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.
This objective; at least on this leg of the trip was to have what many consider the best and undoubtedly one of the most coveted beer in the world, Westvleteren 12. I'd already tried a bottle in Antwerp and really didn't care for it, but there's nothing like having it at the source, which is the Abbey of Saint Sixtus. Our destination was the village of Poperinge, close to the Border of France. It was an interesting train ride; most of the folks got off at Ypres, the stop before Poperinge, probably touring WWI battle sites. We got to the village and found our way to the hotel. Our room wasn't ready, so we dropped our bags off. We asked about renting some bikes. Saint Sixtus is about 4 miles from Poperinge and other than driving, the bicycle made the most sense. Unfortunately, it was the weekend and all the rentals were closed......however, the really nice guy pulled some strings and we got our bicycles and instructions on how to get to Saint Sixtus.....along with the typical, yet somewhat ominous "you can't miss it!"
So here's the deal; the Missus recalls with such nostalgia, of riding Her bike around Beijing while in High School and College....everyone rode a bike it seems. It was such a big part of Her youth that She and I really looked forward to this. However, there was one interesting twist to all of this. I hadn't ridden a bike and even when I did, I never rode it very much, since I was in Elementary School. To put things into perspective; the last time I rode a bike Gerald Ford had just become President of the United States. Soon after getting the bike, my Mom had to sell it to buy groceries and pay bills.
Remember that old adage, "you never forget how to ride a bike"? Well, it's mostly true....I did pretty well; only falling three times..... The Missus had thought this was going to be a hoot until She saw a guy laid out and in pretty bad shape after crashing his bike in Ghent. Now She wasn't so sure....until She got on the bike. I swear I hadn't seen such a look of pure joy on the Missus's face since we first brought Sammy home. It was pure bliss for Her....meanwhile it had started raining and I was chugging along.
She would stop on occasion and take photos of the beautiful farmland while I caught up; "hurry up...hurry up....you're so slow...."
The fellow below seems to be asking me; "well, who's looking like the jacka$$ now?" After all, it seemed like the hardest part of this whole bike riding thing was getting started and...well, the other real important part.....stopping.
Eventually, we saw a little sign pointing down a side road which said "Saint Sixtus".....heading down thru the fields of hops, this area produces 80% of the hops for Belgium, we eventually came to the Abbey of Saint Sixtus.
And here we were. One quick note....this is Trappist Beer; brewed in a real Monastery, by real Monks. This is not the Stone Brewery Tasting Room and Restaurant, if you know what I mean. You can't taste beer here....you can order cases of Westvleteren, if you're lucky enough to call and make an appointment and drive to the Abbey to pick-up your beer at the scheduled time. You have limit as to how many beers you can order and from what I heard even provide the vehicle license plate number.
Unless you need a case of Westy; I'd suggest going across the street to the café owned by the Abbey; In de Vedre.
I was actually relieved to be able to park the bike and have some liquid refreshment.
The interior is quite large, very comfortable, the staff was efficient and welcoming.......
And yes; there's Westy on tap. We started with the 12 and the Blonde.
So, is the 12 the best beer I've ever had? Hard to say; I did like it, it's a quad, 10.2 ABV, but not unpleasantly boozy. There's some spice and chocolate tones and I like the "texture" as it rolled over my tongue. It was a zillion times better than the bottle I'd had. The blonde is nice; yeasty-grassy, with mild fruitiness. The Missus enjoyed the blonde but the 12 is not Her thing.
We both enjoyed a nice snack; the House Pate made with Beer....man, it was delicious.
We were probably hungry which clouded our thoughts, but man that bread was really great as well.
For dessert, I got the Westvleteren 8; which I enjoyed more than the 12. It was less boozy, had that wonderful texture and head, a bit more hops to it, and almost a bit of burnt candied sugar in my mind. I'm far from a beer snob; but this was really good.
As I was working on my beer; folks started arriving. Many of them little groups of folks on biking tours....probably biking-beers tours?
The gift shop was also doing some major business. You can buy bottles and smaller packs of Westvleteren Beer in the Café gift shop......if you're lucky. We saw four folks run out of a mini-van and charge into the gift shop looking for some "Westy to go"......
In De Vrede Westvleteren, Belgium
We made it back to Poperinge without incident. It was the weekend and traffic was quite sparse. The Missus decided we should "park our bikes" instead of returning them....just in case, you know..... We found that our room was actually a couple of blocks from the hotel. It was quite a nice room....very comfortable.
Sometimes there's no phrase more beautiful than "shower and a nap"......I was fairly soaked from the rain on the bike back from the Abbey........and in need of a nap as well.
After the nap.....guess what? The Missus wanted to ride somewhere. So we headed off in the somewhat opposite direction from Westvleteren to Watou, which was a pretty sleepy little village.
Now, Watou is a village of about 2,000 people....but they are also known for....you guessed it....a pretty famous brewery; St Bernardus. We had thoughts of visiting the brewery, but instead decided just to stop in one of the cafes.
The Missus wanted something light so She had the Watou's Wit Biere which is produced by Waotu's other brewery Brouwerij Van Eecke. Very easy to drink, citrusy, quite light.
I had a St Bernardus Watou Tripel.
Nice texture, a bit sweet....but not in the same class as Westvleteren......that's fairly immediate.
After our visit, we made it back to Poperinge without incident....for some reason, I did hit a curb and fell....but it was flat on my back so no harm was done. It was starting to come down again as we got back into town. We returned our bikes and passed this bar named.....San Diego! Go figure......
For dinner, I decided on a café in one of the hotels around the main square named Cafe de la Paix.
The place was fairly quiet........a few parties of what seemed like locals arrived...the Staff knew them all.
It was coming down pretty hard outside, so we were glad we made it here without getting soaked.
Upon being seated we were brought an amuse....which we both loved......meat in an aspic, chilled and refreshing. I suddenly recalled reading about a local dish called Hennepot.
I wanted something a bit lighter after all those high ABV beers I'd had during the day; so I went with a Omer Traditional Blonde.
On the way to dinner we passed a beer shop....in the window was something that caught the Missus's eye...in a very strange way. She loved the label......with this Nun on it. She described it in a fairly particular way. Looking over the beer list; I mentioned that they had this beer on the menu......so when the Server came over the Missus excitedly told him, "I'll have a SLUTTY NUN!" He raised an eyebrow quizzically and I ordered the Poperings Nunnebier......sigh.
I'll let you decide about the Missus's description......
So the nice woman working here came to take our order and we had another funny encounter. The Missus was famished and actually wanted some meat for a change. So She asked about the sirloin; whether it was grass fed, where it was from.....you know. The woman laughed and pointed in a direction and said, "our cows live there....and you ask so many strange questions." It's a different way of life, food is not the commodity stuff shipped thousands of miles away......sourcing locally is not an advertising point, but the way things are here.
Meal came with meh frites (man, this was Belgium...I expected more) and a nice salad. The beef was cooked a perfect medium, a bit more tender than I expected, considering it was grass fed, and full of flavor.
After our amuse; I just had to have the Hennepot....I was told it was rabbit, chicken, and veal, though it all had pretty much the same texture.
Not everyone's cup of tea I'm sure, but the gel/aspic on this makes the dish. I'm told it's one of the oldest local specialties. It's tangy, sour, and so refreshing. It was 90+ this morning when I started this post....I'd have loved to have this for lunch today.
Cafe de la Paix Grote Markt 20 Poperinge, Belgium
It was indeed a fairly rainy day......
But our room was nice a cozy and had that appliance we had so many times on our trip that we actually bought....a Nespresso. So we enjoyed our short stay......
We awoke to a serene Sunday morning in Ghent. After a nice cup of coffee we headed off for a nice morning walk through the formerly run down, but now gentrified neighborhood of Patershol, past where we got off the tram the previous day near Gravensteen Castle.
We just kind of wandered around following the few folks out walking in the morning.....
We crossed over St Michael's Bridge.
And found a small Sunday Market in the square in front of St Michael's Church.
For some reason we were lucky enough to run into a flower market in Kouter Square.
It was a charming market....full of bright flowers.
And smiling folks, just taking in the flowers, the sunshine, having a nice morning coffee from one of the stands (there's even one serving oysters and champagne!). It's these little happy mistakes that makes travelling so wonderful.
We soon saw a band warming up in the bandstand.
So we did the local thing; we had a seat on one of the benches and listened to the band.
We soon saw a family of five looking for some seats; so we waved them over and took our leave.
While listening to the music, I had gotten an idea. Why not just stay in for dinner? So we headed back to the little market in front of St Michael's Church to do a bit of shopping. The riverfront was starting to awaken on this sleepy Sunday morning.....
We made a few purchases and then headed back to the apartment; taking the long way, joining all the folks enjoying the river front.
We did see one guy who had taken a pretty bad fall from a bicycle, but he looked ok, so we kept on going. Arriving back at the apartment, we took a nice little break, more coffee, a shower to freshen up...then the decision of what's for lunch....a rather early lunch (11 am). I decided that we should head down the two blocks or so to Vrijdagmarkt and see what was open.
There was a rather nice looking place; white tablecloths and all, named Brasserie Savarin that was open for service.
Since this WAS Belgium...anytime is a good time for a beer.....
The Missus had a Tongerlo Blonde; sweet, quite foamy, fairly non-descript.
I ordered the Ommegang Keizer Karel Charles Quint - A Belgian Strong Pale Ale.
Mild hops, a bit different from what I had gotten used to, a bit "clovey"....quite a bit of head.
I had read that in Ghent they use thyme and the different beer creates a different flavor....not sure; this one was pretty much what I'd had before, honestly, not quite as good. The beef was on the drier side and the "gravy" not as strikingly flavorful.
The frites were just ok......I was still searching for some great frites in Belgium.
Things were much quieter at this time for the day.......
Which gave me a chance to take a good look around......
The Missus got a really nice Geuze from Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen. Floral with citrus tones; with a nice funk, fairly light and very pleasant.
I got the house blonde, light, pleasant, and easy to drink.
Dulle Griet Vrijdagmarkt 50 Ghent, Belgium
We then took a leisurely post lunch siesta......a very under-rated and appreciated event.
Before dinner, we got back out and took a walk.
The one place I do regret not visiting in Ghent was St Bavo's Cathedral; it was under going some restoration when we were in town. I understand the artwork and altarpiece are quite stunning. But I mostly wanted to go to see the statue of someone near and dear those who know a bit about the history of Hawaii; Pater Damiaan; more commonly known as Father Damien who was born in Belgium. I'll make sure to visit next time.
Dinner was simple affair.......chicken wings and some cheese.
We'd end up buying cheese and carrying it with us for the rest of the trip.
Taking our post dinner walk we found that even on a Sunday night the Groentenmarkt was a happening place.
We really enjoyed Ghent and would miss this town. We stood and just soaked in the sounds and sights before heading back.
As we got back to Vrijdagsmarkt we were suddenly possessed and had to make a right turn back into Dulle Griet! For one last beer; the missus had Her Duchesse De Bourgogne and I a Leffe Royale. A nice end to our stay in Ghent.
The next morning we would be off, taking two different trains, in search of what some consider to be the most coveted and best beer in the world......
Having put away a couple of beers, we thought it would be a good time to grab a bite to eat. We headed back up to St Bavo's Square. Right next to the Dutch Theatre is a brasserie that was recommended to me for typical Ghent style Flemish food named 't Vosken. The place was pretty crowded; though most of it were tourists having beer on the patio.
The menu did indeed have some dishes we were interested in.
I started with a Palm Royale; fairly sweet, apple/pear thing going....not too boozy, pretty light and easy to drink.
I ordered the House Rabbit; which came which was a nice braised rabbit. The sauce was obviously beer based and it reminded me of carbonnade.
The rabbit was decently tender and the dish came with frites (not very good) and apple sauce which went well with the rabbit.
The Missus chose Ghent's signature dish, which originated in this city; Waterzooi. 't Vosken only serves the chicken version. The dish really looks strikingly different from other Belgian type braised and stewed dishes we'd had so far.
The color comes from the combination of egg yolk and cream used to add texture to this broth.....it was originally a very simple stew, I was told that "waterzooi" basically means to "boil in water". The Missus really enjoyed this.
We finished up with a Rodenbach Grand Cru.....a favorite of mine with nice stone fruit flavors that we love in Flanders Reds. The Missus loves Her Flanders Reds....
‘t Vosken Sint-Baafsplein 19 Ghent, Belgium
Lunch was fairly heavy so we walked back to apartment.
There was quite the shindig going on at the Groentenmarkt and band playing, folks having drinks....notice the singer in the band is using a "cheat "sheet"!
One of the vendors had this beautiful looking dog......
When I bent over to pet her, she turned over submissively.....so she got a nice belly rub....
After our nap, we headed back out. We'd be eating in that evening, but decided to take a pre and post dinner walk. By this time the day trippers seemed headed back to Brussels or Bruges......
After returning and having our dinner....cheese, bread, and some charcuterie we headed back out and had a nice walk. The Town Hall was lit up nicely. The building itself is kind of odd as it looks like several buildings of distinctly different styles were grafted together. Somehow, in Ghent, it just seems to work.
The Belfry and the Dutch Theatre looked quite dramatic at dusk.....just like a movie set.
And that party at Groentenmarkt was still going strong. Different band, but maybe, the same folks were still hanging out?
On the way back, we stopped in at what is probably the Missus's favorite bar in the world; Dulle Griet.
A combination of locals and tourists, this slightly dumpy and divey joint, with somewhat grumpy staff and a beer list of over 250 was just the right fit for us. We just felt at home.
We quickly noticed that there were several people walking around with only one shoe on. Apparently, if you order a "max beer", which looks like a liter, you need to leave a shoe as collateral. It is then hoisted in a basket to the ceiling. To prevent folks from stealing the glass perhaps?
I guess once you pay your tab, you get your footwear back.
And then there's our infamous "Duchesse" experience. The place had Duchesse De Bourgogne on tap, the Missus's favorite. So we ordered it....well, we tried to order it. The woman kept going "huh?" So I showed her the beer list and she went "oooohh, Doo-Chezz....doo-chezz....ha-ha-ha-ha, snort, snort." She then pointed us out to the other server and they giggled and snorted, I guess we were the big joke of the night. Anyway, this was the best "Doo-chezz" I've ever tasted....slightly pruney, balsamic like tones...the temperature was perfect. Much better than what I've had back here in the states....even on tap. We'd noticed that something is lost when beer is transported.
My Bornem Trippel seemed so mild in comparison.....
We loved this place.......even though we were now known as the "Doo-chezz" couple.
If you'd ask the Missus and I what our favorite city in Belgium was, the answer would be unanimous. It would be Ghent. Unpretentious and quite easy to like and navigate, not quite as touristy as Bruges, we loved the vibe that this city of 250,000 gave off. Ghent is but a 40 minute train ride away from Brussels. And like Bruges, Ghent has those wonderful canals as well.
It's just not crawling with all those tourists......
And a strange thing happened to us here....in a way, we even forgot we were tourists. That part of the brain which dictates the places to be and the places you need to see got shut off. Instead, we just enjoyed the city. From the time we caught Tram #1, getting off near Het Gravensteen (The Castle of the Counts), walking to our apartment near Vrijdagmarkt, we felt so at ease.
The city is full of "market squares". Indeed, we were staying one block away from Vrijdagmarkt - Friday Market Square. Having stowed our stuffs, we headed out, down the street to Groentenmarkt - Vegetable Market, which ironically has the ever bustling Meat Market right next to it.
The interior of the structure is quite impressive; the place was built without nails, and hams still hang form the ceiling......this was once the only place in the city where meat was allowed to be sold. These days it's a bustling restaurant.
Right across the way is this famous shop.
Tierenteyn-Verlent is known for their mustard and has been selling it since 1790. I read that it is still made in the basement of the shop.
It's some heady stuff. Guaranteed to clear those sinuses and quite good as well. We bought a small jar, but it cracked before we got past Bruges.
Luckily, I've got some great friends and Candice bought us a bottle when she returned from her trip to Ghent.
Tierenteyn-Verlent Groentenmarkt 3 Gent, Belgium
We were having so much fun that I totally forgot to take photos until we were close to City Hall. Along the way there's a little portal and a street; Werregaren Straat, walking down the alley, the faint smell of urine in the air, you'll be on "Graffitistraat" - Graffiti Street.
This is Ghent's solution to Belgium's strict laws on graffiti; it is basically illegal and the penalties stiff. Ghent has designated this street as an expression free zone for Ghent's graffiti artists.
Most of the grand historic structures in Ghent are in the area of Saint Bavo Square.
In retrospect, we should have been better at playing the tourist, but we were just enjoying the city.
South of this area, down what seem some rather small streets is Ghent's shopping area, full of interesting shops. We saw this one; named Kaas Mekka.
This was cheese heaven. We couldn't help but purchase some for our next two dinners.
Kaas Mekka Koestraat 9 Ghent, Belgium
Exploring further down the street we started coming across crowds of people....apparently there was some kind of major sidewalk shopping festival going on.
A very festive kind of vibe going on.......even a band or two along the way.
It looked like some folks even brought their own chairs and sat outside restaurants and bars....enjoying the sun and a nice beverage (and a nap?) or two.
It was in the area right across the river that we found the first spot I wanted to "hit". We were on the hunt for chocolates for my MIL and I'd heard some great things about a shop named Yuzu.
This shop is the result of former archaeologist Nicolas Vanaise's passion for Japanese and Middle Eastern Culture and chocolate. The flavors presented are a product of his travels. This was by far the best; and most interesting chocolate we bought on this trip.....flavors like Whiskey and Cuban Tobacco.....
Yuzu Walpoortstraat 11 Ghent, Belgium
This made a nice addition to the "collection" we put together for my MIL.
Right around the corner from Yuzu was another one of my target destinations. Even among the beer-focused Belgians; Gruut Brewery is unique. Before hops were used for beer making, a mixture of spices were used instead. This medieval mix was called gruut; the namesake of Gruut. Annick De Splenter is the owner and brew master here.
The place looks quite low keyed from the outside, but was quite busy. There was one large table of folks who were obviously on a "beer tour" and each beer was introduced and explained to them in detail. Meanwhile other folks were reading, chilling, just hanging out, and having a nice time.
We basically tasted everything before deciding on what we really wanted. My favorite was the Amber; which had some caramel tones, and a touch of sweetness. The beer has a really nice tongue coating texture and there is even a mild bitter finish so you're not really missing the hops.
It was a nice beer and we ended up buying a four pack to take with us back to the apartment.
Two ambers and two of the Missus's favorite.
The Blonde, which was very drinkable, light, fizzy, with an interesting herbaceous finish. Nice beer for a hot summer day....I'm kind of wishing for a pint of this today since it's been really humid here in San Diego.
They gave us a couple of Gruut Coasters when we bought our beer.
One quick thing. If you visit Gruut and are male, make sure to drink enough beer so that you'll be able to visit the restroom. The urinals are quite "unique".....
"Feed me, Seymour - Feed me all night long........"
Gruut Stadsbrouwerij Grote Huidevettershoek 10 Ghent, Belgium
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.....