Posted by: acooksca | 09/16/2016

Pintxos in Bilbao

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Pintxos at Ekain

We are in Barcelona at a corner bar. Locals drop in on their way home from work for a drink and a salty snack, often a small roll with prosciutto or the classic tapa: a toothpick stacked with pickled peppers, anchovy and a green olive. In Zaragoza we join the nightly stroll between plazas, cafés and bars. One place is slicing locally produced prosciutto, chorizo and cheese. Across the tiny plaza a tavern crammed with bull fight memorabilia features 20 single-bite preparations of seafood such as crisp fried cubes of lightly pickled fresh shark. But when we tell people our destination is Bilbao they consistently say we will find great tapas there, known in the Basque language as “pintxos.”

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The bar at Gure Toki

Bilbao is the capital of the Spanish Basque region. During the past few decades Bilbao abandoned its industrial past, became a European business hub and revitalized its heritage neighborhoods. The iconic Guggenheim Museum is a magnet for visitors but Bilbao has a wider spectrum of arts and culture to share, including modern Basque cooking. There are hundreds of cafés and bars in the compact, elegant city center. Each displays pintxos on the counter from early morning to well beyond midnight and people drop by for a sip and snack at all hours.

It is a balmy Saturday evening in the Plaza Nueva and we join the open-air cocktail party progressing from bar to bar for glasses of beer, red vermouth or the refreshing local white wine called Txakoli. We wander between bars checking out their counters until we find two where the pintxos selections explode with variety, innovation and freshness. At Guri Toki we have paper-thin slices of oyster mushroom with sautéed greens topped with foie gras on baguette. There is a tower of fresh potato chips layered with foie gras with quince puree. Minced mussel and cuttlefish empanadas. Pedron peppers sautéed with sea salt. And an excellent selection of wines by the glass. At Ekain Bar we order spicy morcilla blood sausage in a fanciful filo purse, a crouton mounded with minced shrimp and an impeccable local prawn, a version of bacalao a pil pil (a classic Basque salt cod preparation) so gently poached in olive oil it seems barely cooked.

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pintxos, small and large plates, day or night at Victor Montes

Plaza Nueva, built in 1851 in the neo-classical style of open first floor arches around a large central square, is easy to spend lots of time in. On Sunday morning a farmer’s market under its shaded arcades occupies parents while children delight in caged songbirds for sale. We meet up with friends at Restaurant Victor Montes for lunch. We order Txakoli, a red wine from the nearby Rioja district and plates to share. Plump white asparagus comes to the table in a very light olive oil and confetti of fresh peppers. There is a salad of young greens and silky-textured tuna belly. Crispy lamb sweetbreads, slabs of chilled foie with blackberries and a wooden plank of wonderful cured meats. When the tab comes it is another treat of the Spanish Basque Region… less than half what we would expect to pay in The Bay Area.

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Breakfast like the locals at Cafe Iruna

Before heading up the coast for the seaside resort of San Sebastian we stop for breakfast at the venerable Café Iruna (est. 1903). Sitting at the bar we sample the standard breakfast pintxo… a slice of bread smeared with fresh crushed tomatoes and prosciutto. We also order a bocadillo with ham and anchovies, a fluffy pie of eggs, mushrooms, tuna and potatoes, 2 cappuccinos, 2 glasses of fresh o.j. and 2 croissants. With tip, our bill is 10 Euro (about $11.25).

It may not be easy to get to this beautiful corner of Spain but once you do, finding something fun and tasty will not be a problem.

Gure Toki – 12 Plaza Nueva   www.guretoki.com

Ekain – 10 Plaza Nueva

Victor Montes Restaurant – 8 Plaza Nueva   http://victormontes.com

Café Iruna – Jardines de Albia  http://www.cafeirunabilbao.net

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