Stones of Parmesan, Hibiscus Infusion, Roots and Leaves, Aroma of the Sea, and Eggs Inside Out are not just fancy expressions but edible art. One cool evening in October in the Basque country of Spain, a unique collaborative dinner (A Walk Through The Stars) was prepared by two Michelin-starred chefs and served to a very lucky group of diners at Azurmendi restaurant on the outskirts of Bilbao, Spain. Chef Eneko Atxa of Azurmendi restaurant hails from Buzkaia province of Northern Spain while Chef Quique Dacosta is from Denia, south of Valencia on the Costa Blanca. Though their philosophies in regard to food may differ, they managed to successfully blend the two to create a beautiful experience for their guests. Such harmonious collaborations between chefs are rare because they require egos to be put aside and the chefs to work together; in this case, for the first time to take diners on a fantasy gastronomic journey.
These two young, extremely talented chefs had earned their third Michelin stars in the preceding year bringing the number of Spanish chefs in this elite group to seven. There is an interesting anecdote about the time the third star was awarded to Dacosta’s restaurant and the restaurant team exuberantly fished out three stars from their Christmas decorations to adorn the facade in celebration of their achievement. The two chefs have a similar history of humble beginnings and have reinvented traditional cuisine and ingredients to create their versions of a cutting edge cuisine.
The countryside location of Azurmendi (a very modernistic, sustainable restaurant) is spectacular, especially in the daytime being surrounded by 40 hectares of vineyards and vegetable gardens, and also a little tricky to locate after dark without navigation tools. As guests enter the enclosed reception area, which is more like a green, plant-lined haven, they hear the sound of trickling water and can look into the colossal kitchen in its entire stainless steel splendor through huge glass windows at the far end of the space. Assisting the two chefs in the kitchen that particular night was a team of 45 personnel, including cooks and sommeliers from both the chefs’ restaurants, all working intensely to fine tune an expansive tasting menu for the evening with exceptional wine pairings.
Watching the plating of the 24 or so courses was akin to viewing a theatrical performance both in the open kitchen and through the glass walls of the dining room. The beautiful plates served at the table were the only accents in the minimalist decor of the dining room which, in the daytime, seems to merge into the green countryside. In a post-dinner conversation both chefs expressed the opinion that it was important for their guests to enjoy themselves and not take this over the top experience too seriously, which was easier said than done.
The evening began as is customary at Azurmendi in the reception patio area with cava and picnic fare from both chefs repertoire. The tastings included rosemary and vine shoots, “Stones” of Parmesan (which was a thin layer of cocoa butter which looked like a river stone but had delicious liquid parmesan inside), tomatoes in vinegar with lichen, fried pepperwort and stevia leaves by Dacosta. There were anchovies cured with rosemary, infused oak crusts, and cold hibiscus infusion by Atxa. At Quique’s Mediterranean style restaurant in Denia, his creative nibbles are served on a terrace open to sea breezes. Dacosta’s “Tomorrowland 2014” menu being offered at his Quique Dacosta restaurant this year is an example of his quirky, modernistic approach to food and promises to be worth a trip to Denia this year. Atxa meanwhile has ventured overseas into Phuket, Thailand this year with his Aziamendi restaurant transplanting his sustainable cuisine into Asia.
The sommeliers from both restaurants had curated the wines that accompanied that multitude of courses that evening providing a great tasting experience to enhance the food. During several hours the exceptional plates (over 30) were paired with wines including some like Bodegas Gorka Izaguirre. D.O. Bizkaiko, which comes from Atxa’s vineyards surrounding the restaurant. Fondillon 2000, Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega. D.O.P Alicante, Vermouth Clásico del Montsant, Cellar Masroig. D.O.P. Montsant, Recaredo Gran Reserva 2007, Caves Recaredo D.O Cava Penedes, and others.
For the next part of the evening guests perched on stools at the long counter in the kitchen and both the chefs plated and finished dishes in view of the guests. Symbolic of how they both worked as a team Eneko’s famous truffled egg cooked inside out was bruleed by Quique Dacosta for the guests while Eneko Atxa was putting the finishing touches to Dacosta’s plates. That truffled egg yolk has a delicious rich taste that lingers a while on the palate and leaves you wanting to say “more please!”
In spite of the camera’s and crews underfoot in the kitchen both chefs unfazed plated and served incredible looking plates from the other side of the bar. Some plates looked like pieces of art and diners hesitant to make a faux pas looked around to ensure that they were to be consumed. The two chefs were going down the row of diners from across the counter and finishing plates for each diner making the experience more personal.
For the final phase of the dinner the diners moved into the spacious dining room for a progression of courses by both chefs presented in a conceptual order created by them. Some of the dishes were familiar being signature dishes of each chef such as the senia rice by Dacosta, an eye catching plate with smoky black rice and aroma of truffle, the “apple tart” which is really a meringue with Campari and the cellophane wrapped gift of a Denia prawn by Dacosta with warm infusion on the side and the foie gras peanut, chocolate hazelnut, by Atxa. The farmhouse milk bread baked at Azurmendi is delicious when dipped in Spanish olive oil and was served at the table that night along with spelt bread.
Squid with crispy onions, ashes of foie gras, a two-tiered sea urchin and lobster plate with a crown of fried artichoke, a deuxelle of pigeon by Atxa were interspersed with almond and strawberries, a typical Valencian stew with anchovies, sea urchin ceviche and oyster with aroma of the sea by Dacosta.
Finally the desserts such as a Frozen Rose served with a warm knife on the side, Aerated Brownie, Grilled Tatin, and Dacosta’s prune and cinnamon creation as well as the customary mignardises concluded the dinner. It was an enjoyable experience in all though some courses based on individual preference were more successful than others. The service was warm and efficient as always is at Azurmendi, adding to the experience of the guests. True to their philosophy that “people come with intention of enjoying themselves” the two chefs mingled with the guests well into the early hours of the morning before the reluctant diners trickled out.
This year Atxa’s restaurant Azurmendi earned the title of the most sustainable restaurant of the world at the Restaurant Magazine’s annual awards in April and few weeks ago Opinionated About Dining placed Quique Dacosta’s restaurant as the third best restaurant in Europe this year.