Archive for the Basque Country Category

Bilbao – Plaza Nueva

Posted in Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain with tags , , , , , on February 26, 2014 by gannet39

Placa NuevaPlaza Nueva, so named because it replaced Plaza Vieja in 1821, is in my humble opinion, the buzziest and best place for pintxos (basque tapas) in Bilbao.

Under the neo-classical arcades are a throng of famous bars and cafes that will meet all your canape needs, and more.

Click on the pics to get a better view. See this post for other places in Bilbao.

Gure Toki (Intermediate A+), 12 Plaza Nueva, north west corner.

This is my favourite. It doesn’t look as venerable as the others I mention below, but that’s because they are taking a different, more modern approach to pintxos. International, particularly Japanese influences are very apparent. 20130621_212912

Carpachio de Avestruz (A++). Ostrich carpaccio! The best thing I ate all year! Thinly sliced raw ostrich marinated with parmesan and if I remember correctly soya sauce, although it doesn’t seem so from the picture. I must go back to make sure! 20130621_224655

Foie a la Plancha con Manzana y PX (A) goose liver pate from the hotplate, with apple and a Pedro Ximenez reduction. Standard. 20130621_214741

The Hamburguesa Wagyu was fine (B) but probably more hype than substance. It sounds good though. 20130621_221513

Costilla de Vaca con Algas was a revelation (A); a small rib steak with local seaweed, showing the Japanese influence once again. 20130621_214431

With the meat I drank two glasses Juan Gil Monastrell 12 meses (A+) at €2 a glass. This stuff blew my socks off, it’s so different from any other Spanish red. I tried to source it in the UK but their supplier didn’t reply to my emails.

Ironically, the guy next to me noticed I was drinking it and he happened to be a friend of Juan Gil’ who lives in Murcia! He’s a very nice chap apparently, which made his wine taste even better! I try to buy a bottle to take home every time I go to Spain now. 20130621_220704

I also had a glass of Ribeira del Duero, ‘Nacimiento’ by Avan which was good (B+)…

20130621_232438…before moving on to the local Txakoli ‘Senorio de Otxaran’ which was a good example of the genre (B) but I have yet to be fully won over to this wine. 20130621_232344

Sold to me by another friendly customer, Sopa de Idiazabal seemed to consist of a quail’s egg with cream, mushrooms and giant kernels of maize (Peruvian choclo?). The bar won a prize for this tapa in a local competition. It was interesting (B+) but I’d probably try other stuff over it next time. 20130621_234116

The only let down was the lack of decent desserts. They gave me a bowl of dry, flaky mini chocolate croissants which didn’t really do it for me. A chupito of excellent ‘La Gallega’ Orujo des Hierbas (A) cheered me up though. 20130621_234212

As you can see, I met a lot of people while I was here, including a big group of Mexicanas on their jollies. With all the good food, wine and company, I rolled out of here a very happy man!

Café Bilbao, (Intermediate A), 6 Plaza Berria, north east corner of Plaza Nueva (there are two doors, one on Plaze Nueva, the other round the corner on Plaza Berria).

Old school and very busy, the traditional pintxos here are a feast for the eyes. 20130621_203703

I had Makailua Pilpilean, aka in Spanish, ‘bacalao al pilpil’, which was good (B+). Pil pil is a basque cooking technique  where a sauce is made from the oil that the fish was cooked in, along with garlic and small hot peppers called ‘guindillas’. 20130621_204402

Also a canapé with a mushroom and cured ham (A). 20130621_205843

And another with black pudding, pepper and camembert (B+). Victor Montes

Victor Montes, (Intermediate A?), 8 Plaza Nueva, Tel. 944 155 603, Montes Tapas

This local institution (since 1931) is for me the most beautiful cafe in town. I’ve only put my head in for a coffee (A) but the pintxos on the bar top looked very enticing. There’s also a sit down dining area where you can have a full meal. Montes Deli

They also have a deli, La Alacena del Victor Monte, on the next side of the square (at # 14 Plaza Nueva on the west side, near Gure Toki) which is a good place to stock up on treats for home.

I like to get some Jerez vinegar, truffles, foie gras and some good Jamon Iberico Bellota from the Jabugo 5 Jotas or ‘Five J’s’ brand from here.

Dipping a toe in San Sebastian

Posted in Basque Country, San Sebastian, Spain with tags on October 23, 2012 by gannet39

San Sebastian, or Donostia in Basque, is a beautiful little resort town that is world famous for its food. The Basque Country, along with Catalunia, is renowned in Spain for having some of the best  chefs in the land and this town, rather than Bilbao, is the culinary capital of the region. The town itself is very pretty with lots of Belle Epoque architecture along the front and a grid of thriving tiny streets in the old quarter.

There is only one long beach, El Playa de La Concha, which gets its name from the beautiful shell-shaped bay. It can get very crowded, although it is wide enough to cope. You can jog the whole length of the promenade in about twenty minutes. At the left end there is a sculpture called the ‘Comb of the Winds’, which gets rave reviews although I can’t see why. It’s essentially just three rusty iron claws sticking out of the rocks. The nearby blowholes which amplify the sound of the waves under the promenade are far more interesting.

So then, to food. San Seb has more Michelin stars per citizen than anywhere else in the world. Also, since the closure of El Bulli in Catalonia, the title  of best restaurant in Spain has been given to Arzak,  a local father and daughter operation. Ideally you need to book ahead by several weeks to get in here. Having had no time to plan ahead, I tried phoning up on a Tuesday night to see if they had any cancellations but sadly there was no table for a single diner.

The second best place is apparently Martin Berasategui’s (the chef who also runs the bistro at the Guggenheim in Bilbao) self-named restaurant, but unfortunately they were closed that night. It was probably the best thing for my wallet as the tasting menu costs about €180 excluding the wine. It’s also about 8km out of town so you should factor the return taxi ride in to the bill as well.

Having failed to get into these places, I decided instead to go on a pintxos (tapas) crawl in the Parte Viejo (old town). Apparently it has the greatest concentration of bars on the planet and I could well believe it, the choice is huge. Even early in the week the streets were humming with tourists and locals. My destination of choice, due to several recommendations, was La Cuchara de San Telmo (up a side street off C/ 31 Agosto) but again I was unlucky as it was closed. Goddamn Mondays! I tried a couple of other places but the only one worth mentioning was…

Astelena Taberna (Intermediate A-) C/ de Inigo 1, on the corner of Plaza de la Constitucion

This is a busy modern bar selling a range of imaginative tapas. I started with a squid brochette which looked great on the skewer but shrank to nothing once grilled and was a bit salty for my taste (B). The accompanying glass of local Txacoli (a young, slightly bitter white wine that should be poured from a height to aerate it) was also rather disappointing (C).

Things got much better (A+) with the Foie alla Plancha (grilled Foie Gras) which was ingeniously married with a swirl of apple sauce and dots of raspberry and reduced balsamic. The glass of Rioja (Pierola) went so well with it had to restrain myself from getting a repeat order of both (A).

Instead I went for the Rabo de Buey (oxtail) which although not particularly attractive, was full of flavour (B+), and the chips it can with were ok too (B). I had to wait for this for an inordinately long time so my waiter kindly gave me another glass of Rioja on the house when it finally arrived.

I also had the Croqueta de Pistachios, a ball of deep fried saltcod with a crust of pistachio nuts, which was interesting but not amazing (B). With a glass of Ribeira del Duero (Figuero), the total came to a reasonable €26.30.

After this I went to Bideluze at 14 Plaza Guipuzkoa. It’s an old bar (Intermediate B) with young staff which was playing uptempo house when I was there. I’d imagine it would be a good spot for early evening drinks at the weekend. I had an excellent hand made Orujo des Hierbas made by Eskartxa here.

And that was it! Only one night on the town, which was hardly enough to do the food scene any justice. Just hope I get to go again.

Bilbao: A Home from Home

Posted in Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2012 by gannet39

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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