Nerua at the Guggenheim Bilbao

We had lunch here after a brisk morning walk. Back then, this was #34 on the San Pellegrino Top 50 list, but has since slid to #53. It was our first lunch for our 2020 Spain trip. It has taken me a moment to post anything from this trip because right when we came back the world changed and COVID hit.

Our trip wrapped up in October 2020 and upon coming home we started hearing about this curious virus that was spreading through China but had yet to hit Europe or the US. Yet another example of the value of planning a trip like this. Had I hesitated at any point or delayed this trip out of concern for work obligations or finances, half of the restaurants, pre-mask era, would have been permanently closed. I will read this post and remember that moment in time and the history of the world before things changed.

Fortunately, unlike many others that did not have the luxury to do so, upon returning to work, for the past 2 years all I did was work, given the nature of my job as a Psychiatrist. There has never been a time when my services have been more in demand. During that time, mentally, I did not feel it was appropriate to blog about all these places. For one, the lack of empathy with the rest of the world. Two, the fact that ALL restaurants were closed for a while and seeing these photos and revisiting these memories would have been torture knowing that no matter how badly I wanted to, I would not have been able to go to any restaurant for a while. What a nightmare, my #1 hobby, and obsession just vanished for a period of 2 years. The silver lining, at least, was that I was able to save a lot of money for the first time in my life instead of spending it on food. Though some of our favorite restaurants have adapted and survived, a lot are still permanently closed. Some things have yet to return to normal.

Anyways, back to Bilbao. Now that we have had several Mexico City trips and a France trip under our belts status-post Delta and Omicron I wanted to inventory all my Spain experiences before posting our France trip. Here we all are in front of the Guggenheim at Bilbao under the giant spider. Hands down, Bilbao is the best place to fly into and stopover if you are going to San Sebastian. It is often overlooked but has many a gem of restaurants.

Felt like being in LA, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is another Frank Ghery structure. First time in Europe for my in-laws.

I had first heard about this place years before the Pellegrino List in a magazine called Apicius, which is a Spanish publication that does these deep dive articles into restaurants, it was in the same issue that I learned about the Sicilian gelato shop/bar Caffe Sicilia that later was featured on Netflix. I remember being intrigued by chef Josean Alija’s philosophy of getting the diner to see what’s going on in the kitchen and appreciating the innovation it takes to create a series of sensations. Apparently, he himself was not even a chef until he had a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him, and he lost all sense of taste and smell and had to retrain himself to taste and smell which led him to enter the ‘best young chef competition in 2003’ which eventually led him to El Buli and the rest is history.

It’s a very cerebral approach to dining that was ahead of its time when he first started in the early 2000s. The dishes look simple but are surprisingly complex in their preparation and flavors. It is a tough restaurant to blog about because the photos don’t do it justice as most of the pleasure is derived from the flavor and texture that I remembered. The name is also a metaphor for the Nervion River that runs through the city, almost as though he wanted his restaurant to be a vein coming off of that river, as a neuronal axon of the bigger organism, which is the Basque terroir and lifeblood of the river. He’s an ambassador for the region the food comes from, but he presents the essence of the food in a way that is not as you would expect as you would see with tapas, etc.

I mean just look at the tiles on the roof, it’s an obvious allusion to being inside the brain of an organism. To anyone who has studied neuroscience, or has had to dissect the nerve roots of a cadaver, this is a total reference to glial matter and shiny phospholipids.

Some amazing croquettas, the symbolic snack of Spain. Potatoes, cheese, and jamon. You enter through the kitchen and everyone yells “welcome” in Basque. Instead of a host, you are greeted with this amuse-bouche. Nice touch to get the experience started before you even sit down.

The ambiance was stunningly minimalistic. Very befitting of being inside the Guggenheim, matched the aesthetic of the museum, which had a giant wooden maze-like structure inside.

Just very beautiful and tastefully done. Almost wished we could have done dinner here, but lunch had its pros as we were able to still catch the museum after and catch the lighting and view of the outside during the day. The pic above was a stock photo I found online that I used as part of my power-point for Erika’s family to show them why I preferred lunch here over dinner.

I could not get enough of this white Rioja when we were there. To have older vintages in spades back to back was such a treat. This ’82 Cune Monopole Blanco Rioja from the viura grape was surprisingly fresh though slightly oxidized. You can’t even find any notes online for this vintage. So old and so rare to come across in the US.

Sage advice, raid the cellars of Spain’s restaurants before the cat is out the bag and it’s too late. Some of the world’s best wines with divine provenance are going for reasonable prices still. In ten years I might read this post and dream of the day I could just order a 30-year-old wine off the list for peanuts.

Wonderful side by side vertical to see how this wine drank old vs young. Amazing to see the evolutions of what the young wine will become and how well the old wine held up.

I think this was the local oyster with asparagus sauce. Went perfectly with the two whites, though they say you shouldn’t pair wine with asparagus.

Baby artichoke hearts, which the region is known for. It was cooked in an anchovy and olive broth and paired better with the younger wine which gave this dish more acid to neutralize the anchovy and richness of the sauce.

Some might find this dish too simple, but it was nice to be able to concentrate on the ingredients. The sauce was a time-consuming infusion/preparation that added much complexity to the dish. The next white went very well with this dish.

I gave the Somm a specific instructions on this wine. I said, “give me some weird white varietals from the region, something you know I’ve never had before and won’t likely get in the US”, so he brought me this. Macabeo grape, this was very mineral and silica, like sucking on stones. Apparently, the grapes that make this vintage are from such a small plot that they are grown in a garage. Very interesting combo with the beans and some of the seafood courses below.

I think this could have been a lobster or a prawn cross-section in its bisque, or it could have been a scallop in some pimento sauce, but I was on my third bottle of wine at this point and not giving a flying.. I wish I had taken notes, can’t find the menu.

This was the John Dory with shrimp, lemon, and chili juice. Great balance of acid, heat, and fat.

The famous fried Hake with chrysanthemum with some sort of pil-pil sauce.

Yet another reasonably priced 1964 Faustino Rioja that helped us segway from the heavier seafood dishes to the meat dish. 1964 was one of the greatest vintages of Rioja, mostly Tempranillo. It still had some dried red fruit flavors, tea-like, and had a dirtiness to it like an old baseball glove preserved in pickle juice. I know that sounds super weird, but I think I am trying to describe that dill herby note that I get from Rioja with the pickle reference. I would not wait longer on this, slightly past its prime, but still in its window.

My God, look at this lamb chop. Black and blue, just the way I like it. Charred on the outside, but rare as hell on the inside. Needed to follow up with a wine that can stand up to this chop.

2016 Prior Scala Dei was a Garnacha fruit bomb. Surprisingly drinkable for a 2016 but I guess these are made to drink young. Super dark and meaty, went very well with the lamb dish.

The expression on my face says it all.

The lemon, rosemary, and honey cake. Look at all that zest all over the place, with a crunchy filo dough crust. What a way to end this amazing yet subtle feast.

Five bottles of wine with an amazing lunch followed by a leisurely walk in the museum. What a way to start the first day of our trip.

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