As we rode over the bridge, I leaned my head against the taxi cab window and let my eyes trace the shining sides and sharp angles of the Guggenheim museum. A thick, grey fog hung in the background over the Nervion river. My cloudy, drizzly Bilbao, I thought to myself. After all this time, I wouldn’t want to see you any other way. My heart swelled a little. All the memories of working in the Guggenheim’s restaurant suddenly felt so close. I had thought about it over the past four years, but only through the rosy hue afforded by the luxury of time past. The mind has a certain way of neatly packaging past experiences. Now, as I entered the center of Bilbao, I remembered the actual feeling of being inside – of being a part of that relentless machine; a bee inside the hive. And how it felt like the outside world was some far-off, inaccessible place. What happened inside that tiny world was all that mattered. And there I was, returning as a person like any other, on the outside looking in.
I took a quick trip to Bilbao last week, to attend the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards. Though the awards were the motivation for my going, I was excited and a little anxious to return to a city that was so meaningful to me in terms of my professional development — where I went to hit the reset button on my life so far, and start over again as a cook. Being there reminded me not just of my tumultuous work experience, but also of all the details of Bilbao, a city I came to love – the fast, animated way people speak; how clerks call out “agur!” (Euskera for “goodbye”) as you leave a store; how easy it is to pass an afternoon wandering the narrow passages of the Casco Viejo; the way older ladies dye tufts of their hair hot purple; and obviously, the food, which I’d argue rivals that of its sister city to the east, San Sebastian.
With the imminent opening of our sandwich shop in Mallorca (T-minus 11 days), I could only visit Bilbao for one night, but I left myself a generous window of time for just wandering around and, of course, eating pintxos.
About pintxos: they’re a double-edged sword. On one hand, you never have to commit to eating in one place — you can order a pintxo and a wine, have a nib, and then decide whether or not to order a second. If you’re like, meh, you pay, leave and look for the next stop. If you like, you keep ordering. On the other hand, you never feel totally full, until 10 pintxos later you’re like — I wonder if you can eat too much tortilla de patatas.
And I ate a lot of tortilla de patatas because in Bilbao, the average bar does it really well. Wet on the inside, golden on the outside, with a touch of brown on the edges. Then they’re dressed with savory accoutrements like a strip of oily roasted pepper, or a dollop of creme fraîche with sun-dried tomato.
I hit up my favorite spots: Cafe Iruña and Bar Bilbao (where Chef Danielle Soto casually sauntered in and started asking about the pintxos — the kind of thing that only happens when a bunch of amazing chefs are gathered in one small city). I ate a gorgeous sandwich at the mythical Bar El Eme (more on that soon). And I just walked. I walked along the Nervion, past the magnetic pulse of the Guggenheim. I walked through the Casco Viejo and stopped to admire hundreds of espadrilles in shoe store windows. I stopped every so often for a pintxo and a beverage, and then kept walking until my own espadrilles started giving me blisters. Then I returned to my hotel, collected my suitcase, and rode the city bus back over the bridge and through the green hills toward the airport.
Photo highlights from the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards – thanks to Aspire Lifestyles for inviting me!