A four hands dinner to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao took me to Spain in June and by happenstance it coincided with the 15th Anniversary celebration of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List in Barcelona. I spent a few days in Bilbao exploring the city and environs and the view of the museum from my hotel window across the street, it looks especially stunning in the early morning light. The trip literally began with a pinxto tour lead by Nerua’s chef Josean Alija and his Italian wife Stephania as I was whisked off right after dropping my bags at the hotel. There couldn’t have been a better start to the adventure as we went from one pinxto bar to the next feasting on pinxtos (Basque version of tapas) and specialties of the house washed down with Txakoli, craft beers, wine and ending in the early morning hours with proverbial Spanish gin and tonics of course.
On a sweltering hot morning next day after the famous “hamaitako” second breakfast at a txoko, traditional closed culinary society where men cook and serve and thankfully cleanup , a river cruise was next on the itinerary. Gliding past the Guggenheim museum along the banks of the Nervon river. The numerous construction sites along the riverbank provided an insight into the re gentrification of the city which has had a bad rap due to its political history. The city has obtained a new lease on life not only because of the museum but also its budding food scene with several Michelin starred establishments joining the ranks. For the art lovers heading to the Guggenheim, usually on a day trip, the local culinary art can be appreciated at Nerua, Restaurant, Bistro Guggenheim and Guggenheim bar all conveniently situated within the museum. In June 2018 the World’s 50 Best List will be heading to Bilbao for their awards gala and bringing chefs, journalists and food lovers to the region and focusing attention on the local food scene. As a habitual traveler to the Basque Country the region I think it might never be the same again and though San Sebastián is already on gastro tourists radar, I hope it doesn’t lose its small town charm.
Preceding a special dinner that night at Nerua by chef Alija and his team for guest chef Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur, France there was a tapas break with few chilled craft beers (my choice was a Negroni). The two chefs later shared their thoughts on stage at the museums auditorium and fielded questions from the audience. The next morning a visit to the Itsamendi Txakoli vineyards with an early morning tasting (Txakoli of course) al fresco was followed by a lunch a the Guggenheim Bistro by chef Alija’s team setting the tone for the four hands dinner by the two talented ( and party loving) chefs later that night. The afternoon was spent in the museum checking out my favorite installation by Richard Serra “The Matter of Time” (1994–2005), the artist’s expression of the physicality of space. The column less vast space stretches the imagination with its scale and complexity and it is the one that brings me back for repeat visits .For first time visitors a guided tour is the way to go, especially for the third floor with its temporary exhibitions. The art on the plaza is most recognized because of installations like Jeff Koon’s flower-bedecked two story tall “Puppy” or Louise Bourgeois “Maman” and works of other artists like Yves Klein, Eduardo Chillida and Fujiko Nakaya. The perspective changes at nightfall and the museum is spectacular gleaming in the moonlight and serene since the day trippers and tour groups are long gone by then.
The celebratory evening of the dinner began on the outdoor terrace of Nerua with Perrier Jouet Grand Brut and canapés. The weather changed dramatically and became stormy hastening a quick retreat to the restaurant after enjoying the iberico, fried baby trout and shrimp bites. The four hands dinner by the two chefs playing off of each other was spectacular paired with wines by the expert Nerua sommelier Ismai Alvarez (he has the funniest stories to share about his vocation). If the night before Alija had not impressed enough with Cod kokotcha in pilpil sauce, lamb tongue with sake and cauliflower or the Mochi version of Bollo de mantequilla he came out all guns smoking at the Ongietorri Cenas a 4 Manos with Mauro Colagreco. Colagreco served one of my favorites, his iconic Gillardeau oyster with pears and the sensational Flor de Naranja with mandarin orange, saffron and almond cream. Alija countered with dishes like a consommé of vegetables and sea snails, a gamberetti di fume and another favorite that night quail in txoicero sauce. Engrossed in conversation I did not heed the instructions for a Nerua dessert which proceeded to explode over me and the guest next to me. Too much good food and generous pours of wine I think is where the blame lay.
Such chef collaborations are different from guest chef events as I have experienced myself. Mauro Colagreco joined me in my California kitchen for a four hands dinner and it was one of the most memorable times in recent memory. Working together creates special bonds and relationships as was evident in the Nerua kitchens with both teams working in a warm symbiosis.
A visit to Bilbao is incomplete without of visiting Azurmendi and Chef Eneko Atxa, one of my all time favorite chefs and restaurant. A stunning meal at Azurmendi and a conversation with Eneko Atxa coming up soon as he opens his Tokyo restaurant. The next day took me to Extebarri to spend the most wonderful morning on the terrace with chef Victor Arguinzoniz followed by a delicious meal in the dining room downstairs. The warm, down to earth chef has a great sense of humor and we chatted about some of the more ridiculous happening in the industry from the perspective of chef’s with long careers in the industry. These wonderful conversations will be published in the coming month before I head back to the Basque Country for the Gastronomika in San Sebastián.