Monday, 14 July 2008

The Guggenheim - Art You Can Eat

Any restaurant located in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao starts out in life with a small advantage:
The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
OK, so it's not the only one - there's C5 in Toronto, Papadakis in Athens and The Wharf in Sydney. Even in my home city of London there's Foliage, Galvin at Windows and the Skylon. But I've never enjoyed the stunning panoramas at any of these... whereas the other week I had the great pleasure of a meal in the Restaurante Guggenheim Bilbao. What a location... and what a meal!

Although the restaurant's formal name is the Restaurante Guggenheim Bilbao, the management refers to its fine dining establishment in communications as 'el restaurante gastronómico', having lost numerous guests later found wandering in the Guggenheim Museum's other eateries - Cafetería Snake, The Terrace and El Bistro. But a permanent change of name would not be advisable, as a web search on "Restaurante Gastronómico" could send even the most experienced and well-travelled gastronomes off on a wild goose chase to Andorra, Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, Madrid, Tarragona, Juan-les-Pins, Monaco, Málaga and several points beyond. No use looking the place up on the Estrellas page of the Michelin Guide to Spain & Portugal as, for some reason that I cannot begin to fathom, The Fat Man has yet to call despite widespread excellent reviews and Gault Millau having awarded it as many as 16 points three years ago.

Head Chef Josean Martínez AlijaHead Chef and rare legume expert Josean Martínez Alija is a culinary master. Once a protégée of Martín Berasategui alongside Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, El Bulli-trained Alija was developing his skills at Martín Berasategui's eponymous restaurante in Lasarte-Oria in 2000 when he won the 6th Spanish Championship for Young Chefs at Lo Mejor de la Gastronomía in Donostia-San Sebastián. Five years on at The Guggenheim - having been showered with accolades in the interim - Alija, together with Berasategui, published La Cocina del Restaurante Guggenheim de Bilbao and last year the Basque Gastronomic Academy awarded him the honorary title of Best Cook of the Basque Country.

Frank Gehry's multi-award winning futuristic building offers the perfect host for a restaurant with avant-garde artistic decor in typically Basque fashion. I expected to be stimulated by my surroundings, but was unprepared for just how comfortable I found the place and for the warm feeling it generated from the moment I arrived. In contrast to my experience at Mugaritz the previous day, the service was impeccable from start to finish. Strong communications between front of house and back of house were self-evident, with wine and food deliveries to the table timed perfectly. I felt totally relaxed and taken care of, with waiters always paying attention, but not at all imposing - just keeping an eye out without making it the slightest bit obvious. The time delays between courses were very comfortable and the observation of bread consumption and its replenishment was nothing short of brilliant.

Having decided that the 7-course "Creation" tasting menu would be a bit excessive for lunch, given I'd undertaken an 11-course dinner the previous evening, I settled for the 5-course "Sensations" menu. First to arrive was the complementary snack, which was a small plate of elegantly arranged deep fried green chillies. The waiter explained that the chillies laid in front of me were a hybrid variety created from a cross-breed of guindilla with another type, the name of which still escapes me. The upshot of this experiment, he explained, was a special chilli variety in which one in every so many is fiery hot. Of course it's impossible to know if you'll get a hot one or not, so the fun here was in the suspense.

Cream of "Cara negra" cheeseNow to begin the menu proper. First up was cream of "Cara negra" cheese with capers, herb sprouts and croutons – a wonderfully light and subtle cheesy dish that was both elegant and clever. The acidic capers worked perfectly to cut through the creaminess of the soup, and the combination of the herbs with the croutons delivered a clever array of crunch textures. This was not dissimilar to the complimentary dish I'd been served at Mugaritz the previous evening - also a light, subtly cheesy "soup" with a selection of accompanying herbs for texture. Cara negra, by the way, is a rare breed black-headed Basque sheep from Caranza, currently the subject of a recovery program and listed by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity.

The liquorice roasted aubergine dish that followed was truly wonderful. Intensely dark purple aubergine contrasted perfectly with a magnolia-coloured emulsion of yoghurt and olive oil (using a thousand-year-old variety of olive oil made from Farga Aragon olives, also Slow Food listed). It was a very simple dish - literally just these two components. But here the Guggenheim succeeded where Mugaritz had failed, because this simple dish was executed perfectly. The elements were individually flawless and, most importantly, they worked perfectly together in terms of taste, texture and colour. Faultless!

"Casarecce" pasta with rosemary, Joselito ham stock and parmesanThe pasta dish was a masterclass in gastronomic simplicity. Handmade "Casarecce" pasta, deliberately cooked slightly "under" for normal tastes. In my opinion the chef who cooked the pasta was either a genius or extremely lucky, because it was cooked to the point of perfection. If I were in the kitchen myself, I wouldn't have taken the pasta out of the water a second earlier nor left it in a second later. "Al dentissimo" was the word used by the woman on the table next to me to describe it. The Joselito jamón ibérico stock that was served with it was of perfect salinity and acted as the sauce to lubricate the pasta as well as a soup to moisten the palate. And the dish was completed with a contemporary flourish with the parmesan foam, which did what it said on the tin, so to speak.

I conversed with the waiters on various occasions, enquiring about certain aspects of the dishes. They were incredibly well-informed about every aspect of every dish I asked about. We discussed some dishes in fine detail and they were knowledgeable enough to offer their own informed opinions in every case.

Dish four on the menu was veal muzzle confit on a bed of thyme breadcrumbs with garlic & spring onion. Despite the recent emergence of a better understanding of veal issues with The Good Veal Campaign and the availability of compassionately-farmed veal in the UK, I still have a major problem with this meat so I'd enquired about the possibility of a substitute dish when I first perused the menu. My request was, as I would expect of a restaurant of this standing, not the slightest problem. But what really impressed me was that a waiter quietly suggested that I might care to correct my courtesy copy of the menu, offering both a pen and a description of the substitute dish so I could strike out the unwanted course and enter a description of the alternative in its place. Now that's what I call service!

Iberian pork pieces as a "stew"The Iberian pork pieces as a traditional "stew" with wild herbs jus, honey and marinated potato was a delight. The crackling was just perfect - wonderfully crunchy and fatty without being at all heavy. The meat melted like butter on the tongue, because it had been sous-vide cooked at 58°C for 36 hours. And the wild herb-infused cooking liquor served with the dish made a sublime sauce. I was surprised to be told that the potatoes had been marinated and cooked in mango and passion fruit juices, but it actually worked very well indeed - the exotic sourness that emanated from the bright yellow potatoes cutting through the rich pork perfectly. It wasn't something I would ever have dreamt of doing, but by God it worked.

Once again, the waiter was very attentive and keen to describe the dish and to discuss it with me. I can't over-exaggerate just how good front of house was and what a huge difference this made to the enjoyment of my meal. As chefs we often consider ourselves to be the superior class of animal in the house - one of the reasons why so many chefs fail when they move on to become restaurateurs. It's not a mistake I intend to make when I eventually open my own establishment.

Given the obvious limitations of a five-course menu, it was inevitable I suppose that the dishes would take on a fairly traditional arrangement. But it was interesting that the running order of soup, starter, pasta, meat and dessert contained no fish or seafood - unusual in my experience for any menu degustación but even more so for a restaurant in maritime Euskadi. With a strong accent on meat, vegetables and cheese, the Guggenheim menu was something I'd associate perhaps more with Basque inland and Navarrese mountain and valley cooking than with the classical fare of seaside Bizkaia.

Chocolate with coffee ice cream and hot marzipan sandDessert was a rich chocolate thing that was a bit like a mousse but had the texture of a flan filling, almost like a set egg custard or a bavarois. It was made from 90% cocoa solids, and you knew from the very first mouthful. It was wonderfully rich, but also very light - not at all cloying or heavy. The accompanying quenelle of coffee ice cream had good flavour. It sat on a bed of "hot marzipan sand" which, although I'm not very keen on marzipan, was actually quite pleasing and gave the dish really good texture.

The final course was a complementary post-dessert dish, but I must admit that at this point I was in such a state of bliss that I completely missed the description of what it was. Strawberry was the principal flavour, and it was also garnished with a small piece of the fruit.

At €62 plus tax and service, this was very good value for money. Quality ingredients were prepared using the utmost care, precision and lightness of touch. The kitchen at Restaurante Guggenheim is clearly run by people who love food and know how to treat it, and this really showed in the eating. Chatting with my waiter after the meal, it was nice to see that he was so genuinely pleased by my compliments. I had nothing but praise both for his service and for the food - literally had not a single thing to criticise on either account. As a foodie destination, the whole environment was just right. This was honestly one of the most enjoyable meals it's ever been my privilege and pleasure to experience.


Lizzie said...

Great review! Glad to hear you had a better experience here.

Jerry said...

I've eaten at C5 - great views, wonderful food. It doesn't compare to the Guggenheim though! *smile*

mbuitron said...

Great blog! I wish I came across it before my trip to Barcelona this summer! Though I did get a chance to dine at el Bulli, it would have been great to get some advice in Barcelona!

Jeanne said...

Oh I'm so jealous! The Guggenhein Bilbao has been on my list of buildings to see for the longest time. Even more thrilled to see there is a fine restaurant within! The food counds fantastic, particularly the cheese "soup" and the pork.

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