Bilbao for Basque cuisine and Chef Eneko Atxa’s Azurmendi restaurant is on our travel wish list for this year – fantastic food, fine art, and the beautiful Basque Country of Northern Spain. Now to make it happen!
You know how sometimes you have to tell people something or put it in writing to commit to making it happen? That’s what I’m doing. Since we slowed our pace of travel and settled down again – sensibly, after having spent 7 years living out of our suitcases – 12 months seem to pass and I remember we forgot to go somewhere we’d really wanted to that year. Well, not this year.
Bilbao for Basque Cuisine
One of the most disappointing pieces of food industry news of 2016 in our part of the world was the closure of Bilbao based chef Eneko Atxa’s Aziamendi restaurant at Iniala Beach House, north of Phuket. We only ate there a handful of times, however, it was one of our favourite restaurants in Thailand.
We loved that Eneko Atxa’s world-class team was bringing a little of Northern Spain‘s Basque Country and its phenomenal flavours and cutting-edge techniques to Asia. We admired their endeavours to work with local farmers and use of local produce wherever possible. And we were excited about their encouragement of the young local chefs on the team to experiment with Thai cuisine.
The innovative Thai-inspired Basque-imbued degustation that we devoured created by the kitchen’s local chefs was one of the most creative contemporary Thai meals we’ve ever had and easily the most original. They were baby steps in an exciting direction for Thai cuisine. Right now, there’s only Chef Ton of Le Du and his chef at Baa Ga Din doing anything approaching that in the country.
So while we won’t find any Thai innovations on the table at Eneko Atxa’s Azurmendi restaurant near Bilbao, we’ve realised that we’re going to have to head to the Basque Country this year to dine on his adventurous cuisine once more. A trip to Spain is long overdue anyway – the last time we were there was our trip to Barcelona to tour the Penedes wine region and discover Catalan cuisine.
As for the Basque Country, we first visited the autonomous region in northern Spain when we spent a week in San Sebastian in the summer of (gulp) 1999. We were so bewitched by the spellbinding city, basking on the beach by day and gorging ourselves on pintxos (Basque cuisine’s version tapas, usually served on bread) as we bar hopped through the Old Town each night, that we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave.
When we finally got to Bilbao on a later trip to San Sebastian, we were primarily there to hit the Guggenheim Museum, explore Bilbao’s old town (Casco Viejo) and sample Bilbao-style pintxos. I remember thinking that Bilbao warranted a lot more time and vowing to return, but we just never got back to that part of Spain, despite being so smitten with nearby San Sebastian.
San Sebastian has long been considered one of Europe’s great gastronomic destinations, with myriad Michelin-starred restaurants in and around the city, including Arzak, Martin Berasategui, Mugaritz, Akelaŕe, Kokotxa, Zuberoa, Mirador de Ulia, and Alameda.
But in the years since our last visit, Bilbao has also emerged as culinary hot spot.
So this is the year we return to Bilbao – and maybe San Sebastian.
Where to Eat in Bilbao
Eneko Atxa’s Azurmendi in Larrabetzu in the countryside a 10-minute drive from Bilbao, was awarded three Michelin stars in 2017 – the highest ranking given for superlative food, exemplary ingredients, and cooking elevated to an art form. Eneko is committed to local produce and sustainability, with a vegetable garden at the restaurant and he makes his own wine. www.azurmendi.biz
In a stone building in a quiet country village between Bilbao and San Sebastian, Asador Etxebarri, at #10 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, is famed for its barbecue. Self-taught cook Victor Arguinzoniz uses an array of woods on grills he constructed in a kitchen he built himself. He grows much of the produce in his garden and makes his own chorizo, fresh buffalo mozzarella from his buffalo, and butter from his goats. asadoretxebarri.com
Bilbao’s star attraction, the Guggenheim, also hosts the finest restaurant in Bilbao itself, Nerua. Helmed by el Bulli alumnus, Josean Martínez Alija, the artfully presented plates of just a few meticulously prepared Mediterranean ingredients do well to compete with Gehry’s breathtaking architecture. www.nerua.com
At one Michelin-starred Zortziko, Chef Daniel García offers an innovative take on the traditional Basque specialties of Bilbao in several elegant dining spaces, including the wine cellar. He also offers cooking classes! www.zortziko.es
Another one-starred restaurant, Mina is all about drawing the maximum expression from each local ingredient, which comes from Bilbao’s local markets and farms. There is a kitchen counter from where diners can watch the chefs work. www.restaurantemina.es
On the top floor of Bilbao’s Euskalduna palace, with an elegant yet cosy dining room, and a terrace with sweeping city and river views, Michelin one-starred Etxanobe offers a number of Basque tasting menus, including an ‘Emotion’ menu, ‘Expression’ menu, and ‘Fun’ menu. www.etxanobe.com
Opened in 1964 and located in the countryside just out of Bilbao, in a charming house overlooking a river valley and mountains, Andra Mari’s focus is traditional food made from local produce that is the essence of Basque cuisine. www.andra-mari.com
We seemed to eat nothing but pintxos on our last trip to Bilbao. Okay, not entirely true, but not far from it. I imagine our first meal be pintxos. Irrintzi has elevated these to a whole new gastronomic level. www.irrintzi.es
How to get to Bilbao
Our lucky friends in the UK can go direct from Portsmouth to Bilbao by ferry with Brittany Ferries which means they can even take their car and drive along the spectacular coast. Our American readers can fly to Bilbao from the USA via Europe or the UK with British Airways or KLM and could do the same. To get to Bilbao from Australia and here in Asia it’s best to fly with Thai Airways, Lufthansa, or KLM via Bangkok with a stop or two in Europe en route.
Where to Stay in Bilbao
As you’d expect, accommodation in Bilbao is a bit arty. The stylish Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao, designed by Javier Mariscal, is right opposite the Guggenheim and has views of Gehry’s masterpiece from rooms, the restaurant and terrace and art on the walls. Located in a majestic old building that oozes history, the Hotel Carlton has rooms in both a classic style and very contemporary design. Rooms at the NH Collection Villa de Bilbao are all contemporary and spare with enormous, striking black and white photographic prints on the walls. The endearingly old-fashioned Hotel Artetxe, in a charming hilltop farmhouse 3kms out of town, with views over the city, is well-placed if you’re taking the Bilbao ferry from Portsmouth and have your car.
What to Do in Bilbao
We did little else but gawk at the gob-smacking architecture of the Museo Guggenheim and the glorious art hanging inside on our last trip to Bilbao, which we’ll definitely be doing again, however, Bilbao is home to an array of outstanding art museums and galleries. The Museo de Bellas Artes is crammed with thousands of paintings by the likes of Gauguin, Picasso, Goya and El Greco. I’m also keen to take a boat trip along the Nervion River. And obviously we’ll have to return to San Sebastian.
P.S. If you can’t get to Spain, try to get to the chef’s newest restaurant, Eneko at One Aldwych in the UK.
Have you been to Bilbao recently? Feel free to share any tips in the Comments below.