Tuesday, 27 November 2018

La Despensa del Etxanobe, Bilbao

We flew to Bilbao the day the 2019 Michelin awards for Spain and Portugal were released. As much as I wish it wasn't sometimes (in fact make that most of the time), the Red Guide is unquestionably the most significant and prestigious recognition a chef working today can achieve, and quite understandably the head chef at Etxanobe, our first stop of a four-day trip to the Basque country, was not in the kitchen in Bilbao as he would be normally but in Lisbon, where the flashy announcement ceremony was taking place.

This worried me on two accounts. Firstly, would a kitchen be firing on all cylinders not only without its chef Fernando Canales absent, but with the threat of a demotion from Bibendum hanging over the day's work? Secondly, what if the worst happened and they did lose a place? Imagine turning up for work and having to pretend everything was fine whilst serving a table of freeloading bloggers. Nightmare.

Anyway, we needn't have worried. Atelier del Etxanobe (the slightly posher sister restaurant next door) kept their star, chef Canales eventually returned from Lisbon triumphant, and said table of freeloading bloggers had a very lovely lunch indeed in this cool, clubby space, thanks to a team of the nicest and most enthusiastic front of house in a part of the world not short of such things, and dishes that made the absolute best of the astonishing quality of local produce.

Mindful of the serious amount of eating and drinking we were planning on doing over the next few days, we had more or less decided to take it easy at Etxanobe and just order three courses each. Unfortunately, having being presented with a menu of the kind of bewildering and beguiling choice that the Basque Country is rightly famous for, we ended up constructing a bit of a mini tasting menu anyway, beginning with this white asparagus and truffle "ajo blanco" with prawns. As beautiful to look at as it was delightful to eat, this dish - full of silky asparagus flavour with just enough garlic to provide a gentle heat - set the bar sky-high on what was to be about as good a first meal as we could ever have hoped.

Next came a dish so good that it actually made one of our group cry. Something about the combination of pickled anchovy and salmorejo (a purée of tomato and bread) brought to mind childhood holidays in Andalucia, and having spent my own childhood in L'Escala in Catalonia, who specialise in the oiled & salted kind, I can confirm that there's nothing more likely to provoke an emotional reaction than the combination of nostalgia and anchovies. With big, powerful flavours to accompany them - an incredibly good, bright green olive oil and a neat square of hard cheese under the fish which rounded things out with dairy, this was a seriously impressive bit of work.

Then, the sweetest of local "scallops" (they had another name for them which I'm afraid escapes me), smaller than you may have seen before, these were apparently quite rare and strictly seasonal. Ostensibly simply prepared, with a golden crust and with coral still attached, which always wins points from me, they were lovely little things in of themselves but the real stroke of genius was to serve them on fresh seaweed, which brought with it the smell of the ocean, lending the whole thing a dreamily evocative atmosphere.

Next up, anchovies again, this time smoked and grilled to a remarkably soft texture somewhat akin to good eel. They were dense with flavour, each of them a bitesize bundle of meaty, oily goodness, and another example of Extanobe's ability to take one star ingredient and subtly enhance it with judicious use of spice and seasoning.

The next course was squid. We were told one would be smaller and more tender, and one larger and firmer with a sweeter, more rounded flavour. And they were absolutely right, of course, as you might expect, but it was still a nice surprise to contrast the younger animal to the older - good veal to aged beef, you could say. Each were cooked just so, well seasoned and with nice crunchy tentacles.

A plate piled high with langoustine tails was, very weirdly, the only dish that didn't completely impress. I can't quite put my finger on what could have gone wrong, but the beasties themselves were a bit soily and flabby - maybe slightly under, although that could have just been the style - and the blobs of grassy sauce (parsley?) weren't a great accompaniment. Still, we did finish them off so they can't have been too bad.

We had a similar issue with the blobs of sauce that came with the turbot, but fortunately the protein itself was an absolute masterclass in fish cooking - firm and meaty, with a gorgeous browning on top - and next to it sat a fantastic buttery potato hassleback style thing, which we fought over to finish. It's perhaps tempting to look at the bounty of the ocean and land that Bilbao has to choose from and conclude there's nothing much more they need to do than not cock anything up too much and you'd still end up with a decent feed. But even if cooking turbot like this was easy (it's not, and I've had plenty of bad turbot experiences to prove it), even sourcing such stunning ingredients is a praiseworthy enough skill.

Desserts were similarly full of life and vibrancy. A "pineapple cream gratinate" may be the most pineapply thing involving pineapple that's ever pineappled before (it was very pineapply) and a kind of layered apple-cinnamon cake was rich and comforting like the finest winter pud...

...and despite its rather unfortunate appearance this gently spiced chocolate mousse was lovely, covering chunks of jammy passionfruit and studded with little golden sugar crunches. Finally, a cute blob of smooth ice cream topped with powdered beetroot chocolate sent us on our way.

People tell you that Bilbao and San Sebastian are some of the best eating cities in the world, but as much as you want to believe it (and as much as our little trip relied up on it), it's not until you sit down at your first lunch on the first day, and the food starts arriving, that you really begin to understand what's so special about this part of the world. I'm prepared to believe you can eat badly in Bilbao - there's a KFC by the train station - but the inescapable fact is most restaurants and bars, from the rickety bar perched on the corner of a traffic-choked street to the most elaborate Michelin-soaked gastronomic temple, everyone here eats well. And everyone here eats well because not only are the ingredients available in every fish counter and butcher (oh lord, the beef - more on that later) absolutely stunning but everyone seems to know how to make the most of them.

Anyway, I imagine most of you more interested in learning how we got on at a certain Number-10-In-The-World spot in the mountains the following day than reading any more about Etxanobe, so I'll just say a big thank you to Marta of Mateo&Co, who organised not only lunch but also overnight at the extremely comfortable Ercilla Hotel (about 15 min from the Guggenheim and right in the middle of it all, and is a bargainous £62/night at the moment according to Google) and get back to sorting my Etxebarri photos. Watch this space.


Lunch at La Despensa del Extanobe and overnight at Hotel Ercilla were kindly organised by Mateo&Co, and we didn't see a bill. I'd be tempted to do both again, though, if I ever went back.


Lizzie said...

To be fair we did TRY to order a sensible 3 courses, they just didn't like us sharing. Loved loved loved it there.

Matt said...

You mind what you say about KFC. That's fighting talk right there.

Apart from their fries, obviously, which are shit.

Anonymous said...

Those scallops look and sound like zamburiñas. Queen scallops in English. From Galicia. Delicious.