By Sofia Perez
[Published by Concierge.com, March 2007]
The following is an excerpt from the full Bilbao/Basque Country guide that I wrote for Concierge.com.
Many travelers come to Basque Country just for the food. The area has lately spawned a new generation of avant-garde and Michelin-starred chefs, but there’s a rich culinary tradition here, too. The quintessential dining experience here includes pintxos (pronounced peen-chos—the local version of tapas, covered in our Nightlife section), as well as hearty dishes made with local produce. Crabs, prawns, clams, mussels, and fish (especially anchovies and bacalao, or salt cod) are used in many recipes; so are choriceros (dried sweet red peppers), lamb and beef (often served as chuletas—grilled steaks served with a sprinkling of coarse salt); and a large variety of mushrooms. For most people, lunch is the biggest meal of the day, though high-end restaurants also host multicourse feasts late into the evening. Most folks here don’t have dinner until around 9 p.m.
Sheratons aren’t usually known for their haute cuisine—but in this angular, glossy wooden box of a dining room, chef José Miguel Olazabalaga serves up some truly inventive creations. Foie gras is wrapped in a thin skin of smoked bread, served with a gelée of salted cherries and an arugula mayonnaise; grilled squid are drizzled in pumpkin and almond cream; and Iberian pork comes with black rice and a sunflower-seed turrón (like nougat). If you haven’t the time or inclination to try the full seven- or five-course tasting menus, you can simply order à la carte. Sheraton Bilbao, 29 Calle Lehendakari Leizaola, Bilbao, 011-34-94-428-0039, www.restaurante-aizian.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. Closed: Sundays.
ANDRA MARI, Galdakao
Entering this converted Basque farmhouse, set next to a 13th-century church in the small town of Galdakao—about a 15-minute drive from Bilbao—feels like stepping into a storybook. Perched above the Ibaizabal valley and located next to the 13th century church from which it gets its name, the building is a wonderful example of a classic Basque farmhouse. After being seated in the dining room with its beamed seating and embroidered table linens (or, weather permitting, the porch with its view of the mountains), you’ll be greeted by a waitress in a traditional bonnet and apron. Chef Isidro Arribas’ six- and ten-course tasting menus give you a chance to try a variety of traditional dishes, like marinated bonito served with garlic oil and tomato breadcrumbs, or a fragrant, smoky, roasted choricero pepper that comes with a fresh anchovy. You can also order à la carte. 22 Barrio Elexalde, Galdakao, 011-34-94-456-00050, www.andra-mari.com, email@example.com. Closed: Sundays.
ARBOLA GAÑA, Bilbao
The name means “above the trees” in Basque, and this glass-walled restaurant atop Bilbao’s Fine Arts Museum really does feel like a sort of gustatory tree house. Chef Aitor Basabe’s dishes are refined but still accessible: pressed ibérico pork loin comes in a rich, dark, garlic sauce, while his seared bluefin tuna is topped with macadamia shavings and “faux wasabi” made with a purée of spicy guindilla peppers and fresh shelled peas. The inventive desserts include balsamic-vinegar ice cream (much more delicious than it sounds), and the first-rate wine list has an impressive selection of Port. Museo de Bellas Artes, Plaza del Museo, Bilbao, 011-34-94-442-4657. Closed: Mondays; no dinner on Sundays.
ARZAK, San Sebastián
For foodies, a visit to this Michelin-starred cathedral of haute cuisine is a necessary pilgrimage. Juan Mari Arzak (who runs the kitchen with his daughter Elena, a renowned chef in her own right), is known as the father of Spain’s modern gastronomy movement. Since the late 1970s, Arzak has served as a mentor to younger chefs while continuing to expand the nueva cocina (nouvelle cuisine) he helped define. His poached egg with truffles, crisp bread crumbs, and a mash of txistorra (a local sausage variety that’s seasoned with paprika and garlic) is a winning blend of strong flavors. Seafood dishes made with tender baby squid or perfectly moist marinated bonito are sublime. Your meal here will be expensive—and worth every euro. 273 Avenida Alcalde José Elosegui, San Sebastián. 011-34-943-278-465, www.arzak.info, firstname.lastname@example.org. Closed: Sundays and Mondays.
ASADOR PORTUETXE, San Sebastián
For a classic but casual Basque meal, head to this 400-year-old farmhouse in the university district of Ibaeta. The historic structure, surrounded on all sides by high-rise buildings, is a charmingly stubborn testament to another era. Inside, it’s all white walls, wood beams, and long tables, and the menu reads like a culinary history of the region: Gernika and piquillo peppers, grilled hake, bacalao omelet, lettuce hearts with anchovies, and baby squid with caramelized onions. Order an assortment of things to share, including the wonderful chuleta, a massive hunk of tender grilled ox meat, and you’ll be thankful that the place has survived the vagaries of time. 43 Portuetxe Kalea, San Sebastián, 011-34-943-215018, www.portuetxe.es, email@example.com.
Since it opened in August 2005, Azurmendi has been one of the region’s major hotspots—and the buzz is warranted. Set in a low-slung, warehouse-like building, a ten-minute drive from Bilbao, the austere-looking restaurant is the atelier of 29-year-old chef Eneko Atxa. He likes to pair unexpected flavors, and is especially inventive with concentrated stocks and broths. The results, like his scallop a la plancha,—topped with flying-fish roe and bathed in squid stock—are delicious. Not everything on the menu is trendy; some dishes, like his “textures of chocolate” dessert, (a trio of chocolate ice cream, cake, and mousse), are pure and simple decadence. Be sure to order the excellent white txakoli wine (pronounced cha-coe-lee) from Azurmendi’s own in-house winery; this crisp, dry, mildly sparkling wine, made from the area’s hondarrabi zuri grapes, pairs perfectly with fish. Legina Auzoa, Larrabetzu, 011-34-94-455-8866, www.azurmendi.biz, firstname.lastname@example.org. Closed: Sundays; lunch only on Mondays and Thursdays; lunch and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays.
A bit off the beaten path but well worth the trip, Etxebarri is set in a small town about 30 miles east of Bilbao. Every dish you’ll eat here will include something grilled or smoked—and that’s a good thing, since chef Victor Arguinzoniz makes his own charcoal from local vine shoots, oak, and apple wood. He also uses the best raw ingredients, and the confluence of fresh and smoky flavors works beautifully. Grilled tender baby octopus is served with fresh shelled peas and asparagus; barbecued egg yolk comes with green peppers and zizas (a local variety of mushroom); and even Arguinzoniz’s ice cream is made with smoked milk. Reservations are a good idea on the weekends. 1 Plaza San Juan, Axpe-Valle de Atxondo, 011-34-94-658-3042. Closed: Mondays; no dinner on Sundays.
The culinary headquarters of native chef Aitor Elizegi, Gaminiz is set in an improbably pretty industrial park 20 minutes’ drive outside Bilbao. Here, Elizegi fuses flavors and textures with thoroughly satisfying results. Fresh anchovies, topped with coarse-ground salt and served with a celery gazpacho and green apple “tartare,” are a perfect balance of salty, sour, and sweet. The marmita de txipirón, strands of baby squid cut to resemble fettuccine and served with a savory Parmesan broth, is a playful take on a classic Basque ingredient. Pork fans should not miss the papada, a cube of salted jowl served with artichoke carpaccio and a tangy lime meringue foam. If you can’t get out of the city, try visiting Elizegi’s sister restaurant, Baita Gaminiz (meaning “also Gaminiz” in the Basque language), located in the center of Bilbao. Baita Gaminiz: 20 Alameda de Mazarredo, 011-34-94-424-2267. Closed: Sundays; no dinner on Mondays). Gaminiz: 212 Parque Tecnológico, Zamudio, 011-34-94-431-7025, email@example.com. Lunch only, Mondays and Wednesdays.
A bastion of highbrow, old-school gentility, Jolastoky occupies an elegant villa 15 minutes’ drive from Bilbao. The surrounding community of Neguri is home to some of the region’s wealthiest citizens (you’ll see some grand houses on your way to the restaurant), and Jolastoky’s several dining rooms are properly formal, with heavy swagged drapes, tufted chairs, and starched linens. Chef Sabin Arana Olaizola’s family has run the restaurant since 1921, so they’ve had lots of time to perfect the menu of seasonal Basque classics, like chorizo with pochas (a tender local bean variety), or stewed pigeon in a wine sauce, and several excellent game meats in fall. 24 Avenida de los Chopos 24, Neguri, 011-34-94-491-2031, www.jolastoki.euskalnet.net, firstname.lastname@example.org. Closed: Mondays; lunch only, Sundays and Tuesdays.
MARTÍN BERASATEGUI, Lasarte-Oria
A sweeping, glass-walled space with views over rolling green hills, this restaurant near San Sebastián—named after its three-star Michelin chef—embraces elaborate nueva cocina. The appetizer and entrée descriptions on the menu are several sentences long (and marked with the year that Berasategui debuted them), yet the dishes themselves are subtle and nuanced. One of his newer creations, a 2006 dish of oysters with watercress clorophyll, arugula, and green apple, dressed in a lemongrass and fennel cream, is a pleasing blend of herbal and mineral notes, with a fresh saline kick. Berasategui’s signature mille-feuille of smoke eel, foie gras, and spring onions dates back to 1995; it may sound like an odd combination, but there’s a reason why it’s still on the menu after all these years. 4 Calle Loidi, Lasarte-Oria, 011-34-943-366-471, www.martinberasategui.com, email@example.com. Closed: Mondays and Tuesdays; lunch only, Sundays. Closed mid-December to mid-January.
If you’re just looking to sate your hunger, steer clear of this restaurant just outside San Sebastián. Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’s place, set in a rustic yet modern caserío (country cottage), is better suited to those seeking gustatory revelation. Aduriz’s dishes combine textures and flavors in unexpected, always delicious ways: Flourless gnocchi are made with kudzu starch and Idiazábal cheese, and served with an ibérico ham broth; lamb shoulder, cooked at a low temperature for 30 hours, is paired with root vegetables and glazed with a slightly bitter honey. Desserts like violet ice cream with chocolate shavings and almonds are similarly wonderful. You can order à la carte, but it’s a much better idea to indulge in the heavenly tasting menu (eight to 12 courses). Otzazulueta Caserío, 20 Aldura aldea, Errenteria, 011-34-943-522-455, www.mugaritz.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. Closed: Mondays; no dinner on Sundays; no lunch on Tuesdays.
RESTAURANTE GUGGENHEIM BILBAO, Bilbao
The food at the Guggenheim’s restaurant rivals the art on its gallery walls. Josean Martínez Alija, who took over the kitchen in 2000 at the ripe old age of 22, has created a menu here that’s ethereal, aromatic, and playful. His gelatin-rich kokotxas (hake cheeks), served with lemongrass-potato confit, are dressed with an otherworldly-looking pale-blue sauce flavored with shiso and lemon balm. Even humble ingredients get the royal treatment—like organic chicken cooked sous vide and infused with smoke, rosemary, and lime. Put yourself in this brilliant chef’s hands: Order the six- or seven-course tasting menu and prepare to be dazzled. 2 Avenida Abandoibarra 2, Bilbao, 011-34-94-423-9333, www.restauranteguggenheim.com, email@example.com. Closed: Mondays; lunch only, Sundays and Tuesdays.