This city of architectural wonders is ready to reveal its culinary chops.
Once the industrial powerhouse of northern Spain, Bilbao will make headlines this year for a far more palatable reason when it hosts The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.
The Basque city’s audacious reinvention from a gritty steel and shipbuilding centre to a thriving hub of design and innovation has been two decades in the making. The pivot point was the opening in 1997 of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, the star of a suite of transformative architecture that includes Norman Foster’s glass metro entrances, Santiago Calatrava’s elegant Sondika Airport terminal and Arata Isozaki’s twin towers. But with the arrival of the food world’s elite in June, Bilbao gets to prove it has more to offer than extraordinary buildings.
Gastronomy defines the Basque DNA. San Sebastián, the aristocratic seaside resort about an hour’s drive from Bilbao, is famous for its dense constellation of Michelin stars. Internationally renowned restaurants Arzak, Akelarre, Martín Berasategui and Mugaritz have 11 stars between them and attract the most attention from visiting gastro-nomads. But Bilbao has 10 stars to its name and shares its sibling’s obsession with provenance, the supremacy of seasonal produce and the traditions of family kitchens.
At Azurmendi, Bilbao’s only three-star restaurant, chef Eneko Atxa fuses local ingredients, maternal influences and 21st-century techniques to create an immersive dining experience that begins at the rooftop vegetable garden and detours via the greenhouse before guests eventually take their seats.
Menus at the Guggenheim’s Nerua restaurant are conceived a year in advance so chef Josean Alija can intensively research and develop dishes such as white onion, cod and green pepper sauce, a recipe that references classic Basque flavours and customs but looks and tastes thoroughly now.
Image: Fried hake with stewed chrysanthemum leaves at Neura restaurant
Other Michelin-starred city restaurants to seek out include Mina, Zarate, Zortziko and Etxanobe. Tapas – or pintxos as they’re known in the north – are elevated to something of a high art in San Sebastián’s Old Quarter but are just as popular in Bilbao. Start at Irrintzi, a bar in the Old Town, for squid croquettes and duck in peanut sauce before bar-hopping along Calle Santa Maria.
Just outside Bilbao, in the lush countryside typical of País Vasco (Basque Country), Andra Mari restaurant serves modern interpretations of rich rural fare – candied suckling pig with chestnut cream or roasted roe deer with sweet potato – in a timber and stone farmhouse overlooking the Ibaizábal River valley.
Image: Etxebarri's Grilled sea cucumber with beans
From the city, it’s an hour’s drive – a pilgrimage, more precisely – to the hamlet of Axpe, set among meadows and orchards in the Atxondo Valley. It’s where Victor Arguinzoniz has devoted a lifetime to mastering fire and smoke – the fundamentals of cooking – at his country-house restaurant, Etxebarri.
At eight each morning, he begins making embers from holm oak, vine cuttings and fruitwoods, which, by lunchtime, will transform superlative Basque and Spanish produce into rare moments of revelation.
Every dish here is touched by fire: the gently smoked butter and mozzarella made with milk from his own goats and buffaloes; a steamed oyster on a bed of smoky seaweed; and a ruddy slab of aged Galician beef, its char and chew balanced perfectly by a genius pitmaster to create the most delicious chop you’ve ever tasted.
Image: Neura chef Josean Alija
Top image: Extebarri's grilled sea cucumber with beans