Bilbao + Basque Country Restaurants
31 de Agosto
Tel: 34 650 13 53 73
San Sebastián's old town is best known for its pintxo bars (the Basque version of tapas), and with at least one on every block, competition is stiff. For the last few years, the bar drawing the most praise is A Fuego Negro (Black Fire), which serves up a selection of classic pintxos with a twist that goes hand in hand with the part bar, part art exhibit interior. Expect un-pintxo flavors such as mole, liquorice, mint, or ras al-hanout. The most popular dish is the Kobe beef burger served on a ketchup-infused bun with a side of banana chips. For dessert, choose the spilled marijuana planter where the plant itself is actually a green sugar cookie and the incredibly realistic spilled dirt and roots are made of chocolate.—Guy Fiorita
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 12:30 to 4 pm and 8 to 11 pm.
29 Calle Lehendakari Leizaola
Tel: 34 94 428 0039
Chef José Miguel Olazabalaga serves up some truly inventive creations in this angular, glossy wooden box of a dining room. Foie gras is wrapped in a thin skin of smoked bread, served with a gelée of salted cherries and arugula mayonnaise; grilled squid are drizzled in pumpkin and almond cream; and Iberian pork comes with black rice and a sunflower-seed turrón (like nougat). If you haven't the time or inclination to try the full seven- or nine-course tasting menus, you can simply order à la carte.
Open Mondays through Saturdays.
22 Barrio Elexalde
Tel: 34 94 456 0050
Entering this converted Basque farmhouse, set next to a 13th-century church in the small town of Galdakao—about a 15-minute drive from Bilbao—feels like stepping into a storybook. After being seated in the dining room with its beamed ceiling and embroidered table linens (or, weather permitting, the porch with its view of the mountains), you'll be greeted by a waitress in a traditional bonnet and apron. Chef Isidro Arribas's six- and ten-course tasting menus give you a chance to try a variety of traditional dishes, like marinated bonito served with garlic oil and tomato bread crumbs, or a fragrant, smoky, roasted choricero pepper that comes with a fresh anchovy. You can also order à la carte.
Mon.—Thurs. lunch only. Fri. and Sat. lunch and dinner. Closed Sundays.
Museo de Bellas Artes
Plaza del Museo
Tel: 34 94 442 4657
The name means "above the trees" in Basque, and this glass-walled restaurant atop Bilbao's Fine Arts Museum really does feel like a sort of gustatory tree house. Chef Aitor Basabe's dishes are refined but still accessible: Pressed Ibérico pork loin comes in a rich, dark garlic sauce, while his seared bluefin tuna is topped with macadamia shavings and "faux wasabi," made with a purée of spicy guindilla peppers and fresh shelled peas. The inventive desserts include balsamic-vinegar ice cream (much more delicious than it sounds), and the first-rate wine list has an impressive selection of port.
Closed Mondays. No dinner on Sundays.
273 Avenida Alcalde José Elosegui
Tel: 34 943 278 465
For foodies, a visit to this Michelin-starred cathedral of haute cuisine is a necessary pilgrimage. Juan Mari Arzak (who runs the kitchen with his daughter Elena, a celebrated chef in her own right) is known as the father of Spain's modern gastronomy movement. Since the late 1970s, Arzak has served as a mentor to younger chefs while continuing to expand the nueva cocina (nouvelle cuisine) he helped define. His poached egg with truffle oil, crisp bread crumbs, and a mash of txistorra (local sausage seasoned with paprika and garlic) is a winning blend of strong flavors. Seafood dishes made with tender baby squid or perfectly moist marinated bonito are sublime. Your meal here will be expensive—and worth every euro.
Closed Sundays and Mondays.
43 Portuetxe Kalea
Tel: 34 943 215 018
For a classic but casual Basque meal, head to this 400-year-old farmhouse in the university district of Ibaeta. The historic structure, surrounded on all sides by high-rise buildings, is a charmingly stubborn testament to another era. Inside, it's all white walls, wood beams, and long tables, and the menu reads like a culinary history of the region: Gernika and piquillo peppers, grilled hake, bacalao omelet, lettuce hearts with anchovies, and baby squid with caramelized onions. Order an assortment of things to share, including the wonderful chuleta, a massive hunk of tender, grilled ox meat, and you'll be thankful that the place has survived the vagaries of time.
Tel: 34 94 455 8866
Since it opened in August 2005, Azurmendi has been one of the region's major hotspots—and the buzz is warranted. Set in a low-slung, warehouse-like building ten minutes' drive from Bilbao, the austere-looking restaurant is the atelier of 29-year-old chef Eneko Atxa. He likes to pair unexpected flavors, and is especially inventive with concentrated stocks and broths. The results, like his scallop à la plancha —topped with flying-fish roe and bathed in squid stock—are delicious. Not everything on the menu is trendy; some dishes, like his "textures of chocolate" dessert (a trio of chocolate ice cream, cake, and mousse), are pure and simple decadence. Be sure to order the excellent white txakoli wine (pronounced cha-coe-lee) from Azurmendi's own in-house winery; this crisp, dry, mildly sparkling wine, made from the area's hondarrabi zuri grapes, pairs perfectly with fish.
Mon.—Thurs. lunch only; Fri. and Sat. lunch and dinner. Closed Sundays.
1 Plaza San Juan
Tel: 34 94 658 3042
A bit off the beaten path but well worth the trip, Etxebarri is set in a small town about 30 miles east of Bilbao. Every dish you'll eat here will include something grilled or smoked—and that's a good thing, since chef Victor Arguinzoniz makes his own charcoal from local vine shoots, oak, and apple wood. He also uses the best raw ingredients, and the confluence of fresh and smoky flavors works beautifully. Grilled tender baby octopus is served with fresh shelled peas and asparagus; barbecued egg yolk comes with green peppers and zizas (a local variety of mushroom); and even Arguinzoniz's ice cream is made with smoked milk. Reservations are a good idea on weekends.
Closed Mondays. No dinner on Sundays.
212 Parque Tecnológico
Tel: 34 94 431 7025
The culinary headquarters of native chef Aitor Elizegi, Gaminiz is set in an improbably pretty industrial park 20 minutes' drive outside Bilbao. Here, Elizegi fuses flavors and textures with thoroughly satisfying results. Fresh anchovies, topped with coarse-ground salt and served with celery gazpacho and green apple "tartare," are a perfect balance of salty, sour, and sweet. The marmita de txipirón, strands of baby squid cut to resemble fettuccine and served with a savory Parmesan broth, is a playful take on a classic Basque ingredient. Pork fans shouldn't miss the papada, a cube of salted jowl served with artichoke carpaccio and a tangy lime meringue foam. If you can't get out of the city, try visiting Elizegi's sister restaurant, Baita Gaminiz (meaning "also Gaminiz" in the Basque language), located in the center of Bilbao (20 Alameda de Mazarredo; 34-94-424-2267; closed Sundays, no dinner Mondays).
Mon.—Wed. lunch only.
24 Avenida de los Chopos
Tel: 34 94 491 2031
A bastion of highbrow, old-school gentility, Jolastoky occupies an elegant villa 15 minutes' drive from Bilbao. The surrounding community of Neguri is home to some of the region's wealthiest citizens (you'll see some grand houses on your way to the restaurant), and Jolastoky's several dining rooms are properly formal, with heavy swagged drapes, tufted chairs, and starched linens. Chef Sabin Arana Olaizola's family has run the restaurant since 1921, so they've had lots of time to perfect the menu of seasonal Basque classics, like chorizo with pochas (a tender local bean variety), stewed pigeon in wine sauce, and several excellent game meats in fall.
Closed Mondays. Lunch only, Sundays and Tuesdays.
4 Calle Loidi
Tel: 34 943 366 471
A sweeping, glass-walled space with views over rolling green hills, this restaurant near San Sebastián—named after its three-star Michelin chef—embraces elaborate nueva cocina. The appetizer and entrée descriptions on the menu are several sentences long (and marked with the year that Berasategui debuted them), yet the dishes themselves are subtle and nuanced. One of his newer creations, a 2006 dish of oysters with watercress chlorophyll, arugula, and green apple, dressed in a lemongrass and fennel cream, is a pleasing blend of herbal and mineral notes, with a fresh saline kick. Berasategui's signature mille-feuille of smoked eel, foie gras, and spring onions dates to 1995; it may sound like an odd combination, but there's a reason why it's still on the menu after all these years.
Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Lunch only, Sundays. Closed mid-December to mid-January.
20 Aldura Aldea
Tel: 34 943 522 455
If you're just looking to sate your hunger, steer clear of this restaurant just outside San Sebastián. Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz's place, set in a rustic yet modern caserío (country cottage), is better suited to those seeking gustatory revelation. Aduriz's dishes combine flavors and textures in unexpected, always delicious ways: Flourless gnocchi are made with kudzu starch and Idiazábal cheese and served with an Ibérico ham broth; lamb shoulder, cooked at a low temperature for 30 hours, is paired with root vegetables and glazed with a slightly bitter honey. Desserts like violet ice cream with chocolate shavings and almonds are similarly wonderful. You can order à la carte, but it's a much better idea to indulge in the heavenly tasting menu (eight to 12 courses).
Closed Mondays. No dinner Sundays; no lunch Tuesdays.
Tel: 34 943 642 789
Just up the coast from culinary hot spot San Sebastián, the seaside town of Hondarribia has its own star attractions. Leading the charge is Restaurante Alameda, run by the Txapartegi brothers, Mikel (front of house), Kepa (pastry chef), and Gorka, who was recently named chef of the year by the Basque Academy of Gastronomy. Gorka's modern Basque dishes include squid served with spring onion compote, and smoked sardine fillets with sweet pepper salad and olive vinaigrette. Alameda is housed in what was once a simple tavern opened by the boys' grandmother in 1942. Today the space has been completely restored, with hardwood floors, cream paneled walls, and heavy wood-beamed ceilings. On one wall, floor-to-ceiling windows open onto a garden with views to the sea. In summer months, call ahead to book a table on the highly sought-after terrace.—Guy Fiorita
Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 1 to 3 pm, 6:30 to 11 pm, Sundays 1 to 3:30 pm.
2 Avenida Abandoibarra
Tel: 34 94 423 9333
The food at the Guggenheim's restaurant rivals the art on its gallery walls. Josean Martínez Alija, who took over the kitchen in 2000 at the ripe old age of 22, has created a menu here that's ethereal, aromatic, and playful. His gelatin-rich kokotxas (hake cheeks), served with lemongrass-potato confit, are dressed with an otherworldly-looking pale-blue sauce flavored with shiso and lemon balm. Even humble ingredients get the royal treatment—like organic chicken cooked sous vide and infused with smoke, rosemary, and lime. Put yourself in this brilliant chef's hands: Order the six- or seven-course tasting menu and prepare to be dazzled.
Closed Mondays. Lunch only, Sundays and Tuesdays.
29 B° Martindeji
Tel: 34 943 555 851
Sidrerías, or cider houses, are traditionally only open between mid-January and the end of April, when the cider is ready for sale. Our favorite—and one of the Basque Country's oldest—is Zelaia, just inland from San Sebastián, in the town of Hernani. The simple interior has cider barrels out back and a dining room with rows of wood tables, but don't be fooled by the humble surroundings: The cider, food, and atmosphere are unbeatable. As in all traditional sidrerías, Zelaia serves a set four-course meal that includes a cod omelet followed by fried cod with green peppers, grilled steak, and to finish, a plate of Idiazabal cheese with walnuts and quince jelly. The whole thing, of course, is washed down with lots of cider.—Guy Fiorita
Open daily January 21 to April 30, 8 pm to 12 am.
4 Plaza Arriquibar
Tel: 34 944 133 636
First opened as a wine warehouse in 1909, the Alhóndiga, with its modernist facade and revamped interiors by Philippe Starck, is one of the city's most famous landmarks. In addition to a cultural center, exhibition halls, theaters, workshops, and a museum store, there are also three restaurants. The main culinary event, however, is Yandiola, on the second floor. The dining room has slate floors, exposed pipes running along the ceiling, and exposed-brick walls. Lime-green upholstered chairs at each table lend a modern look and a comfy touch. Yandiola's team, headed by Martín Berasategi alums Ricardo Perez and Borja Etxebarria, serve contemporary Basque dishes using locally sourced ingredients. The seven-course tasting menu leans heavily toward seafood and includes dishes such as sukiyaki grilled baby octopus with red onion jus, and squid served with smoked-cheese black rice. In the summer months, ask for your after-dinner coffee or drink on the rooftop terrace to enjoy Bilbao from above.—Guy Fiorita
Open daily from 1 to 4:30 pm and 8:30 pm to close.