Aziamendi 88 by Eneko Atxa @ Mandarin Oriental, Kuala Lumpur

July 24, 2015

One of KL's top gastronomic events of 2015 unfurls this week at Mandarin Oriental: For the next three months, the hotel's Mandarin Grill venue is hosting a pop-up restaurant, Aziamendi 88, to showcase the masterworks of Basque chef Eneko Atxa, whose boundary-pushing hilltop establishment Azurmendi in Larrabetzu is one of only eight eateries in Spain to currently hold three Michelin stars, consistently soaring up the global ratings to be ranked among the world's top 20 restaurants this year.

Chef Eneko brings the full extent of his exacting standards to Aziamendi 88, which shares the name of Eneko's spin-off restaurant in Phang Nga, Thailand. Eneko is in KL this week, following which Aziamendi 88 will remain in the capable hands of Eneko's San Francisco-born protege Alex Burger (the Chef de Cuisine of Aziamendi in Phang Nga) until October 31, together with a team of Eneko's other experienced chefs, servers & sommeliers. Reservations are vital if you're visiting Aziamendi 88, which offers multi-course lunches & dinners, Monday through Saturday - the pop-up is now fully booked for the next few days.

Positive vibes abound here - Eneko & Alex are both good-humoured men whose winsome modesty is surpassed only by their celebrated flair & inventiveness. As part of a commitment to corporate social responsibility, five percent of Aziamendi 88's profits will be channelled to United Voice, a Malaysian self-advocacy group for people with learning disabilities, & Inspirasia, a Bali-based foundation that benefits societies in Indonesia, India & Thailand. Alongside the culinary & charitable components, art also takes centre stage: Aziamendi 88 features walls lined with ravishing Malaysian pieces curated by the Wei-Ling Gallery.

Aziamendi 88 is all about taking a journey, underscored by how the meal begins. Patrons are first ushered into a room that evokes a garden sanctum, where a 'picnic' basket awaits, blessed with the bounty of the ocean & the harvest of the land: Delicate, soot-black corn toast crowned with caviar & a glaze of golden hues; crispy-creamy, briny anchovy mille-feuille adorned with pinkish 'butterfly' petals; & explosively minty-tangy Mojito bon bons that'll perk up the palate for further pleasure.

The centrality of nature continues to captivate when diners move into the main hall - bonsai trees become a conversation piece on the table, bearing nectarous cherry tomatoes ripe for the plucking, plus a platter of edible 'tree bark' - essentially delicious brown crackers with a crunchy bite & an earthy-savoury chew. This creation, called 'The Garden,' is an Eneko signature - it's a part of all meals here, whether you opt for a five-course lunch or a 12-course dinner. Fully vegetarian sets are also available.

The Truffled Egg is another tell-tale sign that Eneko masterminded this meal: the concentrated purity of a rich chicken yolk, with hot truffle consomme that's been injected into the egg, cooking it from the inside, to be consumed in a solitary mouthful, for a heady burst of flavour & fragrance that left us swooning.

A flourish that would make a farmer proud, The Garden is a mini-Eden for epicureans: Tangy, soft & smooth tomato emulsion blanketed in black dehydrated beetroot 'soil,' with a springtime's worth of vegetables sprouting forth - a testament to Eneko's respect for the fruits of the fields.

The ebb & flow of dinner mark a natural progression; the tide thoughtfully turns toward seafood at this point - a pulpy oyster tartare, twinned with droplets of marine plankton & edible algae, for a brininess that speaks eloquently & elaborately of the sea.

Eneko has a knack for refashioning oft-familiar ingredients in revelatory ways - there's nothing quite like this combination of sea urchin mayo, poured over with a Bloody Mary broth that's striking in its boldly vivid, vampire-attracting hue, eaten with companions of meaty crab flesh & tabasco, with complex subtleties that tease & tantalise.

The menu describes this plainly as lobster a la plancha on herb oil & creamy chives. The reality's far more memorable: the lobster is drop-dead delicious, lightly cooked to a sweet, springy juiciness, complemented but not overshadowed by the other components for a totality of truly triumphant tastes & textures. We wish we could have a dozen plates of this.

Is it teatime already? Dehydrated shiitake forms the foundation for this hot mushroom tea, in what has thus far been a ambrosial meal infused with legendary aphrodisiacs. A clear, compelling broth, potent with the unadulterated flavour of fungi.

The next course proved to be our least favourite, but simply because it was 'only' good, while everything else was great. Grilled tuna with fried egg tempura croquettes, garlic cream & flowers - the fish & egg both seemed slightly overdone for us, but that's a matter of preference. Visually, this was irreproachable, with the tuna showing a lovely, barely cooked centre.

Eagle-eyed readers might notice the absence of meat so far, but the balsamic lamb shoulder more than made up for it. The best lamb we've had this year, achingly succulent with a fatty fleshiness & spot-on in its robust but not overpoweringly gamy flavour. It's might also be a tribute to Eneko's far-reaching skills that he didn't rely on easy crowd-pleasers like chicken, duck or beef while coming up with this 12-course tour de force.

Special mention for the trio of bread that kept on coming: The milk buns, spelt slices & our favourite, the corn loaves.

Desserts (yes, more than one!) were a joy & a thrill, though the one that will linger in our mind the longest & haunt our dreams is the the black-&-white beauty of goat's milk ice cream with dehydrated olive leaves & cocoa jelly - a sumptuous medley that deserves hall-of-fame status. Also capping this cornucopia: Orange & strawberries with an invigorating ginger granita; apple bonbons with caramel & yoghurt; plus petit fours of macarons & pralines in chocolate soil.

Eneko's trusted sommelier, Khun Jai, will ensure that patrons enjoy perfect pairings - check out www.aziamendi88.com for a comprehensive list of the wines, as well as other details & meal options. A complete 12-course dinner is priced at RM598 nett per person without wine, or RM998 nett with wine. Many thanks to Mandarin Oriental & the Aziamendi 88 team for hosting us.

Aziamendi 88 at Mandarin Oriental, Kuala Lumpur

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