Bilbao Spain Gastronomy Tour 2005

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Pictures tell the story here. 
Chef Daniel Garcia's dessert creation! See what I mean by intricate, soaring, complex dishes?

Jeff Koon's floral sculpture, Puppy, in a rare, mostly green state guarding the front entrance to the Guggenheim. 

The Euskalduna Conference Centre, where we went to the Symphony before dinner at Chef Fernando Canales' Restaurante Etxanobe. 

The river walk to the Guggenheim is lined with gardens and sculpture, with palm and deciduous trees along the walks in a curious mix of temperate and tropical vegetation.

One of the pedestrian bridges connecting both river banks.

Mommy-longlegs faintly visible in front of the Guggenheim Museum

Chef Josean Alija of the Jatetxea Restaurante prepared a seven course meal for us.

After a shot of warm pumpkin soup, an  incredible selection food in beautiful dishes was put before us ...
2nd course - a lightly baked quail egg

3rd course - tomato stuffed with baby squids

4th course - cod candied in garlic oil (bacalao pil pil)

5th course - glazed veal cheeks 

6th course - apple stuffed with custard

7th course - a curd of pistachio in coffee sauce

Different meal - Chef Daniel Garcia's squab cooked five ways.

Another meal - Chef Fernando Canales stunned us with an incredible example of his creative genius.

A perfect medallion of roast suckling pig capped with a translucent cellophane of potato essence!

Tapas and pintxos - in my hand a skewered fresh anchovy filet wrapped around squid, with tomatoes and watercress in an ink sauce.

        Food. It's not just for sustenance. Food bridges cultures and cements relationships. It creates lasting memories as friends and families share dining experiences together. Either at home, or abroad, we can revel in a chef's intricate construction as he creates soaring, complex dishes to confound our senses. These visual masterpieces tempt gravity as they seduce our eyes with their form, and our nose with their sensuous aromas. We are astonished at the taste of such glorious beauty. As food is architecture, food is art. I just spent a week curating the most intimate dining experience of my life in some of the most beautiful buildings I've ever been in. When the dining room is a museum, food is art we can eat.

It started simply enough. A friend called to invite me out to dinner. At first, because he knows the holidays are a busy time of year for me, he neglected to say it would be several days of lunches and dinners in Bilbao Spain. But I knew something was up from the start, because the last time he called we spent a week in Barcelona. So, after a description of the itinerary, which included a long list of Michelin starred restaurants, and a promise to return before Thanksgiving, I accepted. My new motto: have passport, will travel.

Our culinary tour began in flight. Iberian Airlines contracted with Sergi Arola, a top chef at Madrid's La Broche restaurant (2 Michelin stars) to prepare a first-class menu far above the Atlantic (and even farther above the typical airline fare of coach), where both the food and the service were impeccable. I particularly liked the beef loin with truffle sauce, and potato au gratin, but there were too many good courses to list. It amazes me how the stewards manage them (and all those servings of cava) so deftly, as the earth turns swiftly far below. It is a credit to their skill and the smoothness of the flight that we wore no sign of our imbibing when we disembarked into the wet Spanish morning.

Fall is the rainy season in Bilbao, which is on Spain's North Atlantic coast due South of England, and shares a similar climate. The airport is new, and much of where we traveled was new, as the fruits of the first decade of reinventing itself from an industrial city into a major tourist destination glistened below us in the "bowl" of the city. We stayed in a section so new our hotel wasn't on the tourist map yet. It is the former ship building and ore smelting industrial zone, now razed, with fresh buildings sprouting from the construction holes, literally pulled upwards by the towering cranes that dominated the skyline around the Sheraton Bilbao Hotel, the five star establishment on the banks of the Abandoibarra river we called home for the week.

Our immediate view from there was of the Guggenheim Museum on the far right, with its undulating titanium shell designed by Frank Gehry, and familiar as the inspiration for our own Bard College's more recent Performance Hall. The Guggenheim is one of the top attractions in Spain, in all of Europe, for that matter, and, since its completion in 1997, has anchored Bilbao's revitalization as a major tourist destination.

Next door to the Sheraton is the new shopping center, more remarkable for its size, and the McDonald's culture we export, than for its design, but handy in its own right. An extra toothbrush, bottle of wine and the all-important umbrella were within easy reach just across the street. Judging by the store displays and the four stories of incredibly diverse shops I saw there, Bilbao is definitely upscale, a city on the rise.

To our left was the Euskalduna Conference Centre, designed by Frederico Soriano and Dolores Palacios, which opened in 1999. It is so huge that one of the last ship hulls build on the site is enshrined in the interior. It houses an exquisite 2000 seat Symphony hall with perfect acoustics and the second largest stage in all of Europe. That still leaves plenty of other space for the endless succession of symposiums and conventions that fill its many floors 350 days a year. Its penthouse restaurant, which is the smaller and more exclusive of the two restaurants in this facility, was on our Michelin "to bag" list after a philharmonic concert later in the week. But first, after checking into the Sheraton, I wanted to stretch my legs with a walk along the river, and prudently donned rain gear for the trek.

The river is girdled by new pedestrian promenades, with architect designed foot bridges connecting both sides to the parks and gardens that follow its curving shores around the new and nineteenth century sections of the city to the old quarter. Works of art dot this urban landscape, with famous artists such as William Tucker, Eduardo Chillia, Angel Garraza and Jose Zugasti, each in their turn amplifying the beauty of my perambulations. The sudden appearance of a gigantic spider sculpture startled this arachnophobe, as did learning that the artist, Louise Bourgeois, felt as if she were in her mother's arms when she stood within its legs. I bravely tried to experience that, but I could only marvel at the sheer size of this mommy-long-legs. It's a pity there was no one to photograph me so embraced.

I went afoot every chance I could, but there is a modern aboveground Tran on this stretch of river that winds along tracks set in a greensward bordering the highway and walkway. Other public transportation, something whose name made me smile called a BilboBus, and a squeaky clean subway system called a Metro, make it easy to get around this remarkable city. With single tickets starting a little over a buck, and multiple trip discounts available, it is affordable too. The vision and planning necessary to create this perfect mix of walking, cycling, driving and public transport throughout the city are a credit to the city fathers.

There is plenty to say about the art and architecture that surrounded us, but even more about the food. Our little group's informal title for the tour was "death by foie gras", and once I've described what we "survived" you'll see just how incredible the experience was.

Architecture, art and food came together in our first "big" meal event at the Guggenheim Museum. Chef Josean Alija of the Jatetxea Restaurante prepared a seven course meal for the occasion, unusual in that it was our only meal without foie gras. It started with a "shooter" (or double shot glass) of warm pumpkin soup, spiced with a hint of orange, to "open our taste-buds". Over the course of the next three hours we were served:

* a lightly baked egg, whose translucent white coddled a fiery red yolk which, when broken, flowed red onto the nest of potato to mix with the nectar of red piquillo pepper sauce. (visually stunning and delicious!)

* a peeled and roasted red tomato stuffed with baby squids, served on a bed of risotto and fresh cream blackened with the ink of the squid. (we all had black, or "Goth" lips after eating this wonderful combination of flavors.)

* a loin of cod candied in garlic oil, with crab sauce. (cod, or as they call it is Spain, bacalao, is my favorite fish - this was perfection.)

* glazed veal cheeks served on a bed of polenta and sun dried tomatoes. (the tenderest of the tender in a delicious reduction of red wine sauce.)

* morsels of caramelized apple stuffed with a Tahiti vanilla flavored custard, served with coconut ice cream. (more remarkable for its construction than its flavor, but it was good.)

* a curd of pistachio with a strong coffee sauce. (tasty.)

Each course was paired with its own perfect wine. (I would need another whole page to describe the wine. Suffice it to say the Basque region includes the northern part of the Rioja wine area whose 2001 and 2004 vintages are two of only eleven rated Excellent since they started grading them in 1925. There was no second-rate wine served.) The entire meal was capped off with a very special Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee and a side glass of the rare Galacia licor. It really was an incredible meal.

The only disquieting note is that smoking in restaurants is still legal in Spain. Having a cigarette between courses is common, and the rich odor of a Cuban cigar frequently accompanies the coffee. It took some getting used to, but other-than-that, this was a fabulous afternoon prelude to our evening meal. Yes, we ate like this day and night for a week! And, because of our celebrity, with photos in the daily papers and video on the evening news, we were recognized with smiles most everywhere we went. The Basque people love their food as much as we did, and proudly showed it off.

That evening we moved from museum settings to the TV studio in chef Daniel Garcia's restaurant Zortziko, for a cooking demonstration and a six course dinner. His popular daily cooking show is shot here, and every Basque knows Chef Garcia's smiling face. He is such a personality even the plates have his name on them. Chef Garcia created our foie gras first course right before our eyes. He fried and flambeed the foie gras, whipped it, and served it over flambeed caramelized pear in an aperitif glass with a red wine gelatin glaze topping. Two chive pieces as "antenna" adorned the top. It was a flamboyant and impressive performance that took no time at all. No wonder his show is so popular. We sat around a specially prepared table to sample it as we began our very inventive meal. Delicious!

Another meal in a most remarkable setting was in the Restaurante Etxanobe on top of the Euskalduna Conference Centre. Here chef Fernando Canales stunned us with an incredible example of his creative genius. Describing the meat course as "pork with a potato cloud" does it no justice. Picture a perfect medallion of roast suckling pig capped with a translucent cellophane of potato essence so thin I could see through it. I've never encountered anything like it before, and may not again. It was incredible! His wine choices went perfectly with each of the eight courses, and his engaging presence at the table, with his humor, made it a truly one-of-a-kind meal.

From the centrally located Sheraton we walked to everything, including a night of bar hopping in search of the perfect tapas and pintxos. While some use the terms interchangeably, tapas are traditional Spanish small snacks, or finger food, and pintxos (peenchos) is Basque for food on a toothpick or skewer, and is generally used here to refer to tapas also. Both are one or two bite fresh food concoctions, and each bar outdoes itself to provide the best combinations of color and flavor. It is customary to have a few with a drink in each of several bars. Everyone, from little children with dogs, through young couples and the older set, mix genially and informally during this stand up meal. It makes for a very social event, and is a great way to meet the locals.

One doesn't have to spend a king's ransom to enjoy this remarkable city. There are round trip coach fares (found through, with connections through Madrid, or elsewhere) in the 500 euro range. Two to three star hotels should run 60 to 70 euros a night, with some upgrades and bargains to be had off-season. Nearly all restaurants offer a lunch Menu del Dia, or meal of the day, with 3 or 4 courses of simpler fare, including cafe or vino for 7 to 12 euros per person. Combine that with a hotel that supplies a breakfast buffet, and take full advantage of the tapas, or, more correctly, pintxos, for about one euro each, available in local taverns both midday during the week and on weekend evenings, for some excellent and very economical food. Using public transportation, (1.15 to 1.40 euros depending on zone) a couple could easily enjoy this trip for about 2000 euros. But, if you can spend a little extra, shopping, museums and the symphony are the small extravagances that will make your vacation memorable.

On Egin! (pronounced "on' again", is Basque for the Spanish "Buen Provecho!" and the French "Bon Appetit!")


(the exchange rate during our visit was $1.17 = 1 euro) Generally tips were included, but great service could have a 5% tip, although it is not expected. Add 7% VAT to hotel & restaurant bills.

Guide Service: Guia turistico (Xabier Lexartza Argiarro)  Great Guide!

Bilbao Tourism:

Sheraton Bilbao Hotel - off season 85 euros per night double room plus 18 euros breakfast buffet. Good food, bar and cordial service. Promised 5 star facilities and services such as a pool, and Internet access in the rooms, were not yet available at this extremely convenient location.

Guggenheim Museum 9 to 12 euros depending on exhibits. The current Richard Serra exhibit is amazing, as is the odd phenomenon that every 62 minutes the museum becomes enshrouded in a man-made fog, rising from the fountains and pools outside the building as if Penn & Teller were hired to make it disappear and appear again as the winds dissipate the mist!

Jatetxea Restaurante price fixed 53 euros (plus wine & vat)

Restaurante Etxanobe Gastronomy Menu 65 euros (plus wine & vat)

Zortziko 50 to 60 euros (plus wine & vat)

See bilbao2.htm for more photos and side trips

Spain Tour Barcelona