Just over an hour by bus from San Sebastián, and I find myself in Bilbao (or, Bilbo, as it was traditionally known). Much of the city is fairly industrial, but there’s a fairly charming “old town” and a very pretty downtown area. And, of course, the one real claim to international fame, the Guggenheim.
I’ve arrived at lunchtime, my hotel room won’t be ready for a couple of hours, I may as well check my bags and head to the Mercado de la Ribera, a market and casual dining destination on the river, just a few blocks away. I do all the fun wandering and looking at produce and fish and meat and then, feeling peckish, try out two of the tapas bars in the center of the market, where I gobble up delicious little skewers of seafood, olives, and chilies at one, and then two slightly more substantial plates at another – first, a plate of chilled percebes, or goose barnacles, which are tasty enough, but the winner of the day are the teeny baby eels (anguillitas) over grilled octopus and a creamy, smoky, garlicky puree of sunchokes.
A late afternoon walk after finally getting into the hotel let’s me cover pretty much all of old town, and then a slow stroll along one of the riverbanks to the Guggenheim, arriving just as it was closing (that was planned, not to worry), because that’s when it’s famed restaurant, Nerua, opens up.
Now, Nerua offers up a choice of a la carte, or one of three tasting menus – 9, 14, or 21 courses. It includes a brief visit to the kitchen before you sit down, to meet the chef and staff, and to sample a couple of little hors d’oeuvres. I’d already decided, given my now declared retreat from modernist cooking, that if it looked like I was in for more of the same, I’d just get a couple of a la carte plates and call it a night, maybe head out for more tapas. But no, the little hors d’oeuvres were not only not modernist, albeit “modern” in terms of presentation, but they were dead on delicious. So hell, in for a penny and all that, I went for the 21 course menu.
I can only think of two other menus I’ve had that were this extensive in which basically, I loved everything – Tetsuya’s and Trotter’s. While the meal isn’t vegetarian, vegetables play a key part in every dish. Were there things I liked less, or more, than others, of course, but there wasn’t a single course that wasn’t stunningly good, beautifully presented, and explained well by staff members who were not just correct in their service, but warm, friendly, and knowledgeable. There’s a choice of a wine pairing or a non-alcohol beverage pairing that consists of a series of fruit, vegetable, and herb infusions. There’s an extensive, well thought out wine list, and a decent listing of wines by the glass. How this place only comes in at #55 on the listing of world’s best, I have no idea, for me, I’m putting it at #3 of the best tasting menu dining experiences I’ve ever had – and hey, it cost 20% less than the same length menu at Mugaritz a couple days ago (actually more, when you take into account having to get to and from Mugaritz). I almost went back today for lunch, just to try some of the dishes that weren’t on the tasting menu.