Our cabbie beamed with pride as he ferried us up a hillside in Basque country, just east of Bilbao. He was busy describing how Azurmendi, the region’s famed three-star Michelin restaurant, had gradually gained world renown. Along the road, we passed the old restaurant grounds, now inhabited by Eneko, chef Eneko Atxa’s second concept.
At the crest of the hill, we rolled to a stop in front of a bioclimatic, glass adorned building. The property and the food it produces were recently listed as the 43rd Best Restaurant in the World by World’s 50 Best List. Through the large glass doors awaited a meal that had taken on mythic proportions in my mind.
I acknowledged my excitement to my girlfriend, Jess, and slid out of the car. It was time to eat at Azurmendi.
I’ve had an unrequited location love affair with Basque Country for the better part of two decades. Twice before, I’ve nearly consummated this crush. On one occasion, I was apprehended in Barcelona by a group of Portuguese architecture students and instead taken to Lisbon. On the other, the desire for good food in Italy redirected my adventures.
Looking back now, the idea of passing up the Basque Country for the sake of scoring a better meal seems absurd (in my defense, it was the siren call of my grandmother’s cooking that had pulled me to Italy). The Basque region’s restaurants have entered the global consciousness. No longer are recommendations traded between wink-exchanging chefs and epicures. These days, the region’s food scene is all-out bulletin board material, with premier listings in mainstream guidebooks like the Lonely Planet.
Michelin starred Basque restaurants like Azurmendi, Martin Beratsategui, Mugaritz, Arzac and Asador Etxebarri are at the forefront of the global culinary landscape. This is a region with more Michelin stars per capita than any other area on the planet (if you put stock in such things). That number includes four spots on the top 50 list, with two in the top ten. The region exists on one of the world’s premier fishing coastlines and is buttressed by the verdant Pyrenees Mountains. The caliber of produce and ingredients produced by this proximity to the natural world is rightly worshipped by the meal-oriented Basques.
This summer, before attending a Basque wedding on the coast (between Bilbao and San Sebastian), Jess and I set several days aside to eat our faces off. Pintxos, skewered Basque tapas, are ubiquitous in the bars and cafes of the region — served everywhere you go from the moment you wake up until you manage to stumble home at midnight. They are only matched in their deliciousness by their cost-effectiveness. For about 1-3 Euros per pintxo you can fill up quickly.*
Thinking of how much money we were saving on pintxos, Jess and I decided we had some room to splurge. For her birthday, we booked a lunch table at Azurmendi. It cost roughly the price of my plane ticket to Europe.
*Quick Rant: American tapas places are often absolutely infuriating. One of the points of tapas or pintxos is that you can order a table full of them, tasting each without spending a shitload. $8-12 each for tiny plates makes me want to flip a bar stool. Yes, I understand the food margins for our restaurants are razor thin and that must a play a part in the inflated costs, but can we please call it something else? Iberian small plates perhaps?