Finally! It's here! The Azurmendi post. First I'd like to apologize for it taking so dang long to get this up. I've already broken my New Years resolution... I'll be sure to try harder next week. Rest assured though, I've been staying busy. Between my last post and this one, I've been into NYC three times, battled through a restaurant week, and killed and roasted a goat (that post is coming up) For those of you that haven't kept up on the Spain business, I'll fill you in.
I had an incredible one week opportunity this winter to take a trip to Spain. Mostly for education and learning purposes, but there was also a very heavy emphasis on relaxing after a hard season's work. One of the most rewarding parts of my trip was the day I spent working at one of the best contemporary Basque restaurants in the country: Azurmendi. Here we go!
The place was huge! What a gigantic property. It was originally a winery with a separate catering space. The chef, Eneko Atxa already had two restaurants - one in Madrid and one in Bilbao, and was looking to centralize. Enter, the vineyard.
Here's a shot of one of their two formal dining rooms. You can't see it in the picture, but to the right are giant windows overlooking the hills of Larrabetzu.
The other formal dining room. Right between these two rooms was the catering hall. Imagine you're a waiter: running the length of a quarter football field just to get to your other tables. HA! No bueno. That's where the new restaurant space comes into play. It's being built as I type this. It should be ready by Spring 2012 - top secret!!
The massive catering hall attached to the restaurant. They were able to do parties up to 700 people - out of the same kitchen!!
This is the wine that the attached vineyard produces: Bai Gorri. They are most proud of their txakoli wine (pronounced cha-coe-lee) from Azurmendi's own in-house winery. The wine is the crisp, dry, mildly sparkling wine, and made from the area's hondarrabi zuri grapes.
Scenes from the inside workings of the winery.
Back in the kitchen... Caviar-like tomato spheres just chillin' out. No big deal. Wonder what dish those are for...
Luckily, I was able to try many of the dishes Azurmendi offers as I was working. Although out of order from a regular meal, it was a pretty sweet opportunity to get a first hand account of what the food was really like.
Spotted some dehydrated potato chips, brushed with gold. Apparently go on the squab dish.
Piles of carefully chopped cabbage are slowly deep fried at a low temperature creating a kind of edible saw dust.
This "saw dust" will be formed into rings...
Turned potatoes were poached in Sauce Americaine - essentially a thickened lobster stock.
They were then painted with a combination of "lactose" and skid ink.
The resulting potatoes, after drying and cracking a bit, quite resembled river rocks.
The rocks complimented a sea scape complete with raw snapper that had been quickly torched, and tempura seaweed.
The sauce Americaine was the best I had ever tasted. Rich with roasted lobster, sea, and shellfish flavors. No artificial thickeners were used, just the lobsters own natural gelatin.
A thick and gooey passionfruit gel being emulsified. Ready to pipe into chocolate bon bons.
After filling, the chocolates were brushed with silver powder.
Like metal ball bearings, the chocolates gleamed. The good news? They're filled with passionfruit!
Cooks working on a great "microwave cake" technique. Originally created by Chef Albert Adria of El Bulli. A green apple and arugula foam base is piped into plastic cups.
A few second in the microwave and POOF - you have the fluffiest warm cake you've ever tasted. The cakes are cooled upside down so they don't deflate, then carved out of the plastic cups.
The same technique with a passionfruit cake. After these cakes cool, they are dehydrated for about 30 minutes. All the air bubbles miraculously hold, creating a crater-like rock.
To plate this dessert, the passionfruit gel is covered in a sweet soil of cocoa, nuts, and malt.
The bon bons are added, as are the gold passionfruit craters.
The plate is completed with spun sugar and a shooter of chocolate and passionfruit sorbet.
If this doesn't resemble a scene from a nearby galaxy I don't know what does. The dish transports the customer to a faraway world. One in which gold, silver, and even the soil can be eaten. Pretty cool stuff.
A pond pump has been placed in a container of apple juice, arugula juice, and soy lecithin. Creates a constant, stable foam.
The foam is scooped from the container with both hands, and dotted with shoots of arugula and anise.
When the dish is brought to the table, it is formally dubbed by the server "moss on the wall".
The metal apparatus beneath the dish is then stood upright and locked into place. The customer is then instructed to literally eat the moss off the wall.
How much closer to nature could you possibly get?!?! In a word: surreal. An absolute adventure to eat. A true transformation from nature to food - right before your very eyes. You're forced to come out of your comfort zone. Additionally, I can't say I've ever eaten off of a vertical plate before.
A few shots of the gigantic kitchen...
If you weren't at that very moment busy working, it was essential that you folded your hands behind your back. Different from the American cook's mentality: don't stop working. Ever.
Cooks plating one of this first "amuse" courses. A virtual garden in your mouth. A gel of tomato and olive oil is covered in a soil of toasted almond and malt.
The cylinders of gel are painstakingly covered before each service. It takes two interns about an hour to cover 30 plates.
At the last moment, the plates are garnished with baby carrot, broccoli, peas, cauliflower, borage, and pea shoots. Reminded me instantly of our garden back in Jamesport. I guess that was the idea... Unfortunately, the portion was a bit too large (at least in my opinion) and the trick quickly wore off.
Another amuse bouche: a slow poached egg yolk covered in a gel of warm pork consomme. Incredible flavors and textures here. Minimalism at its best.
A cook wrapping head cheese in caul fat. Doesn't get much better than that does it?
Had the opportunity to take a trip downstairs to the Azurmendi laboratory. No, seriously. They really had a laboratory. I think other restaurants have claimed to have laboratories, but not like this. A microbiologist would have been in awe. Beakers and contraptions lined the walls. Themo circulators (tons of them), dehydrators, rotary evaporators, ultra sound machines, tubes, pipes, freeze drying apparatus, scales, and more. All for culinary experimentation. It worked.
Photos of old Azurmendi dishes.
Got to spend a bit of time helping some cooks wrap pressed oxtail with thin strips of pork fat and then bread.
The cubes were later crisped in a pan, and placed in a pool of rich beef sauce. Simple, and delicious.
For the squab dish, forest herbs, plants, soil, and berries are collected and placed into this terrasphere. A concentrated liquid of "forest water" - made by clarifying a stock of sticks, stones, and soil is poured into the bottom of the glass.
Liquid nitrogen is poured into the glass upon which aromas of the forest billow out. Immediately, scents of pine, berry, earth, and trees fill my nose.
Remember those golden potato chips? Well here they are. Taking the place of fall leaves in the forest squab scene. A single breast of squab is cooked to medium rare. Crispy skin. Macerated blackberries. A carved piece of yuca root, poached and then brushed with berry reduction looked exactly like a branch. Scary really. I'm eating these forest things, and smelling these forest things. Felt very primal. As though I had scooped up a pigeon in the woods and gobbled it whole. Berries and branches stuck to it's feet and all.
The house-made breads: a corn bread, whole grain cereal bread, and simple white bread - all warm, crusty, and delicious.
Another first bite, and probably the most surprising and impressive of them all. The insides of a raw egg yolk had been sucked out via syringe and needle and quickly replaced with a hot truffle jus. The egg literally cooked from the inside out. Yet the raw outer membrane of the yolk never burst until it popped between your teeth.
The oyster course. Sea water, shellfish, and seaweeds were collected and made into a common "sea water" they were then purified. The bottom of the bowl is filled with rocks of dry ice. This sea water is heated and poured upon the ice table side. The resulting smoke whisks you away to the ocean.
This is one of Eneko's plays on a classic dish. If you saw past pictures of our trip, you'll notice a small tapa with baby eels or Angolas perched upon a toasted piece of bread. This is his take - except it's totally vegetarian!! Slivers of daikon radish are dressed with squid ink and soy sauce. It's true that deception makes people smile, however one must first be familiar with the original food trying to be portrayed. For instance, if I hadn't earlier been aquainted with the famous baby eels of Basque country, this dish would have been completely lost upon me.
The petit fours: all neutral in color. These last bits of food snap you back to reality. They include candied hazelnuts, chocolate pistachio, and a milk made of cough drops. Yes, you heard right - cough drop milk. Bizarre indeed, but the sweet mentholated beverage was quite cooling and refreshing.
All in all, the trip turned out to be the best of both worlds. I learned some great new techniques and flavor combinations, and at the same time tasted some really incredible food. I discovered just how far the human mind and palate can be pushed - simultaneously! A wise lesson indeed. Knowing that, I can confirm that Eneko and his team did their jobs well, and succeeded.
Let the goat times roll,