It was overcast when we arrived in Bruges.....and the place was crawling with tourists. I was scouring my photos to find one, but as is the norm we try to take photos without too many folks in them.
We arrived by train and walked up to the B&B we were staying at. Located on a quite side street whose name reminded me of a certain item I used to partake of during my (much) younger days. The B&B, named B Guest had but 2 rooms and was located so close, but not in the middle of everything. Upon arriving Caroline explained a lot to us, especially the part about needing reservations for dinner. On this evening it was a bit too late, but she was nice enough to get us reservations at a very popular, up and coming spot the next night.
We then headed out to find some lunch.....
A few blocks away from the Markt Square, things seemed a bit quieter and I saw a place that was on my list. We'd been having some hearty, but also quite hefty meals in Belgium; so this little Belgian/Spanish Tapas restaurant named Quatre Mains seemed just the thing for us. I wasn't sure we'd be able to get a table, but we arrived early and was given one of the two tables that weren't reserved next to the bar.
This was actually the perfect place for lunch on this day. The menu had a nice variety of classic and not so classic tapas. The Missus enjoyed a glass of wine.
And our cozy little corner was perfect. We had a nice view of the dining area which started to fill up a few minutes after we arrived.
We could also watch folks outside on the street. People watching is one of our favorite pastimes on trips. Soon enough it started drizzling.....
We ordered a small variety of items.
We started with the Smoked Eel and Red Onion.
The nicely smoked Eel with pungent red onions, crisp toast, slightly bitter cress, and crème fraiche was quite nice.
The beef tatare was excellent.
Tender, refreshing, very "clean" tasting.
The only item we didn't care for were the Shrimp Croquettes.
The filling was basically a curry béchamel which was a bit too gluey and much too salty for us. It just wasn't our thing.
The foie gras on the other hand was definitely "our thing". Mild in flavor, but very light.
We finished off with the Beef Cheeks; which was more like a stew, as the beef had broken down.
Regardless, the flavor was intensely beefy with a touch of sweetness...almost like a cross of carrillada (Spanish style braised beef/pork cheeks) and carbonnade flamande.
The service, like most places in Belgium was quite laid back and gracious. It was just the perfect meal on this day.
Quatre Mains Philipstockstraat 8 Bruges, Belgium
After lunch, it was time for a walk......and some chocolate shopping......
There is literally a chocolate shop on every block......and we bought from quite a few of them...for gifts of course.
Knowing the Missus...there was much more walking to do.
I had just finished what could perhaps be the best single bite I'd ever had. So how would the rest of our dinner at Azurmendi line up?
We were given several different bread courses during our meal. Our favorite was by far were the "steamed rolls"; yeasty, puffy, light as air. The olive oil was delicious, very grassy-peppery. Though the thing that the Missus loved the most was the stylish cruet. She would hunt for these in various shops, finally finding them in San Sebastian, only to shy away at the 60 Euro price tag. I think she'll be getting it next time.
The dish we unanimously enjoyed the least was the Oyster, Tartar, and Gelee. The seaweed tempura was very nice, but for some reason the raw oyster tasted a bit off and it was a bunch of mushy-gummy textures, with too much brine flavors going on.
The Spider Crab and Sea Urchin was a beautifully composed dish.
I'd been wanting a taste of Txangurro, the region's Spider Crab. Here it was sweet, with nice texture, but the Missus wasn't impressed as She declared the crab She grew up eating in Qingdao was much sweeter. The sea urchin is actually infused in a tomato "jus" and it works rather well, adding a nice briney flavor (think of it as the celery in a Bloody Mary). The two items did not go well combined as the crab flavor was totally cancelled out.
So this next item was simply called "Tomato and Eel"....three words....
Take a look at this dish! The pieces of smoked eel were just fantastic; they melted in your mouth with a very clean smoke flavor coming through. The "tomato" was quite a bite! I'm glad I ate it after the eel as it basically exploded, a huge burst of sour and tart flavor.
This one is called "Roasted Lobster Out of the Shell on Oil Herbs and Sweet Chives".
Let me just say; every single piece of seafood here was cooked to perfection. The lobster was just perfect....perfect. It was so perfect that it really didn't need all the pureed herb spheres...or anything else for that matter.
"Stewed Wheat with Farmhouse Milk Emulsion and Oxtail".......figure out what this would look like?
Basically wheat berries in a beef reduction, the milk emulsion tasted like a farmer's cheese, not sold on how it went with the dish. The most interesting thing was the little "bites" of oxtail wrapped in a layer of crisp bread.....sort of Azurmendi's Beef Wellington. The wheat berries seemed to play havoc with the Missus's stomach a bit. A bit too salty overall.
"Pigeon, artichokes, and fried egg".
Really nice, great textures, the flavors went really well together. Now think about this......this was basically the second egg we'd had during this meal so far......along with all the other dishes.
"Hake, Red Pepper Infusion, Idiazabal Bon Bons".
Oh my; that fish, the red pepper sauce, the sauce....even the milky Idiazabal cheese......all working together.
We were given a nice intermezzo to help us recover......
Along with some almond scented "fragrance".......which sounds cheesy, but aromatherapy, what fun!
Such drama on the table!
It was all to refresh and set-up the Foie Gras dish......
This was such a beautiful piece of seared foie gras....not a mousse, but actual foie. It was also quite large considering what we had already put away........this would have been enough for the both of us as part of a 3-4 course meal! I could tell that fatigue was setting in for the Missus.
I hoped that She would recover for the (4) dessert courses. The first being the Apple, Caramel, and Yogurt.
At this point, I knew the Missus wouldn't make it, so I called it. After two bottles of wine and all those courses....we'd had a fantastic experience and it was time.
This was also when Chef Eneko Atxa started coming around to each table.
He seemed such a rather soft spoken, humble, and amazingly youthful looking guy. When the Missus thanked him for all the hard work that went into our meal, he replied; "oh no......it is not work....it is a passion...from here" while touching his heart. I mentioned how much I enjoyed this:
And he went into detail, with times and temps of how it is made..........
Waiting for our cab back to Bilbao, I had a few moments to contemplate our meal at Azurmendi. Disfrutar gave me insight into molecular gastronomy with soul and how fantastically well service can be, skillfully paced, without being stuffy. Etxanobe displayed how a chef driven restaurant can use various traditional flavors and modern techniques together. It also displayed how a Chef's personality and presence can drive an experience. At Azurmendi, I got to understand, how a mission, combined with technique that does not disregard the heart and soul of the product would mean the "sky's the limit". While our meal here was by no means totally suited to our tastes, there were some items that we didn't enjoy, the "highs" were much higher than everywhere else. I believe that Azurmendi takes risks......not everything works for us....but those items that do...oh my, the reward.
I would easily say; this has been the best eating experience I've ever had. And that's what came into play when deciding between the 1-2 Michelin star places and a 3 star place....the experience. Azurmendi will give you that.....
Azurmendi Gastronomico Corredor del Txorierri Salida 25 Larrabetzu, Spain
Our cab driver was a rather serious looking chap. But as we entered the city he asked me, "how do you like?" I told him; "Euskadi is great and Bilbao is wonderful......" Which brought a big smile to his face. And I wasn't lying......
As we left Azurmendi, I was handed something........
It's the tasting menu for our meal. I took this photo right before starting this post. I still haven't opened it yet. Maybe someday I will........
For the crown jewel of our "trifecta" of planned dinners in Spain, I chose Azurmendi. Not because of the three Michelin Stars, but because of the set-up of the restaurant. The location is actually in Larrabetzu, about a 20 minute cab ride from Bilbao. The all glass building, designed by architect Naia Eguino sits on top of a hill via a single lane winding road, with wonderful views.
On the grounds sits a winery, greenhouse (more on that in a few), and the pret-a-porter, which is more of a bistro.
And it's not just the looks. The restaurant itself is totally sustainable; waste is recycled, rainfall is collected; I think the term is "harvested" and recycled, heating, cooling, and other energy needs is done using geo-thermal energy. It's own little eco-system.
For our blow-out meal; I wanted something special....heck, the Missus bought Valentino Flats and backpacked them for the whole trip just for this dinner! The Missus birthday had just passed a few days previous and I'd promised the Missus years ago that She'd never spend it sitting at home and it's a promise I aim to keep for as long as I am able.......we didn't want to be just sitting in a stuffy restaurant behind a white tablecloth; we wanted an experience. And that's just what we got at Azurmendi.
Arriving at the reception area, we were greeted and asked to wait for just a moment. A few minutes later, a young lady in Chef's whites greeted us with a smile. She explained that before dinner she would like to take us on a tour of the greenhouse area and also "forage" for some snacks....forage is used in the loosest of all terms.
The garden is so orderly that it puts our scraggly back yard pot and dirt collection to shame.
We entered the greenhouse and were given the first aperitif.
This is where the fun starts as not everything is as it seems. Beyond that, it is an impressive set-up. Like the rest of the place; very sleek, very clean, looking deceptively simple.
It is obviously not.....
The very nice young lady, a pastry chef, is from Italy. I asked her why she was here. Her answer, "I want to be and work with the best!" She had a great sense of humor as well. When I mentioned how good her English was, she was quick to tell me, "oh, but my Spanish is sooooo bad!"
She guided us around the greenhouse pointing out the various plants...often pointing out the little basket hanging; say, on a branch, loaded with what looked like tree bark. It would turn out to Jerusalem Artichoke made to look like tree bark with a citrus gel........a bit too strong and somewhat bitter for us.
So was the "peanut" made from peanut butter and cocoa with a pulverized dried mushroom coating. It struck me as somewhat odd in flavor and was quite salty.
And so we explored.........with stops for cotton candy and such.....
The best of the lot was the Pumpkin and Sheep Cheese biscuit, which was also kind of salty, but had a really nice flavor.
And this....the avocado pit, which was a delicious chocolate and liquid avocado (think guacamole) bonbon.
It can be quite overwhelming. Like when we returned to the reception area and were asked for a moments pause while our table was readied for us. And out came a picnic basket....it was time for a picnic!
It was Anchovy Mille-feuille....think of it as a anchovy flavored 'nilla wafer. Too much for the Missus, good for me! The roe and dill positioned on a cracker was again a bit high on the sodium scale for me. The most amazing thing was the "CalpiriTxa". We'd heard about Txacoli, the acidic sparkling wine of the region (we'd have our share in San Sebastian) and this was our first encounter. Azurmendi produces its own Txacoli and that is encased in cordial. It had that wonderful sweet citrus punch of a caparinha and was an amazing bite! Simply fantastic, perking up your tastebuds, leaving you wanting more......
Soon a small glass of an hibiscus infusion, tart and palate cleansing arrived.
Followed by a box of leaves? Leaves?
That's right, this is Azurmendi.....
The two "leaves" on the edges were made from walnut and mushroom, two disparate "earthy" flavors that worked really well in crisp form.
After finishing up, we were taken to the kitchen en route to our table.
The Chefs were hard at work....and they scared the crap out of me when they all suddenly turned and greeted us!
The décor of the room is simple, pleasant, and unpretentious, perfect for our needs. The service was excellent, timing perhaps not quite as good as, though more formal than Disfrutar...but all the basics were well taken care of. The Maitre'd; I believe his name is Jon was a joy. As was the view from our table.
Would you believe our table service hadn't even started yet? We chose a bottle of wine from Azurmendi's winery and things got off to a nice start with the Frozen Olive and Vermouth.
Spherification. We'd had the Disfruta de la Aceituna at Disfrutar, but this was even a larger explosion of flavor. The grassy, peppery olive flavors offset by the sweet vermouth....I'm thinking it would have even more intense if this wasn't still partially frozen.
That was followed by possibly the best bite I've ever had in my life....truly. They call this Egg from our Hens, Cooked Inside Out and Truffled.
I love the flavor of eggs, I love onsen tamago, truffle? C'mon, the earthy and savory flavors are among my favorites. Basically an egg yolk that has been infused with warm truffle broth, causing it to cook from the inside out. Oh my.........such wonderful flavors and textures, richness, savory-earthiness, all the best of both eggs and truffles. At the end of our meal, the Chef came around and visited each table. When I mentioned how amazing this one bite was, he told me how it was made in detail.....I don't remember it all, but I will never forget this. Never.
I'm thinking this is getting mighty long. I'll stop here and pick it up in another post.
While most of our stays on longer trips are in apartments. I try to squeeze in a couple of hotels along the way. The Missus really enjoys doing Her own thing, so I tread carefully.
Of course staying in hotels has it's perks; the amenities; the concierge, front desk, house-keeping, business center....even a "rock tower".....
The Silken Gran Hotel in Bilbao had that rock tower. It also served breakfast on the rooftop terrace.
Being the anti-social folks we are, we got to breakfast early and while there was a very mild chill in the air and a slight breeze, we sat outside.
It was more than enough for breakfast.
Heading out for the day, we of course passed "Fred".......who was starting to bloom!
And headed off, walking through Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar to the Bus Station.
I believe this is a memorial to Doña Casilda de Iturrizar.
We'd missed enough day-trip possibilities during our time in Madrid and Barcelona. To be fair, we'd been having too much fun. I thought it would be great to visit the town of Guernica. There were many possibilities, so why Guernica? During this trip, I'd been developing an appreciation for the works of Picasso. I had a chance to read about what is probably his most powerful work; Guernica. By turn, I had a chance to read George Steer'saccount of the bombing of Guernica.
The bus ride to Guernica from Bilbao takes about 40 minutes. We got off at the end of town and followed the "TI" signs.....which strangely led to the other side of town. It then took a turn and went back in almost the same direction we had arrived from....I'm thinking we missed a turn somewhere. Anyway, we arrived at the Tourist Information Office and the really nice woman provided a map and all the main destinations.
There was really just one thing I wanted to see and it was located behind the Gernika Assembly House.
The "Tree of Guernica", the symbol of freedom for Basque people resides on the ground behind the Assembly House. It is also depicted in the beautiful stained glass ceiling of the Stained Glass Chamber.
From times going back to the 14th Century, the Basque and other leaders would swear to respect the Fueros of Navarre, the charters that ensured the rights of the Basque people as an independent kingdom in union with the Spanish Crown. And though the Fueros was superseded by the Spanish Constitution, the President of the Basque Region - the Lehendakari are still sworn in under the tree.
The current tree is the fifth; each is a descendant of the original tree, planted in the 14th century. This little one replaced the previous tree in March of 2015 and is 14 years old.
The most famous; the "Old Tree" is located in the Templet a few yards away. It is quite popular with folks......
We also visited the Basque Country Museum.
The museum is worth visiting. There's also a section on the Chefs who have lead the moderm Basque food revolution.
Of course we stopped at the copy of Picasso's Guernica down the street.
It wasn't market day (which is Monday) so the area was fairly empty......
Except for the "old-timers" hanging out an socializing outside.
We walked back to the bus stop and caught the next bus back to Bilbao. Instead of going all the way to Termibus Station we got off...well somewhere in downtown. Somehow, we found ourselves back at La Vina del Ensanche. Now this was a Saturday and the place was packed....well the bar area was packed. There was possibly room for you....if you were a jamon hanging from the ceiling.
The tables though, were empty. Most had reserved signs on them...except for two. We asked and got one of the tables.
The Missus buoyed by the festive atmosphere ordered a "cava", sparkling wine....but not a glass....a whole bottle!
I ordered the Josellini - basically Joselito Jamon (here's the website in English, scroll down to the part about "Happy Pigs" - you'll love it), Foie Gras, with a sweet glaze on toast. Man this was good!
Rich, porky, sweet, salty, yeasty, crusty, creamy, and all of that mixed into one. I could eat this all day.....
We also got the regular order of the Carrillera de Iberico (braised pork cheeks) . The sauce was great mopped up with bread.
All while watching the ebb and flow of the crowds. The packed bar would start to thin out.....
Then wham! The next group of 40 people would walk in. This place has been around since 1927, so I guess this has been going on for 88 years.
Meanwhile, a family of a mom and three daughters sat at the table next to us. The youngest looked to be about 5-6, the oldest perhaps 10. When the foie gras mousse arrived, the three young girls nonchalantly dug into it and spread it on bread....like they eat this stuff every day! I turned to the Missus and said, "my god......they treat that like butter!" Her response? She turned to our server, pointed to the foie and said, "I'll take one of those." Which is how we had our second serving of foie gras during this "light" lunch.
It was quite good....nice and mildly liver-y and oh so rich......and I've been calling this "Basque Butter" ever since.
The Missus was having such a great time; She even ordered dessert.....
La Vina Del Ensanche Diputacion 10 Bilbao, Spain
Just like before, we had a rather hard time finding our way back to the hotel....not sure why. But, when we did get back, it was time for a much needed nap!
Waking refreshed after a short nap, we relaxed for a bit, then got dressed and headed off to dinner. While we were told that the best way to get to our destination; located on the top floor of the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall was to catch the tram. The Missus decided (of course) that we should walk. And in all honesty, it was a nice walk.
And of course we just had to stop and take yet another photo of the topiary canine, I nicknamed "Fred".
And while finding our way around downtown Bilbao was kind of confusing to us, this walk was a breeze. We walked through Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar, a very nice green space.
I read that Bilbao was once a rather gritty industrial port city and this park was once the only green space in the city.
And while we were just passing through, we had a great time watching Bilbao's four-legged citizens cutting loose.
I wish I took a photo of an amazing border collie. The owner was sitting on a bench and would whistle and the dog would come running and eagerly vault over the bench! We saw the dog do this, with great joy I might add, several times!
The Conference Center is located across the street from the west end of the park. Built on the former site of the Euskalduna Shipyards, it looks quite nice. Off to the right side are some rather discreet elevators.
Getting off the elevators, we realized, having left with a nice time "buffer"(the really nice folks at the hotel told us it would take 30 minutes - but it took us about 15), we had arrived for our already ungodly early dinner reservations (830), a bit too soon. So we just took in the view.......
We walked in right at 830 pm....the place was totally empty! Yikes.... A very nice gentleman in chef's whites greeted us, "hello...welcome.....my name is Fernando." And he led us to our table while the Maître D' was elsewhere.
The restaurant looks quite formal, but the atmosphere is far from that. We were given a nice table with a view and the really nice gentleman started up a short conversation...whereupon I put two and two together. "Fernando" is Fernando Canales Etxanobe, the Chef/Owner of Michelin starred Etxanobe. He was quite amiable and talked about the culinary "gifts" of the Basque region.
We had ordered the Chef's tasting menu and soon enough the first amuse arrived...delivered by who else, the chef of course.
I really didn't do much research on Etxanobe. In fact, I made reservations at pretty much the last minute; a week before leaving on our trip. I had gotten the feeling that it would be a nice addition to the two other Michelin worthy meals on the trip having a more traditional Basque influence. So imagine my amazement when these tubes of "lipstick" arrived....Sardine Lipstick actually. Very tasty sardine mousse, just enough oil and fish flavor, and quite delicious....so delicious that I don't even remember the other amuse!
And then things really got going......
Ajo Blanco is a traditional cold almond and garlic soup....this version had the amazing flavor of truffles as well.
The flavor of the almonds came through clearly, the truffle flavor was balanced and not over-powering. The garlic flavor was restrained and that olive oil-pesto like drizzle was delicious.
We let the Sommolier pick our wine, a very pleasant and drinkable three grape blend.
Next up was what they called a "Txangurro of prawns and gel".
More of a very shrimp-y croquette than what I understand traditional Txangurro is supposed to be, if you like the true taste of shrimp/prawns/langoustine you'll like this. Even the condensed flavor of the aspic.
One of the strangest sounding items on the menu turned out to be perhaps the best - "Anchovy Lasagna with Tomato Soup".
The tomato soup was basically a very elegant salmorejo, and in spite of the Missus dislike of anchovies; these were very nice, great oil, not too fishy...nice texture. Topped with a nice slightly smokey and sweet red pepper sauce which added to the dish. And then there was that really al dente, just pillowy enough noodle in the bottom which the Missus really took to. Without a doubt, Her favorite dish.
The "Grilled Scallops with Ragout" was nice....the scallops quite sweet and perfectly prepared.
The sauces were curious as I didn't think they added to the dish. Perhaps the cauliflower was the most interesting. Still, just the scallops with nice sea salt alone tasted the best.
The Scampi with Sautéed Vegetables and Fresh Pasta was a nice dish.
The scampi was very moist; the pasta nice and tender, good overall.
By this time, we were done with our bottle; I still wanted something to pair with the last couple of dishes. The sommelier told me the dishes would be a bit more flavor forward and suggested a half bottle of the Vina Ardanza 2004, a nice wine, with a nice acidity and dried cherry notes.
Though it did not pair well with the Hake in Mussel Juice.
While the gravy-like reduced shellfish juice was full of flavor; I thought the mild sweetness of the hake still came through. As expected; the fish was cooked to tender perfection.
When the Tuna with Sumac arrived, I wasn't particularly thrilled as it looked grey and "dead"......
I think they did a sous-vide job on this as it was so moist, literally melting in your mouth....the sumac really added a bit of punch to the dish. The spinach-mustard puree was fine; but this was all about the tuna.
The last non-dessert item was the Suckling Lamb with Sweetbreads.
For me; the most interesting thing was that thin and transparent potato galette, light, with the texture of fried pork skin. The lamb was very moist and tender and the demi glace quite tasty, but it really didn't have the "flavor of the pasture" we both enjoy.
I'm not much of a dessert guy; but I really enjoyed what we had here. The Caprice of Fennel, Strawberry, and Tomato added the right amounts of sweet, savory, and acid to balance things out for me.
If the thought of anise ice cream scares you; in this case it should not as the ice cream had those licorice tones (not my favorite flavor) but nicely balanced with the milkiness and sweet. The strawberry galette and the tomato crumbles really balanced things out.
By this time, the place was packed....every table and seat filled (there's actually a funny story about the folks on the table next to us which I'll reveal in a later post).
But then, Chef reappeared from the kitchen.
Apparently, if you ordered the Chef's Tasting Menu, the finale was prepared by the Chef tableside.
Orange Cream with Liquid Nitrogen...........I was in food geek heaven.
A dollop of orange flavored heavy cream placed in liquid nitrogen.......yielding flavors that took me back to "small kid time"......
Think of it as the best creamsicle bite you ever had...........
In the end, making comparisons with the other fine dining options we had meals at was like choosing your favorite child. While we thought the pacing and service at Disfrutar was better; the food here spoke to us in a different way. And while the highs weren't quite as high as what we had at a three Michelin Star Restaurant the next night; the lows weren't as low. This place really fits that gap.....not too crazy in terms of technology and familiar flavors. Plus, we really enjoyed the intangible....the chef. We asked for a copy of our menu to remember our meal. Our Server smiled and said he would get it for us. What we ended up with was a copy of the menu with a nice note from the Chef. A nice touch. When I got home I did a search on Fernando Canales and was quite surprised. He's a quite the television/celebrity chef in Spain with his own television show and such. So think about it this way; when was the last time you had Emeril or Mario Batali walk you to your table and talk about what they're serving......did they make your dessert table-side? What's up with these really cool Michelin Star Chefs? I got one flashing the peace sign and another seating us at our table....... In terms of price, it was about 220€
Etxanobe Avenida de Abandoibarra 4 Bilbao, Spain
We had a nice relaxing stroll back to the hotel taking the path along the Nervión River.
The "Nana's" were still dancing outside the Guggenheim.
The Arcos Rojos (Red Arches) really catches your eye at night. Bilbao seems to be filled with public art. If you'd like to read the story about this, here's a link
The Maman Spider looks really creepy at night. In a really cool way.
Bilbao was quite a fascinating city. If you'd like to read about how it evolved from industrial city to now (named the Bilbao Effect); here's a nice article.
For us, it was off to bed. We had a day trip planned for the next day.
Getting to our hotel in Bilbao, the Silken Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao was a snap. You land; grab a ride on the Bizkaibus (1.4 € per person) and get off at the first stop. Checking in at this Five-Star property is simple and befitting the rating. While there is a difference between European and American Five Star standards, you just could not beat the service here, or how friendly people were.
And then of course, there was the main reason I chose to splurge a little. The hotel sits right across the street from The Guggenheim Museum and what is my favorite topiary piece, Puppy by Jeff Koons. We just couldn't help but take a photo of it every time we walked by.
If the objective of art is to elicit an emotional response in oneself, this piece had it in spades for us. We still smile whenever we talk about, or see a photo of puppy......which I decided to nickname "Fred", a lovely 43 meter tall chia pet. Did you know that "Fred" once played part in a terror plot? You can read about it in this post on Atlas Obsucra.
The second thing we needed to do....after taking photos of Puppy, was to find something to eat. I had a few places on my shortlist and we headed off to grab a bite.
Perhaps it's the lay-out of Bilbao, or that streets emanated from plazas like petals on a flower, but for some reason we had a rather tough time finding places that weren't along the waterfront in Bilbao. Strange, Barcelona and Madrid were relatively easy....Bilbao not so much.
After literally going around in a circle, we decided to grab a cup of espresso and regroup. I knew the street we were looking for, Diputacion was very close by.
The folks in Bilbao and Basque Country in general are very helpful and friendly. And one of the locals pointed us down a street and gave us some landmarks to work with.
After a couple of turns we found the place we were looking for La Vina del Ensanche.
There's an outdoor seating area, basically restaurant service, the bar stacked with pintxos (tapas), for some reason we just never took to these. Rather, we usually went for a table and ordered pintxos calientes and items off the menu.
Our arrival was at an odd time; about 430 pm. We had dinner reservations for later that evening and just wanted something to tide us over.
It was fairly easy to make decisions.
A crianza for me; a tinto for the Missus.
And a couple of items from the chalkboard; starting with the "Huevo-Foie". Basically soft boiled egg and foie gras. This was decadent and delicious.
Perfect for bread dipping, wonderfully egginess, with the even more rich and savory flavors off a nice foie mousse. Could I have this for breakfast every morning?
Along with a small portion of Carrillera de Iberico; braised pork cheeks in a wonderful rich sauce.
This stuff is rich, so a little goes a long way. This was totally our kind of thing.....get used to seeing these dishes a lot in future posts.
La Vina Del Ensanche Diputacion 10 Bilbao, Spain
We somehow made our way back to the Guggenheim.....we used the phrase "donde esta el Guggenheim" several times along the way.
For us, the highlights of the Guggenheim (after "Fred" of course) were in turn the structure, an amazing building of flowing curves and lines, designed by who else? Frank Gehry.
The glass elevators are something else.
The "public art" like the famous "Maman Spider", Jeff Koon's Tulips,
And Niki de Saint Phalle's Dancing Nana's are quite wonderful. By the way, Niki de Saint Phalle moved to La Jolla in the 90's and passed away there in 2002. If you think this style looks familiar, you've probably seen her work around San Diego.
It seemed, at least to us, that the public art really over shadowed what was shown within the walls of the museum. Most of what we saw inside the Guggenheim really didn't resonate with us. Some of it was quite puzzling. We're probably just not cultured enough, I guess.
Displays, like the huge set of steel ellipses by Richard Serra named The Matter of Time, basically walking through the spiraled paths....I'm not sure what the message is?
Still, I'm glad we visited.......
We were really enjoying the vibe of the city to this point.....
We usually don't spend more than two nights at any location. The Missus is funny that way. She gets "tired" of places and wants to move on. However, I planned on three nights in Barcelona, and in retrospect, even this was too short. We could have easily spent a week, or more. On this morning we had tickets to the Picasso Museum and the Missus had determined that we'd be walking there.
At the end of the street is the Arc de Triomf, built as a main gate for the 1888 World Fair. It now marks the entrance of Ciutadella Park, which holds the Parliament Building and the Zoo.
We decided to stop and have some espresso before crossing the street and passing through the gate.
It's a nice green space, where locals and their dogs love to hang out.
We spent the time before our reservation itme walking the street of Barri Gòtic. It is by far our favorite neighborhood in Barcelona. When we return, this is where I think we'll stay.
We loved the Picasso Museum (sorry they don't allow photos). I really didn't appreciate Picasso until I saw his early works at the Prado Museum in Madrid. He was so talented at a young age; his father was an art instructor and professor at the School of Fine Arts, so Picasso was taught in the most traditional way. His early work really highlites his talent. The transformation from his early works thru his various periods, to cubism is amazing. I finally understood his famous quote: "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child."
At age 16 Picasso attended the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid. While there he visited the Prado Museum and among the works that made an impression on him was Velasquez's Le Meninas, which I was blessed to see myself. Which Picasso set out to interpret in only the way he can.
It also displayed some of the 40+ interpretations of the classic, an amazing amount of work. It just cemented my appreciation for Picasso. As far as I'm concerned, a must visit.
Picasso Museum Carrer Montcada 15-23 Barcelona, Spain
After visiting the museum, we meandered around Barri Gòtic, then into the Ribera neighborhood taking time to stop in at the Church of Santa Maria del Mar -the "Church of the Sea".
Completed in 1384, this is the only surviving church built in the Catalan Gothic style. The interior is pleasantly spacious and uncluttered.
Just a few blocks away is the waterfront and some of my favorite pieces of public art.
The Missus wanted to return to Barri Gòtic. She saw some shops that interested Her. So we headed back.
She found a shop that sold hand made sandals in the typical Spanish style.
By now we were getting hungry. We had enjoyed our previous visit to Bar del Pla and was just a block away, so why not? There was still a couple of items we wanted to try. Like before, having no reservations, we sat in the bar area.
The Missus had Her crianza and I had a beer. We placed our order.
That phone in front kept on ringing, folks walked through the door trying to get a table, or making reservations.
Meanwhile, I got to watch that flying pig swaying back and forth above the bar.
It was kind of relaxing in that "watching the aquarium" kind of way.
Of course we had to have the pan con tomate.....
Next up, the tasty and porky, Pork Cheeks.
Fork tender, porky, mildly sweet demi glace, this was nice.
This was followed by the House Foie Gras.
Ok, this is foie gras, seared, rich, they love their pine nuts.......a touch of sweetness, the wonderful flavor of pure fat. This was a triggering event for us. From this point on, we'd be having foie gras every single time we saw it on the menu. Every time......
The lamb "terrine" was interesting.
Like the pork trotters we had on our previous visit, this looked like a product of sous vide that had been seared. It was very tender and well seasoned, tasty though that flavor of the pasture we enjoy was quite muted here. Still, not a bad dish at all.
We enjoyed our visit to Bar del Pla and will definitely return when back in Barcelona.
Bar del Pla Carrer de Montcada 2 Barcelona, Spain
After our post meal espresso's it was time to head off. It was just past 1pm, there was much more to do......
After a nice lunch, we were off. The Missus wanted to explore Barri Gòtic and the sun started peeking out as we crossed Via Laietana.
We decided to enjoy the day and bought some water and headed back to Barcelona Cathedral. We had a seat and just watched Barcelona pass us by.
One quick note. In Barcelona, we noticed some distinct differences in pronunciation from Madrid. For instance, they call their fair city "bar-theh-LO-nah". I think some of the differences other than Catalan versus Spanish language thing is explained here.
After a brief respite we were back wandering the back streets of Barri Gotic.
This is where the city of Barcelona was established. We would find all sorts of hidden treasures in the winding back streets of this neighborhood. Everything from Roman ruins to charming plaças (squares) with a ton of history and numerous little shops mixed in. We just got lost in the maze of little streets and really didn't mind at all.
In Roman times, what is now Plaça Sant Jaume was the center of the Roman city of "Barcino". These days it is still an important square. On one side stands the Palau de la Generalitat - the Presidential Palace.
On the other side City Hall.
Since this was once the center of the Roman city, you know there must have be some Roman ruins somewhere. Right down a small side street (Carrer del Paradis). At #10 you'll be at the highest spot in the neighborhood, at the top of Mount Taber! Walking through the doorstep and you'll be quite surprised by the ruins of a Roman Temple. Not huge, just a few remaining columns, once forgotten then rediscovered in the 19th century.
Turning back down a little street you can't help but notice the Carrer del Bisbe Bridge which used to connect the the government building with the presidential palace.
Also along this area is the old Jewish Quarter where over four thousand Jews were forced to live down a tiny alleyway named El Call.
Also in the area is a peaceful little square named Plaça Sant Felip Neri. The little square houses the school of Sant Felip Neri and the church that bears the same name. Gaudi used to attend services at this church.
This pretty little square still shows the scars of the bombs that landed here in 1938 as the Germans at Franco's behest used Barcelona (and also Guernica) as a practice range for their air force. 42 people, mostly children were killed.
Going down the short alleyway back to Carrer del Bisbe we noticed this sculpture. During our visits to the Prado Museum in Madrid, we managed to view Goya's famous work; The Third of May 1808 which depicted the execution of Spanish citizens who opposed Napoleon's occupation of Spain during the Dos de Mayo Uprising. This monument memorializes those who were executed when Barcelona rose against the occupation. Inscribed on the monument is "por dios por la patria y por el rey" - for God, for their Country and King.....
By this time, the clouds were returning. The Missus thought it was time to head back to our apartment....by foot of course. For those who have visited Barcelona, think of it as walking to Sagrada Familia from Barcelona Cathedral.
It was actually a pretty nice walk as we chose streets at random making our way back to Avinguda Diagonal. We'd do a similar walk one more time the following day.
We took a break at a non-descript coffee shop where the Missus saw "Horchata" on the menu and was excited. No, this is not the rice and cinnamon drink we're used to here in San Diego. Rather, Spanish Horchata is made from tiger nuts, a tuber which has a nutty flavor. I stuck with an expresso.
Close to Avinguda Diagonal, which actually splits Barcelona in half diagonally on Passeig de Sant Joan we saw this beautiful church.
It wasn't marked on our map, which we had gotten from a booth since the only person that met us at the apartment was the building manager, so we were on our own when finding maps, directions and such. looking at the board in front of the church we learned this is Església de les Saleses - Church of the Salesians. It is the work of architect Joan Martorell i Montells who was one of Gaudi's teachers and introduced him to Eusebi Güell (remember Park Güell ?).
We made our way back to the apartment. We showered, freshened up, and decided to stay in the neighborhood for dinner. Not in the mood for a typical restaurant we headed to an interesting shop named Típic i Català. Located a couple of blocks down and one street over on Carrer de Sicilia, this little shop sold wine, cheese, craft beer (!), and other food products from Catalan.
The shop also serves up charcurterie. local cheeses, matched with wine, along with other chalkboard items.
It's more of a wine shop with some tables, then a tapas/wine bar.
This sounded great so we ordered the cheese and wine and the charcuterie and wine....which did take a while, but the gentleman working on this day, who is Belgian, it is his wife who is from Catalan, was very nice.
He really didn't explain much, but perhaps we should have asked more questions. Overall, this was fine but nothing special. Still, he was very nice and it was a good, light meal.
Tipic i Catala Carrer de Sicilia 290 Barcelona, Spain
Taking a walk around the area, we came across this shop.
We decided a bit of Jamon would be a nice snack.
The woman working here was really, really friendly and nice. We didn't see any bellota pata negra, so got their highest grade jamon.
The flavor was nice, perhaps a bit too salty. It was just cut way to thick for us, taking away from the texture.
Charcutería Simón Carrer de València 392 Barcelona, Spain
At the end of the evening we resumed the usual routine, I was relaxing in the living room, going through photos. While the Missus had started planning for the next day. We had reservations for the Picasso Museum, but after that; well it was all to the Missus....
As the Missus predicted after dinner at Disfrutar, I needed to get my rest because we did quite a bit of walking on this day. The Missus wanted our first stop to be Park Guell. Most of the instructions I'd read on getting to Park Guell was to either take a taxi, bus and taxi, or metro and taxi. But you know the Missus, there would be no shortcuts, we'd be walking up that hill to Park Guell. The morning was nice and cool, so the 30 minute walk didn't seem too bad; even the hill.
An interesting thing we quickly noticed were that many street corners in Barcelona are chamfered, these 45 degree cuts at the corners make the space seem larger as the streets widen at intersections. We loved the feel; though it would never fly in the states since the crosswalks are moved off the corners. I can just imagine folks here grumbling about having to walk the extra 10 feet.
Park Guell will undoubtedly elicit a response. Like it or not, you never forget the place. From your first look at the "Main Entrance", actually the exit on this day......
The park is something to see....whimsical, fanciful, .....whatever the colorful (hey there's another one) adjective you'd like to associate with the place, it is without a doubt unforgettable.
From the Grand Stairway with the Dragon Fountain; the Dragon is one of the symbols of Barcelona, though this one looks more like an iguana to me. Which leads to the Hall of Columns and the back story of the park. You see, Antoni Gaudi, backed by Eusebi Güell, the park's namesake who purchased the land, designed this to be an upscale housing development. The area with the pillars was to be a market to cater to the 60 planned mansions.
The plan was not a success since folks didn't want to move all the way to this "remote" (at the time) location.
It is said that Gaudi took much of his inspiration from nature. Walking through the "Portico of the Washerwoman" really emphasized that for me. The columns are not uniform, but somehow create an irregular harmony that is pleasing to the eye.
Visiting here early in the morning is recommended. Much like Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, you'll have a better experience and time to contemplate, and appreciate this unique park.
There is an entrance fee for this area called the "Monumental Zone", but it is well worth it.
The highlight is without a doubt the Terrace and the view of Barcelona. On a overcast morning like this with rain in the forecast, there was a Tim Burtonesque - Walt Disneyfied - Dr Seussificated, fairytale feel to the whole place. You may be inspired to flights of fancy, like Mr Selfie-Stick in the photo on the right. The Missus worked hard to get a discreet shot of the guy, who was obviously "inspired" by the sheer comfort of the multi-colored, ergonomically designed bench which wraps around the terrace. After all, what else could move a seemingly normal adult to act like this?
Only Park Guell.......
Groups of visitors had started arriving, so we knew it was time to leave. We exited, walked down the hill, and headed west. Somehow we got onto Passeig de Gracia in the Gracia neighborhood and headed down the street, which was a small street that became a multi-laned deal. It was pretty much by accident that we came to Avinguda Diagonal, which we became more familiar with later, running straight into Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera, a study in Modernisme, designed by who else? Well Gaudi of course.
I'm not sure if you noticed something about the name Gaudi. Doesn't it sound a lot like "gaudy"? And I don't think it would be much of a stretch to think of his works as being somewhat gaudy. I was told that Gaudi's name was indeed used as the source for that word. But after returning home I did a bit of research and found it's an urban legend as the word was used before Gaudi was even born. It would make a heck of a good story though, huh?
Where Passeig de Gracia ends, Barcelona's Old Town begins; at Placa de Cataluñya.
Of course beyond the wide open space and the fountains, we found the "Pigeon Lady" the most fascinating feature......
Las Ramblas, one of the most popular streets, actually a series of streets starts right off Placa de Cataluñya. The center of the street is a pedestrian only zone with cars that pass on either side.
It is without a doubt the most tourist dense area we saw in Barcelona....full of all the folks who make money off tourists, souvenir hawkers, street performers, and pick pockets. It was a bit too crowded and full of tourists for us. The buildings crowding each side didn't help. It was not our favorite part of Barcelona. While we found Puerta del Sol in Madrid lively, though crowded, Las Ramblas just seemed packed and lacking in atmosphere....in a Waikiki kind of way. We did return later when the weather was better, but still felt the same way.
Still, I wanted to check out La Boqueria Market, which turned out to be quite a nice collection of (rather pricey) food stands as well as functioning as a food hall.
Catering to tourists and locals alike.
After a nice walk around the market we headed back out. We'd had enough of Las Ramblas for now and decided to duck out. We took a side street and ended up at Placa Reial, then moving onward into the Barri Gòtic, the Gothic Quarter, ending up at Barcelona Cathedral.
And past Barri Gòtic, the area known as El Born, with atmospheric narrow streets, buildings with laundry hanging off lines on pulleys from windows. You'd enter a small street and end up in a quaint square or an alleyway full of bars and restaurants.
I realize that this is currently one of the hippest, up-and-coming areas within Barcelona, and tourists flock here in droves to visit the Picasso Museum (which we would do the next day), but the place still seemed to have the feel of a local, residential neighborhood. Which really charmed us.
There was a place in the area, basically right across the street from the Picasso Museum...well more like across the street and down the alley; just look for the "Udon" sign; really.....
The name of the place is Bar del Pla located right off Moncata in the opposite direction of the Picasso Museum.
I love the atmosphere......though getting a "real" table pretty much takes a reservation, the phone is ringing off the hook for bookings. The seating in the bar area does just fine and is first come, first served. We loved the "flying pig" hanging over the bar.
I started with a beer, the Missus a "tinto" and we proceeded to order. One of Catalonia's signature food items is "pan con tomate", tomato bread. So we had to order it here. This was delicious, the best version we had during the entire trip. The bread was decent, though not outstanding, but the tomato tasted like the essence of summer sunshine.
How something so simple, can be so satisfying when done right is amazing.....
The Missus wasn't sure about me ordering the "Smoked Sardines Coca" (8.3 €).
She needn't have worried. This was a nice combination of flavors. A "coca" refers to a Catalan style flatbread and this crisp piece of bread was topped with some very moist and tasty lightly smoked sardines, pine nuts (which they love here), mango, and red peppers. It was such a nice combination of flavors and textures.
The Tripe Stew was passable, well prepared and tender, though we'd have better later on.
The dish named "Mr Pork Trotters" was divine, though listed under "Granny's Cuisine" on the menu, I'm fairly certain the wonderful flavor and even texture was due to sous vide.
The texture was so evenly tender; on the edge of falling apart, but still able to keep form. The rich flavor so prevalent...more pine nuts! Personally, I love all that connective tissue, but this was so velvety, so smooth, so nice for a place with a simple "tapas" sign outside.
Having had two beers, I needed to end the meal with an espresso. After all, we still had a whole lot of walking to do.
Bar del Pla Carrer de Montcada 2 Barcelona, Spain
I'll leave with this sign......of Gaudi's "Dragon" being defeated by a piranha. It always makes me smile.
So what do you get after the defacto "Best Restaurant in the World" (could there really be such a thing?) closes and three of the Chefs de Cuisine (Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas), with over 45 years in the hallowed kitchens of the restaurant decide to collectively open up their own place in Barcelona?
You get Disfrutar, which opened at the end of 2014. When planning for this trip, I decided on three upscale dinners and Disfrutar was one of them. We took the metro to the Hospital Clínic stop which is just a few blocks from the restaurant.
The restaurant looks fairly small from the outside but the dining area is actually quite large. We had arrived at about 8pm, pretty early in Spain, but were relieved to see at least two parties had arrived before us. Being led to our seats, the Missus had a stroke of genius....She asked if we could sit at the bar instead, which is actually the dessert prep area. We were cheerfully accommodated. Like Suzunari and Wakuriya, sitting at the bar watching the food being prepped with precision and skill is a treat.
Also a treat was the service, which we found unpretentious, relaxed, gracious, well paced, knowledgeable, and very pleasant. We enjoyed the service at Disfrutar the most of all the high end places we visited on this trip, which says quite a lot. All questions are answered with enthusiasm and recommendations are made as to the best way to enjoy each dish.
There are two tasting menus each evening; the Menu Disfrutar (68 Euros) about 19 dishes and the Menu Festival, which is 25 (98 Euros). You know which one we chose, right? The serving style is perfect for us; almost family style. The Sommelier, understanding our taste in wine, made some great recommendations, which paired well with our meal.
Enough you say....where's the food? Anyway, here's the deal. I don't want this to be bedtime reading, so I'll try to keep it pretty straight, short, and sweet from here on. I'll highlite our favorites and those we didn't care for as much.
Things started with a foamy Melon Caipirinha, Liquid was poured into a cup of ice, yielding something that frothed up and was nice, with the jellied melon-mint-salt cubes rejuvenating your tastebuds.
Our first bottle of wine.
Our Server brought us what looked like a bowl of black rice. He shook the bowl and up rose "The Beet That Goes Out of the Land".
The balls were light and crisp, the flavor of intense beets coming through. The Missus, who has several times told me; "I hate molecular gastronomy" was sold! This is what I call soulful transformation. We were actually shown how this was made. A beet meringue was created, then dehydrated.
Crispy Bow with Iberican Bacon.
Crisp strand of what was like chicharron with a sticky, thin, slice of jamon on it.
Another flavor explosion; Caramel coated hazelnuts with elderberry.
Another great dish for us; Tomato Polvoron and Arbequina Caviaroli.
A polvoron is basically a shortbread cookie; the texture was similar to that, but with a wonderful deep tomato flavor; a "cookie that spreads edible sunshine", the olive oil caviar, a product of spherification added the fantastic grassy-peppery flavor of good Arbequina Olive Oil.
What I was told is a classic El Bulli dish - Transparent Pesto Ravioli.
Made from oblate film, the stuff folks use to help them swallow meds, is used as a wrapper for pine nuts and basil. It is dipped into a parmesan jus, the wrapper starts melting and basically melts away in your mouth. Nice flavors of pine nuts and parmesan.
Another favorite of ours; from what I was told later another classic El Bulli item; Disfruta de la Aceituna.
Spherification at work again. Two cocoa coated "olives", one contains a concentrated olive flavored liquid, the other a blood orange concoction. Amazing and intense flavors that just explodes upon breaking the cocoa butter crust.
Smoked Idiazabal Cheese Bisquit with Apple.
Looking all the world like a simple cookie with frosting; the creamy unpasteurized goat cheese, with a nice smoke flavor was a surprise. The tart cider aperitif helped balance things out.
Next up, an amazing dish; Crispy Egg Yolk with Mushroom Gelatin.
Think egg yolk tempura; crisp and light on the outside, soft and oozy when you bite into it. It's a fabulous bite. The eggshell holds a mushroom gelee that was full of savory mushroom flavor.
Seafood and Avocado Merengue sandwich.
This was a bit fishy and rich, the Missus could only finish half of this tiny flautas.
For some reason we didn't take to the overly salty and fishy anchovy part of Anchovy and Almond Mato with Truffle, Fir Tree Honey, and Pine Nuts.
Too many strong flavors and textures. This just didn't seem to go together real well.
The Missus was really worried about the Marinated Oily Fish with Cauliflower Tabbouleh and Mushrooms. First, She's not a big fan of mackerel and also not fond of strong parsley flavor.
So this was a wonderful surprise for Her, the fish rich, not too fishy, tender, the oil negated by the acid and the savory mushroom jus. The tabbouleh was delicious, the cauliflower seemed the perfect foil for the parsley. This was delicious.
In turn we weren't wow'd by the Macaroni Carbonara.
Gelatin based noodles, parmesan and pancetta were combined with a parmesan-truffle foam, which became the sauce. The "noodles" didn't break down quick enough and the texture was like eating plastic.
The Vegetable Sashimi served as sort of an intermezzo, we loved the pure flavors of the vegetables combined with the sauces/seasonings each one was graced with. Those tomatoes were amazing and the combination of cucumber with mint just worked right.
The Scallop Marrow with Osetra Caviar was fine....this really reminded me of swordfish bone marrow, which I actually prefer to this. I thought it needed less salt and a bit more citrus or acid.
Mussels with Peas in Salsa Verde.
Asparagus in Fennel Meunière with Trout Eggs.
The trout eggs added the zing to a rather mild dish. For some reason we didn't enjoy the flavor of white asparagus with fennel.
Deep Fried Monkfish "Ssam", I'm guessing from the Korean Bossam as this came in the lettuce cup.
Loved the fry job on the monkfish, the flavor came through, it was moist, a perfect piece of fried fish.
We both thought the Unilateral Langostine was a bit overcooked for our taste.
But man, the Perigueux Beef was amazing.
You wrapped the slices of beef around a little crouton and foie gras and had the perfect bite(s).
Nice meal, eh?
But it wasn't over yet.
You know I'm not a dessert kind of guy; but man, some of this stuff was plain amazing. The photo above is of the "Tangerine", a frozen tangerine rind which bears a granite, rose jelly, and a parfait.
Chocolate Cheesecake Cornet
That's Catalan Cream Bread, which came with Blood Orange Couscous.
We saw one of the Chefs placing what looked like chili peppers on a plate. We had no idea what it was. It turned out to be my favorite dessert item; Chocolate Peppers, olive oil, and salt. Man, what a combination! The sea salt really brought everything together. Like I said, I'm not a dessert guy, but this was really, really good. This was the perfect whimsical, fun, but delicious dessert.
As for our after dinner coffee? Well it came in the form of Coffee Profiteroles. A nice way to finish dinner. And though it seems to be a lot of food, we weren't stuffed to the gills, which I think is a tribute to the pacing of dishes.
As we finished up our dinner, our wonderful Server told us to follow him and took us on a short impromptu tour of the kitchen. The place was packed with customers greeting their dishes with wide eyed anticipation.
When I quickly mentioned the skill it takes to make these dishes, his answer came quickly; he pointed to his heart and said, "we are always reminded, it must come from here." Ah, a perfect end to an epic and wonderful meal. One of a trio of unforgettable experiences. We will not forget you Disfrutar, as you are unforgettable. Might be the best 250 Euros I've ever spent.
Disfrutar Calle Villarroel 163 Barcelona, Spain
Heading back to our apartment, we decided to take a walk around Sagrada Familia, which looked quite beautiful without the swarms of tourists around.
The Missus turned to me and said, "ok, we've had a great dinner. Now we're burning it off tomorrow!"