Bilbao - foodie heaven or fool's paradise?

by Anthea.Gerrie

Bilbao is famous for its futuristic Guggenheim Museum and cutting-edge art - but now the restaurants are pushing the envelope, too, in a city never previously known for its cuisine

Barely more than 10 years ago, it was strictly a meat, peppers and potatoes town - classic local fare for a grimy industrial port in the heart of Spain’s Basque country. But with the opening of the shiny, folded-metal Guggenheim art gallery, bought by the city fathers to reinvent Bilbao as a tourist destination, local chefs realised they would have to buck up their ideas. Culture vultures were coming from all over the world, wanting the same trendy food for which the smart resort down the road, San Sebastian, was making north-eastern Spain famous. Now you can barely move for innovative culinary ideas that some might consider a taste too far - artichoke sorbet and squid ink ice-cream, anyone? 
Actually, Bilbao’s three Michelin-starred restaurants serve up some pretty interesting grub, and others, including tapas bars in the atmospheric old town, are following suit. Gatz may have won a prize for snippet-size bites of Bilbao’s most traditional dish, salt cod with pil pil sauce made of olive oil reduced with garlic. But their turrets of Bloody Mary jelly with caviar suspended within are as modern as a snack comes.  
As everywhere in Bilbao, pintxos, as tapas are known locally, are washed down with little glasses of cider, or txakoli, the local white wine. And on the edge of the old town sits the ultimate foodie ice-cream parlour, Nosi-Be, which dispenses wild flavours like date swirled with Roquefort cheese - quite conservative beside more challenging cones flicked with Iberico ham or squid ink!
Back by the Guggenheim, in the green, spacious redevelopment area, the Aizian restaurant inside the futuristic pink Sheraton Bilbao Hotel has made a tasting menu out of pintxo-size bites of sheer invention. Think lobster tartare with sea urchin sauce, marinated tuna with wasabi ice-cream, foie gras wrapped in smoked bread, and tea-infused jellies and biscuits for pud.
Across the park at Etxanobe, in the Convention Centre, chef Fernando Canales tempts diners with sensual food he believes is as good as sex. Specialities like raw local bluefish marinated in vanilla salt and tomato pulp, carpaccio of scampi with bacon cream and black truffle omelette with grated potato are certainly orgasmic.
But Canales thinks there’s a taste of emperor’s new clothes going on at Zortziko, where his Michelin-starred rival Daniel Garcia pushes the boat out a tad too far for even the most adventurous foodies. Actually, Garcia’s artichoke sorbet and foie gras parfait in a martini glass are better than they sound. But only the most macho actually get down his signature dessert of salt cod and pungent white truffle oil risotto ice-cream.
While the Sheraton is perfectly situated for foodies, with Aizian in-house, Etxanobe across the way and the tram stop for the old town just a moment’s walk, the Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao takes the biscuit for location - right opposite the Guggenheim, it has a fabulous rooftop breakfast room with outstanding views of the museum.        
But Bilbao’s best restaurant, Azurmendi, is out by the airport at Larrabetzu - come at lunchtime and allow several hours before an early evening flight home. Expect lots of tiny courses, including a lightly-cooked egg yolk injected with truffle stock, which. like all the savoury mouthfuls on the tasting menu is pure heaven. Pud might be a heavenly pink mix of strawberries and rose essence, or a “walk through the vineyard” showcasing the life cycle of a grape.
Where’s left to go from here? It’s almost frightening to contemplate. Azurmendi’s handsome young chef Enetko Atxa is currently distilling fig leaves and recreating the heady essence of rain-washed meadow in his food lab. What he’ll do with these intense confections is anybody’s guess!


Iberia flies to Bilbao from London Heathrow, via Madrid; return fares from £189.
Clickair flies direct from Heathrow and Gatwick; return fares from £50.