk and topped with a sliver of Perigord truffle that was both comforting and elegant.

image

image

A dainty dish of agnolotti had al dente pasta with a filling of roasted pumpkin, softly flavoured with sage.  Transparent slices of guanciale ham coated the mouth with fat and let the flavours take over, whilst amaretti crumbs provided texture.  I wont eat a better dish all year, I’m sure.  Roasted beetroot had a salad perched prettily in a mound of smoked goats curd.  My partner declaring it not quite on the level of a similar dish that she had at The Square last year whilst practically licking the plate clean

. image

image

A fillet of plaice was sensational; the fish, still fresh and retaining its flavour, was enhanced by a pokey taramasalata, tender strips of razor clam and a beurre noisette, which proved that everything tastes better when basted in brown butter.  Rabbit, a meat I seldom eat due to it always arriving overcooked, had a perfectly timed loin, seasoned by the salty bayonne ham it was wrapped in.  Confit leg lay proudly on tender lentils, whilst teeny racks served as a remainder of the animal on the plate.  The sauce, a deep glossy thing of dreams, held everything together and pickled mustard seeds popped and provided heat and contrast.  It was cooking of the highest order.

image

image

Desserts were a highlight in a meal of highlights.  An assiette showcased all five of the sweets available on the a la carte menu, the stars being a lemonade parfait with sheep milks sorbet and a smoked chocolate cigar with blood orange and cardamom ice cream – both of which could grace any table, anywhere. A peppermint souffle of perfect consistency arrived with a silky dark chocolate sorbet, the two combined echoing After Eights.  There was a faultless mini version of the Ramsay signature tarte tatin, and a carrot cake that didn’t taste much of carrot.  All of these made my dessert, a dainty custard tart with blood orange and mascarpone sorbet, seem a bit of an afterthought.  A bit of whimsy finished off proceedings as clementine ice cream dipped in white chocolate was served in bowl overflowing with dry ice. image

image

image

The service was even better than La Gavroche, which is a phrase I never thought I’d say.  It was both friendly and concise, with the level of professionalism you would expect from a restaurant with such accolades.  A meal here doesn’t come cheap – between the three of us it would be mortgage payment back home – but nor should it; the brigade of staff (a total of thirty, as opposed to 42 diners) and the raw produce come at a price.  Both Michelin and The Good Food Guide consider it to be the countries finest and I have to agree with them.  Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is up there with the very best.

10/10

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay on Urbanspoon