Bilbao: A Home from Home

Coming from Sheffield I feel a lot of affinity for Bilbao; a former industrial hell-hole based on steel making that has reinvented itself to be a very liveable and chilled out city.

Both cities have similarly sized populations (around half a million) as well as quite similar rainy weather and underachieving football teams that play in red and white stripes. That said, the architecture, both modern and old, is a lot better in Bilbao where the city council seems to be much more forward thinking. Bilbao is also the capital of one of Spain’s major culinary regions and eating well is a local obsession, whereas in Sheffield we are more concerned about the contents of our pint pots!

Unfortunately though, it took me a while to find a good place to eat here. There were a few things that conspired against me. To start with, I only spent three nights in the city, including a Sunday and a Monday when most of the good places were closed. Secondly, I was on a budget, and although there are plenty of excellent restaurants where you can blow a lot of money, finding cheap or mid-range places with good quality, value-for-money food was quite difficult. As a result, please don’t consider this post as an exhaustive guide to the best places, there are plenty I didn’t get around to trying.

The key to Bilbao’s regeneration is the famous Guggenheim museum which has turned the city into a major tourist destination. I love most things modern but as we crossed the bridge coming over the river, I wasn’t too sure about my first sight of the huge squiggly blot on an otherwise relatively pleasant looking town. From the street side though you are welcomed by Puppy (pronounced ‘Poopy’) a gigantic flower arrangement of a Scottish terrier by Jeff Koons.

The museum grew on me more though once I got inside and the method in the madness was revealed as a large central atrium with galleries on three levels radiating off it in unpredictable directions.

I was lucky enough to coincide with an excellent exhibition by David Hockney, a fellow Yorkshireman, called ‘A Bigger Picture’. I was never really a fan of his until I saw these paintings of East Yorkshire landscapes, bizarrely painted in lurid colours, which further added to the feeling of being in a home away from home.

(On the subject of bigger pictures, remember you can click on any of my thumbnails to see them in more detail. And while I’m at it, the highlighted words are links that will bring up more info on whatever I’m writing about.)

The Gugenheim Bistro is also a very good place to eat, thanks to guidance from chef Martin Berasategui from San Sebastian, and is one of the top picks in many of the guidebooks. I went for the lunchtime menu-del-dia (€32) and paid an extra €9.50 for the ‘maridaje’ or wine-matching.

To kick off, a Watermelon Gazpacho (must make this refreshing summer soup when I get home) which came with an interesting combination of chunks of Tuna Tartar and green pepper (B). I wasn’t too sure about the accompanying Aperitif which didn’t go well at all and tasted artificially of strawberries (C).

This came with an excellent glass of Txacoli ‘Itas Mendi’ 2011 (A) which created a bit of an overkill of liquids and I was playing catch up for the rest of the meal.

Next came a delicious Rock Oyster Paella (A) topped with a Mayonnaise Foam (B+), although for me this wasn’t an improvement on a good garlic aioli.

This was matched with an excellent Verdejo ‘Aura’ 2011 (A+).

After this a forme of Roast Lamb with Pumpkin Puree (A) and dried coffee (C) which went very well with a glass of Rioja(Bai Corre Crianza 2008) (A+).

Finally, French Toast (B+) with Vanilla Ice Cream (A) and a shot of homemade Vino Dulce de Naranja (sweet orange flavoured wine) which smelt great but tasted less so (C).

Overall though I felt I got good value for my money at the Goog and would happily go again, perhaps in the evening next time.

Casa Rufo (High Intermediate A), Calle Hurtado de Amezaga 5, Tel. 944 432 172

This was my favourite place in the short time I was here. Founded in 1955, it’s also a deli and bodega and becomes a restaurant in the evenings, so you sit amongst shelves stacked with local produce and bottles of wine. The building dates from the fifties so there’s lots of wood and nice ceramics, all very atmospheric. The service seems a bit dour, but they lightened up when sprinkled with niceness.

I started with a plate of local leeks, Puerros, dressed in oil and vinegar, and topped with raw onions, peppers and olives. It was pretty good but I’ve had better (B).

The star however was the huge beefsteak (Chuleton) which arrived ready sliced and still sizzling on a thick earthenware platter. It was huge (the next table shared it between two) and the chef came out of the kitchen to egg me on as I started to flag towards the end. It was one of the best I’d ever had and, along with codfish, is a speciality of the house.

It was helped down by an excellent half bottle of Rioja Crianza (Senoria de Cuzcurrita), a perfect marriage with the meat (A).

Sadly my ideal desserts of Plums in Brandy and Pears in Txacoli were not available and I went instead for the cheesecake which was very satisfying (B+).

Finally a glass of ‘Nectar’ Pedro Ximenez which was so nice (A), I bought two to take home.

Bilbao also has a lot of attractive Art Noveau buildings and there are several cafes from the Belle Epoque period dotted around town. Here are a couple of good ones:

Iruna (Intermediate B+), C/Berastegui 5 (on the corner with C/ del Musico Ledesma) is a famous old cafe bar dating from 1903 and decorated in the Moorish Mudejar style. It’s very atmospheric and seems to be popular with everyone.

They were grilling up lamb Pinchos Morunos here when I went, so of course I had to try.

And some places to avoid….

Cafe Boulevard, (Intermediate C), C/Arenal 3

Another feted Art Nouveau place which has been modernised slightly. I only came in for a coffee in the day time but was left empty by the uninteresting decor and lack of atmosphere. Maybe it’s better at the weekends.

Saibigain (Elementary B/C), C/Barrencale Barrena 16, (closed Sunday)

Times have changed since Cadogan guides put this place on their ‘inexpensive’ list. The €8 menu-del-dia has been superseded by a choice of four set menus. I went for the cheapest at €32 which involved a multitude of starters including; a plate of three hams (B-), foie gras with blueberry jam and tostados (B), prawns with a dish of plain mayo (C), codfish croquettes (B), mushrooms with scrambled egg (D). There were several choices for the main course, the most typical (according to the waitress) being Pequillo red peppers stuffed with salt cod in yellow and red sauces (C). I added a bottle of Txacoli (Aretxaga 2011) to drown my culinary sorrows (B).

With the addition of a slice of apple pie (B) and a glass of Rioja (B+), it was hard to argue about the value, but the food was too mediocre for me to want to return. The place doesn’t seem to have been redecorated since it opened in the 50’s, except for the addition of photos and posters of Athletic de Bilbao from the 70’s. The interior is faded and unspecial but the service was fine.

Asador Indusi (Intermediate C), C/Maestro Garcia Rivero 7, Tel. 944 417 176

This was the hotel recommended place for Sunday when all other places nearby were closed. There is nothing to recommend it in particular, the food, decor and service are all non-descript (all C). The Rioja and Pedro Ximenez were the only things that made the experience enjoyable. You might want to walk the 20 minutes to the old town for a bit more choice, though most places there will be closed on the Sabbath too.

Finally, here are a few things you might see at the Mercado de la Ribera, down by the river in the old town.

And here’s a guide to shops from the tourist board.

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