Twenty years ago, the Guggenheim Museum opened its outsized glass doors in the Basque city of Bilbao. A combination of bold architecture and a rich collection of modern and contemporary art soon lured visitors to what was then a fairly humdrum city. But it took time for the food scene to catch up. Bilbainos, while good enough cooks, never had much interest in ethnic cuisines and were happiest sticking to the basics: perfect pintxos – juicy Santoña anchovies, slivers of ibérico ham, crispy creamy croquetas – followed by hake en salsa verde (with parsley, clams and peas), salt cod al pil-pil – in a rich emulsion sauce spiked with chilli, or a slab of aged beef chargrilled to perfection. Now, judging by a slew of new restaurants, Bilbao’s food scene is finally living up to the style and substance of the Guggenheim.
Much of what’s innovative is taking place in Abando. Pre-Guggenheim, it was a dull residential area grimy with industrial pollution; now, it is the home of new-Spanish cuisine, which seeks out exotic bedfellows from around the world. In Kuma, a sleek, low-lit backdrop for Daniel Lomana’s exquisite Japanese-Spanish dishes, you can eat delicate, raw, wild sea bass with soya, Japanese spices and finely sliced garlic. Or, just around the corner in Kimtxu, the dumpling stuffed with slow-cooked meat from the Basque beef casserole known as sukalki, floating in a concentrated ham stock with oyster sauce, baby carrots, and a double kick of raw spring onions and chilli oil, is both flavoursome and deeply slurpable.
Most nights of the week, the pavements outside Sacacorchos, Oscar Vila’s brilliant wine bar in Abando, are heaving with middle-class professionals clutching large glasses and snaffling imaginative pintxos like salmon cooked in gin-and-tonic and “cuttlefish burger” – witty in its ink-black bun, and a perfect foil for txakoli, the crisp and citrussy Basque white wine. In wine, too, Bilbao is bursting out of its historical Riojan straitjacket, with more unusual Spanish wines, from Galician reds to natural Catalunyan whites.
At the top end of the scene, meanwhile, there is a group of restaurants that now stand comparison with the best of what San Sebastián, Bilbao’s rival in food and football, has to offer. Eneko Atxa’s Azurmendi, with its trio of Michelin stars, is to Bilbao what Mugaritz is to San Sebastián: out in the sticks and forward-thinking, despite its deep Basque roots. Atxa transmutes humble recipes like fried hake with roast peppers and lamb with mushrooms into dishes of almost ethereal beauty and lightness, which are visually as well as gastronomically stunning. Back in town, Mina, where the ten-course menu is a steal at €85, hits the spot with its river views and Alvaro Garrido’s inventive cooking – his foie gras and langoustine with sage juice and sweet pickled fennel must be one of the most stimulating mouthfuls to be had in Bilbao right now.
But, appropriately, it’s Nerua, at the heart of the Guggenheim Museum, which has come to be Bilbao’s standard-bearer for avant-garde food. Josean Martínez Alija’s minimalist cuisine is elegant and thoroughly of the moment. Salt cod cheeks with clams al pil-pil, a homage to Bilbao if ever there was one, shows how classicism can be reconciled with modernity. Meanwhile, his clear-sighted creations, like tuna hearts with black-olive gnocchi (pictured above) and spinach briefly cooked with almond milk and olive oil, a tiny compendium of creamy, nutty and bitter flavours, suggest Bilbao has thoroughly mastered the art of haute cuisine.