This is a guest post from a friend of mine that lives in Bilbao. She loves food, so I asked her to give me the lowdown on what her hiria had to offer. Read more about Kit's adventures in Spain on her blog.
When I first arrived in Bilbao, I let what the guide books had to say discourage me a little. Rookie mistake.
Let me explain: pick up almost any Spain travel guide book written for Americans and flip to the section on Basque Country. Now go to the sections on “where to eat” in Donostia-San Sebastián and Bilbao. Or, alternatively, go to most websites in English with suggestions on where to eat in Basque Country. This is usually what you will find:
San Sebastián is heaven if you enjoy eating. Here is a list of several dozen bars and restaurants that will serve you perfection on a plate.
If you go to Bilbao at all you must visit the Guggenheim museum. We guess you will need to eat something so here are some places where you can eat cheap. Also, don’t expect anything much more involved than a piece of fish on top of a piece of bread if you go out for pintxos, because buster, it’s not happening. What did you think this was, Donostia?
The guide books are lying to you. The websites are lying, too. Not about Donostia being a culinary paradise - that’s true - but about Bilbao, living in the shadow of its gastronomic giant of a neighbor and rival city, not having much to offer in terms of thoughtful, creative dishes.
Now, let’s be clear, I enjoy a good piece of fish on top of bread. That is a classic and - as far as I can tell - Bilbao has never been accused of being unable to produce simple classics done right. But sometimes a girl wants something a little more involved: perhaps a pintxo on a plate instead of bread, maybe even plated with some thought and dressed using a squeeze bottle.
The first place to convince me that Bilbao is not, in fact, limited to the simplest varieties of pintxos was Bitoque de Albia. I first ordered fried mollejas de cordero - lamb sweetbreads - which were tiny nuggets of goodness served with a warm, frothy tximi-txurri (a Basqueified spelling of chimichurri).
Then there was nothing discouraging about Bitoque’s “Bikini de rabo,” a tiny oxtail sandwich resting on “aire de cebolla,” literally “air of onion” but more of a puree. This arrived, dramatically, on top of an (emptied) sardine tin that was filled with hot wine so the steam came out in a spooky fog around the food. You dip the sandwich in the accompanying shot glass of roasted red pepper soup and immediately realize that this dish is not relying on its drama to sell - it’s delicious.