A pint-sized sketch of Pintxo-ville
If the Basque city of Bilbao is a voluptuous art gallery, then its little neighbour San Sebastian is surely the sophisticated muse.
In this elegant seaside ville, where blazer-clad gentlemen sip beer from sherry glasses and their coiffured women-folk gulp local the local wine,Txakoli, from morning to night without so much as a hiccup, some of the greatest artistic splendours of the region can be found. Whilst it is true that Bilbao houses some of the world’s finest modern art at the Guggenheim (Richard Serra’s formidable, if nausea-inducing installation ’The Matter of Time’ at this sitting) and at its own impressive Museum of Fine Arts, the Basques are out to impress with their original creativity on the groaning counters of the tiny pinxto bars that surprise tourists at every corner.
Brits, for all the nineteenth century Gothic architecture across the city’s sandy beach that oddly reminisces Bournemouth, beware. This is not Ready Salted Crisps and Pint of Ale territory. Cross the fusion of Barcelona with the rich aesthetic of the French Riviera, and you might begin to tingle with the sensory overload which the Basque brain and mighty appetite have conspired to craft. A tourist is a mere victim to the inspired modern splendour of the pint-sized treats. We soon realised it would be insulting to resist Spain’s north-westerly temptation.
Take Zeruko(Calle Pescadería 10), just as an example. Sea urchins lie intriguingly sliced across a plate by the gilded gold artichokes, stuffed generously with foie. Baby elver eels fill a tequila glass like elfin strands of spaghetti, pierced with a yolk gelled with tapioca on a stick.
Piles of Serrano ham are draped across crusty, oiled bread and the wild mushrooms of the season are splashed artistically across a perfectly round fried quail’s egg. Mushrooms on toast will never taste the same again. Tiny splatters of morcilla (blood pudding) are coated with pistachios and jam, like an Arabic treat. Hot, griddled scallops are lined over fluffy bread rounds, and a steak sandwich arrives, freshly seared across caramelised mushroom, launched towards the burning anticipation of the worker from across the street who is grabbing a quick lunch. Dessert, the Bob Limon, is a Heston Blumenthal-esque creation of an air sponge, surrounded by a lemon mousse that resembled a fluffy egg, the yolk being fashioned by the orange skin of an apricot injected with a sweet jus that seeps out as you crack it. A homemade blackberry licorice rounds off the treat, and we walk onto the road, giddy with the excitement brewed in this den of culinary magic.
The path to walk off the feast was lined with fat anchovies buried under papaya at Bar Txepetxa, pumpkin-stuffed ravioli soaked in a rosemary foam and a creamy chanterelle risotto spoonful at Astoria 7, a cinema-fuelled hit of a hotel which also offered the most originally presented patatas bravas we have enjoyed, and groaning counters of gratinated scallops, roasted pepper and anchovy tarts and other bread-based treats at Bergara in the trendy, residential neighbourhood of Gros.
We still had no way of knowing, however, that A Fuego Negro (31 de Agosto 31) would reduce us to tears with their mini-Kobe beef burgers, their txitxarro sashimi and their mini-doner kebabs that brought shame to vans everywhere across Europe. We could not know that the bakaloo enkarboo would be roasted cod set across smoky pepper seeds, and that the friendliest service would ensue if we could say thank you in Basque, rather than Spanish (ezkarrikasko, if you are wondering) and we could not know that the off-season faded Belle Epoque glamour of a town that feels more French than Spanish could leave us longing for still more.
Luckily, then, Bilbao has the tuna and lamb skewers, and langostines wrapped in finely shredded potato curls at Panko (Marqués del Puerto 4), all chewed over in the packed company of a local crowd. Fortunately, for Bilbao, Las Cepas (a wine bar so recently opened on Juan De Ajuruaguerra that the paint was still wet) offered us the creamiest arroz negro (squid-ink risotto rice topped with the crunchy,crispy squid tentacles) and all the melt-in-the-mouth albondigas (meatballs) that its artistic visitors could flick a paintbrush at.
Dali, Goya and Picasso would be punch-drink proud.
November 25th 2011