Bilbao, capital of Basque country in north-western Spain, is a city I am particularly fond of. I was sent here for the first time in 1977 to sort out the office of the metal-trading company I was then working for and it was here that I first fell in love with tapas, known here as pintxos, the ritual of walking between one good bar and another, devouring bowls of the tiny elvers, so charged with electricity that they have to be eaten with a wooden spoon, that were even then very expensive but now fetch €500-600 per kilo.
The iconic Guggenheim Museum, built according to architect Frank Gehry's extraordinary vision and finally completed in 1997, marked a watershed in the city's history. Out went the old, polluting industries, most notably the steel mills that had drawn me there in the first place, and in came the new: tourism; a cleaned-up river Nervión; pathways alongside for walkers and joggers; and, to everyone's delight, the unspoilt pleasures of the old part of the city, complete with bars and cafés, many with spectacular interiors such as the Cafe Iruña shown above.
But while the look of this city has changed so dramatically, at heart it remains the same. It withstood Franco; it is still a matriarchal society; there are still over 500 txokos, apartments that belong to the association of all-male dining clubs; and the sense of family is still paramount, as was evinced by the day I spent in the company of Eneko Atxa and his uncle Gorka Izagirre at the extraordinary Azurmendi restaurant, banqueting suite and winemaking facility (the wines were reviewed very favourably by Julia in November 2013 – see Recuperating Txacoli and the reviews at the end of that article).
All of these elements were to come together in the 24 hours I recently spent in Bilbao with the family element possibly the strongest – although the distinctive Basque food and drink were not far behind!
I flew down in the company of Kostas Sfaltos, general manager of One Aldwych, the London hotel. We were met at the strikingly attractive new airport by Lorea Uribarri Berrojalbiz, who, having spent her initial career working as a civil servant for the EU, returned to Bilbao and subsequently married Gorka, having grown up in the same village as him. Having driven the 15 minutes to Azurmendi, we were shown into a temporary showroom that belongs to another family firm.
The reason for my trip was that Eneko at One Aldwych will open later this year and the powers-that-be at the hotel wanted professional confirmation from me and restaurateur Alan Yau that the food is on the right track. The idea is not to replicate their three-star Michelin food but to devise a menu suitable specifically for London but showcasing their very specific take on Basque cooking. This should be an opening to watch.
All the tables and woodwork will be the work of the Arkaia company founded in 1995 by Patricio A de Arkaia and now run by his son Diego and daughter Elena. The Arkaia family had converted the space where we tried the proposed new dishes into a showroom for all the furniture that will be shipped to London: wonderfully worked tables; very comfortable chairs that can accommodate jackets; and light, easily moveable screens. A beautiful brochure explained how treating the wood - the felled tree is left for a year after it has been cut to withstand the elements - is as essential to its finished design as the handicraft of the cutters.
We then repaired to a special table that had been set up for the nine of us and what looked like a long menu. There were six headings - vegetables, from the sea, from the land, fish, meat, and, finally, cheese and desserts - with four dishes under each. But these were thoughtfully presented in two's and three's so it was not too overwhelming. The dishes were a mixture of classic Basque cooking with Atxa's re-design. A dish simply headed 'the Basque garden' was a beautiful reinterpretation of classic vegetables while the black rice was almost traditional. The Basque classics came in the shape of three soups, txipi noodles – squid soup with vegetables and sprouts; berakatz sopa, a thick garlic soup with mushrooms (see below) that was drained to the final drop; and another of wheat stew thickened with the local Idiazabal, ewes' milk cheese. These, and Axta's cod tripe a la bizkaina'were all served in traditional enamel dishes, another feature that will be on show in the new restaurant.
Other dishes that impressed me were his treatment of a fillet of hake, braised veal shank and duck al ajillo, with a thick garlic sauce. As did all their desserts, particularly an apple tart and a rice pudding served inside a coating of white chocolate ice cream. These were impressive as much for their inherent flavour as for the enthusiasm of the chefs who came into to serve them, several of whom will be moving to London.
At 3 pm the sun was out as we climbed up from the banqueting rooms to the three-star Michelin restaurant where about 40 chefs were just finishing service for the same number of customers. (Lunch is the time to eat here; at €175 it is probably one of the least expensive three-star restaurants in Europe; the BA flight from Heathrow departs at 8.30 am and gets you there in time for lunch.) And from what I could see, I don't believe that there is a more environmentally friendly restaurant anywhere.
Our 15-minute drive into the Miró Hotel enabled us to spend an hour in the Guggenheim Museum before dinner at a time of the day (the museum closes at 8 pm) and a time of the year when it was extremely quiet. Perhaps we were tired; perhaps we had seen enough for the day; but the consensus was that the building was more exciting than what was on the walls.
We then headed out for a dinner, a five-minute walk that brought us to Henao 31 and Restaurante Marinka, where 11 of us sat down to an unforgettable dinner. It was unforgettable because it was so simple, so straightforward, so unchanged from the places I had first enjoyed in Bilbao almost 40 years ago. In fact, it could have been one of those places.
Glass-fronted with a bar down one side: a bar counter stuffed with plates of pintxos; a TV on silent next to the bar; several tables opposite the bar; and at the back of the restaurant, the principal eating areas up and down some stairs. The walls were studded with oak barrels and the ceiling was a deep, dark brown.
What followed was a meal of the utmost simplicity. We began with plates of ham; moved on to plates of the most delicious anchovies; then came artichokes with clams; then a 'lazy Spanish omelette' with the eggs broken up, the potatoes even crisper; plates of local cheese; and then, for those who could manage it, a very sweet dessert. All washed down by a few bottles of Rioja Baigorri 2011. Then it was off to bed.
Hotel Miró, www.mirohotelbilbao.com
Restaurante Markina, www.restaurantemarkina.com