Are infusions the next big thing in drink pairing? Qin Xie isn't totally convinced
Every time I've been to Azurmendi, it's been a journey. The three Michelin-starred restaurant is situated half way up a very steep hill, about 15 minutes drive from Bilbao. In the evenings, almost every inch of the palatial structure is lit up like a glittering crystal; and as you drive up the winding road to reach the restaurant, it illuminates the darkness like a beacon.
Before you begin the meal, you always take a tour through the rooftop greenhouse. In the midst of its herbaceous tomato vines and faintly perfumed herbs, you take your first courses – the snacks. This time, my journey began with wisps of cotton candy made with white asparagus; jellied tomato water; spiralised, pickled courgette; and crisp, fragile mushroom leaves.
Inside the lobby, you have the picnic – baskets filled with bites of salted anchovy millefeuille, roe and dill topped cracker and a CaipiriTxa. The forest-green bonbons of CaipiriTxa are filled with citrusy juices that exploded onto the palate when you sucked away the shell. In Eneko Atxa's twist on the Caiprinha, the secret weapon is the Txakoli wine produced on-site by Atxa's cousins at Gorka Izagirre.
But this visit was a little different.
As well as Atxa, the creative hands behind Azurmendi, there was Ricard Camarena, whose Michelin-starred restaurant in Valencia shows a surprising amount of Asian influences; and André Chiang, the maestro at Restaurant André in Singapore, who throws classic French flavours into the mix. It makes quite a challenge for the sommelier.
The action begins at the best seat in the house – the pass. We take fried egg and mushroom bites that resembles nipples, a rich and flavourful squid broth and Camarena's citrusy dish of Valencian oyster, avocado, sesame and galangal horchata. The Txacoli from Gorka Izagirre happily copes with this first curve ball. Just.
In the dining room, a flame roasted and caramelised aubergine arrived, wrapped in tuna belly. Through the cooking process, the aubergine flesh has become almost translucent, with just enough firmness to confuse the mind into thinking you're eating a whole fillet of tuna. A remarkable and unusual creation from Camarena.
A beautifully laid out plate of picked spider crab and sea urchin arrived with a tomato-based infusion, served from a glass tea pot. The delicate flavours were matched with the clean and citrusy notes of 42 by Eneko Atxa, another wine made at Gorka Izagirre.
What came next was rather eccentric.
Squid and piquillo peppers were fashioned into a light stew, which was served with a tray of charcoal. The charcoal was just a decoy for the fried breads, coloured with vegetable ash. This dish was both an reinterpretation of the Chinese breakfast snack youtiao and inspired by typical Spanish ingredients as seen by Chiang. With this playful invention, Chiang served his first infusion – a 'juice' made from fermented rice, buckwheat and barley over the course of three months.
Chiang has long felt that the typical fruit juice offered by restaurants was too sweet to cope with the savoury food offered and tea didn't really add any dimensions to the meal the way that wine did. For him, the perfect alternative would be boundary-pushing and could add body, flavour, aroma and even texture to a food match. So in the space of about five years, he's created 18 constantly evolving juices.
The curiously cloudy rice, buckwheat and barley liquid had a farmyardy aroma reminiscent of some natural wines but was surprisingly sweet in its finish. There was greater depth of flavour than fruit juices but, matched to this dish at least, it didn't quite hit the spot.
Next came a tiny portion of a very rich pasta stew with milk emulsion and ox tail. A barrel-fermented 2012 Rioja Blanco from Baigorri helped to cut through some of the stew's richness while highlighting the creaminess of the emulsion. A fiery stew of baby beans and hake's throat then arrived with Gonzalez Byass' Cuatro Palmas, a bold amontillado. The savoury, nutty notes of the sherry helped to cool down the heat of the ginger in the infusion though it couldn't quite quell it.
Chiang's signature dish, Memory, an emulsion of foie gras, truffle coulis and raw olive oil, was paired with the second of his infusions. This time the juice was a more restrained combination of pine, charcoal and fermented apple. Sweetness played a note in the juice but there was also tannic texture with a bitterness to the finish. I'm not entirely sure it was sufficient to match the foie gras, and I wondered later whether it would have been more interesting to swap the first two juices.
An unexpected hit was Atxa's pigeon, duxelle and cauliflower with Chiang's corn, malt and vanilla juice (above). The juice was faintly reminiscent of home-made cola on the palate with a nose of coffee. It went really well with the earthiness of the mushroom but had other diners pining for a glass of Pinot Noir. While the uptake has been varied at our dinner in Azurmendi, it's surprisingly popular at Restaurant André. Chiang says some 20 per cent of his diners opts for the juice pairing instead of and sometimes in addition to wines.
Then, just as our palates were beginning to tire, the first of the desserts arrived in a refreshing combination of orange, strawberry and ginger granita. A late harvest Arima from Gorka Izagirre, with its rich autumn fruit flavours, helped to dial back the ginger and enhance the perfume of the strawberry.
A milky non-alcoholic sake, an opalescent rice-based drink, was lightly fragrant, gently sweet and made an unusual palate cleanser.
The second dessert of tree-ripened mango and cold curry was matched with Bodegas Gutierrez de la Vega's Casta Diva cosecha miel 2011. This dessert was also pumped with ginger, which jarred with the delicious wine. In the end, it was easier to enjoy the two separately with the non-alcoholic sake playing interlude.
Our final course in the long journey was an intense mix of cocoa, sheep milk and black olives. Bitter, sweet and savoury all at once, the potent dish was piqued by a dark and powerful 2011 Dulce Monastrell from Olivares.
By the end of the long gastronomic journey, I was both satisfied and exhausted. There were enough dishes to force the most experienced of diners to break out into a sweat and enough flavours to challenge and excite their tireless taste buds. Amidst the spectrum of amazing flavours, it wasn't the chilli or the asparagus that made food and drink pairings difficult; it was the ginger. And, for a meal in Spain, we had an awful lot of it.
Azurmendi is at Barrio Legina (Exit number 25 Txorierri Corridor, N-637) 48195, Larrabetzu, Spain. Qin Xie attended the dinner as a guest of the restaurant. You can find her website here.
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