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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. Nurea 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.
Alijia has also been cooking in a series of four hands dinners at Nurea 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.
"Bilbao is characteristic for having a gastronomy linked to the surroundings, so you find a very local cuisine that manifests itself in different ways," he says, "traditional restaurants, the mythical asadors where they work with the product face to face with fire, where the key is the selection of products – great meat, fish; and pintxos, a way to share moments, trying different foods and drinks, in an anarchic way, but always having fun.
"The sum of everything is united in the haute cuisine," he continues, "where you find outstanding products and techniques, and unforgettable experiences. Bilbao now has new informal local restaurants that breathe haute cuisine’s air. The Guggenheim has brought us more tourists and opened our minds, and the evolution came from understanding what people look for. But, the people of Bilbao have to be on the alert to evolve, but without changing their roots, because that is what they are proud of."
So, thinking of heading to Bilbao? Here's where to eat and drink, according to Josean Alija.
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 ‘hamaiketakom,’ 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.
La Viña del Ensanche
Calle Diputación, 10 Website
Posta Kalea, 22, Website
Abandoibarra Etorb., 2, Website
El Heuvo Berria
Poza Lizentziatuaren Kalea, 65, Website
Licenciado Poza, 55, Website
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 Parque 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. And if you are in a hurry, but you want to eat a good home-cooked meal, you can go to Kresala, where young people make and elaborate on market cuisine, which is being lost. Go for the dish of the day with a beer or wine.
Plaza, del Mercado, Gernika-Lumo
Gure Lurreko Merkatua
Lojendio Aita Kalea, 3
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.
García Rivero Maisuaren Kalea, 7, Website
San Roke Bekoa Bidea, 89, Website
Caserio Legina Goikoa s / n, 48195 Larrabetzu, Website
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!
Plaza Nueva, 12, Website
Taberna Plaza Neuva
Plaza Neuva, 10, Website
Pilota Kalea, 2, Website
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 Nurea, we have more thirst than hunger. If the day was good, Corto Maltés is always a spectacular option.
C / Licenciado Poza, 45, Website
Múgica y Butrón Kalea, 7, Website
María Díaz Haroko Kalea, 20, Website
Calle Manuel Allende Kalea, 8, Website
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.
Henao Kalea, 17, Website
Mazarredo Zumarkalea, 20, Website
Rodríguez Arias Kalea, 48, Website
Bistró Guggenheim Bilbao
Abandoibarra Etorb., 2, Website