Bilbao, a City Tasting Tour with Josean Alija
This year, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao will celebrate its 20th birthday. Architect Frank Gehry's venerated titanium art institution on the banks of the Nervion is credited with revitalising the Basque city, dragging it from the mire of deindustrialisation with such astonishing success that the 'Bilbao Effect' was coined to describe how bringing in a star-architect to design an institution in a city can completely reverse its fortunes and transform it into a cultural hub.
The influx of visitors to the city and to nearby San Sebastian has of course helped to spread the gospel of Basque cuisine, ascribing the region's eating culture with near mythical status for gastronomes. It's a reputation that's fully deserved.
One chef who has watched it all happen is Josean Alija. He presides over the Michelin-starred Nerua restaurant at the Guggenheim, where he's been, on and off, since 1998. Nerua sits at number 56 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list, the unveiling of which, in recognition of Bilbao, the Basque Country, and Spain's importance to the global gastronomic scene, will be staged in Bilbao in 2018.
Alija has also been cooking in a series of four hands dinners at Nerua in celebration of the Guggenheim's 20th anniversary. The next dinner takes place on 22 June 2017, where he will be spinning plates alongside Mauro Colagreco of the Mirazur restaurant for a handful of specially invited guests. There will also be a free and open corresponding lecture on gastronomy, as there has been for every dinner, in the museum's auditorium the day before.
Somehow, amongst all this, Alija has found the time to put together a guide to eating and drinking in Bilbao for Fine Dining Lovers, so you can dine like a local in the city and discover everything it has to offer, starting with breakfast...
"I like to get up early and enjoy a coffee and a light breakfast, before I go to work. In the Basque Country we usually like to have a salad breakfast, or a pintxo or small sandwich and for the sweet tooth, bollo de mantequilla, a cream-filled brioche. Or you could try a rice pie. We also like ham, but it is always fast, because we all walk in a hurry. We like a quick breakfast because we never miss the ‘hamaiketako,’ the lunch of 11.00am.
"La Viña del Ensanche is a historical place in the centre of the city. In the morning, try the omelettes and slices of bread, tomato and ham. Baster are also omelette experts, while the coffee and care at BAR Guggenheim Bilbao is excellent. There are very unique bars, like El Huevo Berria, with nice typical pintxos for breakfast, and if you want a Basque breakfast, with txistorra and morcilla, you have to go to Mugi tavern. But, don't order coffee, ask for wine! It’s for the brave and early risers, the ones that give the city its energy."
"Gernika market (24km to the east), every Monday is more than a market, it is an experience. It's the place where people shop for the week. Also, on Saturdays, in Arenal, there is a local market with interesting products. It started with very few stands, but is starting to peak now. Sometimes we visit it, because it is very close to the restaurant, and so we know new producers. There are also many neighbourhood and boutique shops selling gourmet products."
"For lunch in the city, I would recommend the Asador Indusi, where they make traditional, popular cuisine, and take real care of the products, especially meats. It is in the heart of the city, and is a very busy place. It has a good wine cellar and a relaxed atmosphere. If you want to travel further afield, try a great txuleton (Basque steak from a mature cow) at Txakoli Simon or great fish at Horma Ondo."
"The culture of the pintxo is more and more widespread, but the special ones are those that understand the history very well. Saltsagorri is a little place where they offer traditional pintxos, emblems of the city, in an intimate atmosphere. Gure Toki has a commitment to hot and elaborate pintxos at the moment: try the the ham Joselito, and the atmosphere and service. Kebat, fried crab, goose eggs ... a selection of interesting products mean a longer stop than usual in the txikiteo.
"Plaza Nueva's pintxos have a cultural flavour. It is one of the most emblematic bars of the Plaza Nueva, one of the most significant places in Bilbao, in which grandparents, children and grandchildren meet to eat and drink something. Also, Basaras, a cute place where you will have the sensation that time stops. It's an excellent winery and tavern with home cooking: omelette, empanadilla, salted anchovies, fried anchovy, mother tastes ... Ideal to go with friends!"
Wine and txakoli
"Before dinner, we usually drink wine or txakoli [a low alcohol, sparkling wine] – the Basque Country has a great wine culture. Cork is special place to enjoy wine by the glass and they are not typical references – an extremely surprising wine selection. There should be such a place in every city! Villaro tavern is a perfect stop before you go to Artxanda by funicular. Also Mugi again, where you can enjoy the wine with something to eat. And for champagne lovers, there's El Corto Maltés. For those looking for ambiance try Lust, where you can enjoy good music and good drinks. When we finish the day at Nerua, we have more thirst than hunger. If the day was good, Corto Maltés is always a spectacular option."
Relaxed haute cuisine
"Kimtxu offers Asian flavours and aromas combined with the excellence of premium local meats, vegetables and fish. It is not a typical Asian restaurant, nor is it typical Basque, its dishes have touches from here and there: Basque, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
"Bilbao's proximity to the sea and orchards makes for a fresh, pleasant cuisine and at Baita, you'll find seasonal cuisine, simple, unpretentious, but also elegant, while GU2 is small restaurant serving what is known as new Basque cuisine. Bistró Guggenheim Bilbao has a very free style of cuisine, linked to the memory of dishes that are part of the culture, and adapted to an avant-garde context, without losing either flavour or texture."