Monday, January 14, 2008

Hating Bilbao

Amanda and I hate the midst of the beautiful Basque countryside it is like a giant cold sore: huge apartment complexes, heavy industry, freeways shooting all over the place with obscure exits waiting to trap the unwary into even more obscure suburb/ghettoes.

And the downtown....nice river, nice museum....but a crazy quilt of streets and roads that instantly has even an experienced traveller and navigator driving in cirlces and loops in a maze of one-way car traps. Traffic lights every block that stay red forever with no other traffic or pedestrians in sight. Oh....and no parking......and few street signs.

The people are busy and cold. Shopping is a perfect picture of hell.....the best department store has low ceilings, another maze of obscure cash registers, and packs of aggressive grannies with NHL quality elbows. Oh.....and nothing fits American bodies. Oh, everything is crazy expensive. An American $100 bill is worth about $60.00 Thank you, Mr. Bush.....and your Strong Dollar Policy. Thank Jesus the idiot did not go for a weak dollar.......

Our little oasis in all of this madness is the Iturrienea Ostatua: a second story pensione in the heart of the Casco Viejo....the old city. It is run by Igones, an artist/beatnik straight out of an art movie in the fifties....beret and all. She fills the place with idiosyncratic old antiques and art, serves a sweet breakfast and is concierge to all of Spain. We can call her from Barcelona and she will make reservations or argue with some bureaucrat from across the country.

Our crazy schedule called for arrival in Bilbao at 8:15; rent a car; drive into town and check in with Igones......shower and change and walk to Zortziko for dinner at 10:00....... after 36 hours without sleep. Crazy.

Even crazier: it all worked. We strolled into Zortziko four minutes late.

We booked this crazy dinner because Amanda loves the wine steward, Mikel. Last year we had to kill a day in Bilbao waiting for luggage and randomly booked a dinner at Zortziko for something to do. Mikel brought us a wine he liked and proceeded to open, taste, describe and pour it in a little ceremony that reduced Amanda to tears. Mikel is 22, and loves his job so muich that he generates a force field of happy competence worth flying 30 hours to experience.

We did not see him when we arrived. Amanda figured he had moved on to the big time in Barça or San Sebastian. He seemed way to good for such a quiet little place. The maitre d' opened our wine, and gave a nice speech.....but it was a pale imitation of Mikel. Eventually, we asked about him..... and sure enough he came bouncing out from the cellar. Seems he had been promoted to doing all the ordering and actually running the cellar. A year older, twenty pounds heavier....good suit....and now a man, not the cute boy from last year.

He told us about his promotion, and that he had won a competition for the best wine steward in Biskaia....the state. He goes on to the national finals this month. No surprise at all to us.......

So......for any is the menu. 80 euros per.....once about $50, now $120 each in the Buish Era.

Rabo de buey envuelto en frutos secos crujientes
(In Mexican Spanish this would mean "the dick of the idiot in crusty nuts" Spain it is a kind of local lobster tail encrusted in almond dust).

Croqueta langostino con arroz inflado
(A crispy fried croquette, covered in puffed rice, with another kind of lobster liquid that melts in your mouth when you bite it).

Mejillon de roca con golpe de aire de mar y lechugas de mar
(A cocktail of rock mussels with sea foam and crispy, see-through fried sea lettuce).

Esparragos asados, borrajas, vegetales, y leche de Almendra
(A warm salad of baby green and white aparagus, borage flowers and almond milk).

Carabinero a la plancha sobre verduras salteadas y hugo de su Coral
(A kind of local prawn grilled on iron with perfect tiny cubes of fennel, carrot and potato in an amazing sauce made from the shrimp coral).

Chiperon a la plancha sobre pan negro, foie liquido y galleta de arroz cruhiente de su tinta
(Iron grilled baby calamari over crispy black bread in a foie gras bath, garnished with a rice cookie shaped like the squid tentacles that was flavored with the ink of the squid.).

Pescado a nuestro estilo sugun el capricho del mar
(Salmonete, served with a razor thin slice of perfectly cooked roman bean, strawberry essence and cauliflower purée).

Presa de Iberico asada al aceite de Arbequina, oregano sivestre, jugo de naranja y zanahoria y risotto al Parmesano
(Loin of Blackfoot Iberian pork, grilled; Arbequina EEVO, wild oregano, a carrot/orange reduction and Parmesan risotto).

Granizado de Manzana con crema de queso fresco y membrillo
(Apple granité with fresh cream cheese and quince jelly)

Croqueta liquida de Castana con frutos del bosquee
(Liquid chestnut croquette with wild nuts).

Bizcocho de Pinones
(Traditional Basque almond cake, but made with pine was so light and gorgeous, with a perfect glossy glaze that I knew it was not made by a man.....too much time, patience and attention to detail for such a humble and subtle result. Sure enough, Maria is the pastry chef.)

Last year the food was ehhh......we came back for the Mikel experience. This time the food was close to spectacular, and very very good with no clangers.

Before leaving we asked to see the kitchen, and Mikel proudly showed us the whole place: display kitchen for the chef's TV show and private demonstrations, the cellar, and the immaculate kitchen. The cellar had Mikel's certificate from winning the State championship. I noticed his last name: Garcia......hmmmm, same as the chef.

It turns our cute, bubbly, hardworking wine steward who just got a hard won promotion is the son of the chef.....and Maria is his aunt. A full on family operation. Mikel glowed with pride and such joie de vivre that we were swept out onto the streets of Bilbao on a wave of enthusiasm.

Damnedest thing.....the river glowed, the streets sparkled......the bridges lined up ever so, flanked by beautifully lit golden buildings.

Suddenly it was Paris......

Gracias, gave us a great meal.....and the gift of a city.....


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