Best bite bar none

Nigel Richardson sam­ples a va­ri­ety of Bil­bao’s pin­txos

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

HE po­tato omelet emerges from the oven and lies blink­ing, as it were, on the plate. Juan Mari tastes and swoons. This bar doesn’t ap­pear in any guide­books,’’ he says, but I think the tor­tilla is bril­liant. Not like the thick brick they do in Spain.’’ Basques rou­tinely re­fer to the rest of Spain as an­other coun­try.

He is right. The egg is warm and moist, the po­tato firm and the onion slightly caramelised. We ac­com­pany it with a white wine from Val­ladolid. It is shortly af­ter noon in Cafe­te­ria Con­cha, a bar in Bil­bao, and my txiki­teo with four Bil­baino friends — all afi­ciona­dos of snacks on a stick — has be­gun.

Atxiki­teo is a Basque in­sti­tu­tion, a bar crawl in­volv­ing the fre­quent eat­ing of pin­txos (roughly speak­ing, the Basque equiv­a­lent of the Span­ish tapa). But whereas in Spain’’ a tapa of­ten comes au­to­mat­i­cally when you or­der a drink, a pin­txo costs ex­tra. It is also, ac­cord­ing to the rules of the an­nual com­pe­ti­tion to find Bil­bao’s best pin­txos, some­thing that you must be able to con­sume stand­ing up, in a max­i­mum of two mouth­fuls.

The pin­txo started life mod­estly as a piece of tor­tilla, or ham on bread, but in re­cent years it has evolved into many mouth-wa­ter­ing com­bi­na­tions.

This evo­lu­tion is partly a by-prod­uct of the so-called Guggenheim ef­fect — the tourism boom gen­er­ated by the ar­chi­tect Frank Gehry’s fu­tur­is­tic mu­seum — and partly a re­sult of the afore­men­tioned com­pe­ti­tion, the Mues­tra de Bares de Pin­txos, now in its 12th year, for which bars com­pete avidly.

This year’s win­ners have just been an­nounced when I ar­rive in Bil­bao, so my part­ner’s cousin Juan sug­gests we sam­ple a few. Nine hours af­ter that first won­der­ful tor­tilla, we end the tast­ing in Lekeitio, a bar spe­cial­is­ing in tor­tilla paisana, with spinach and chorizo. How­ever, they have run out: a happy haz­ard of the quest for pin­txos, which should be freshly made. So we or­der a racion — a por­tion, big­ger than a pin­txo — of seafood salad, which we all tuck into. Juan touches his lips and makes that pe­tal-open­ing ges­ture with his fin­gers mean­ing very good’’.

Alasne dis­agrees: Too dry.’’ Juan amends his judg­ment: It could do with more toma­toes.’’ And so the food dis­cus­sion con­tin­ues as around us 85-year-olds clink glasses of tx­akoli — a lo­cal slightly sparkling white wine — and five-year-olds skit­ter at their feet.

You can’t learn in a day what we have taken 40 years to learn,’’ Marivi chides me. Geri and Alasne agree. The point of the txiki­teo , they say, is that it is an in­ti­mate, del­i­cate ex­pe­ri­ence that changes each time, de­pend­ing on dif­fer­ent bars and days for culi­nary fan­cies.

On this par­tic­u­lar day, our txiki­teo in­volves 10 bars, five of them close to­gether in the old town, the Casco Viejo. Hon­ourable men­tion should also go to Vic­tor Montes, the Harry’s Bar of Bil­bao, which we omit only be­cause it is al­ways in­cluded in such gas­tro­nomic lists. Ex­pect to pay ($2.40) to for pin­txos, from

for a glass of tx­akoli or wine. Most bars close on Sun­days, or Sun­day evenings, and open­ing times can be er­ratic. If a bar is closed, sim­ply go to the one next door.

Cafe­te­ria Con­cha, Calle Gen­eral Con­cha: This mod­est bar, with flash­ing fruit ma­chines, does not en­ter the Mues­tra de Bares de Pin­txos com­pe­ti­tion; the owner ex­plains that his wife, who makes the pin­txos, can’t be both­ered with all the fuss. Con­se­quently, its mouth­wa­ter­ing tor­tilla re­mains some­thing of a se­cret.

Zuga, Plaza Nueva, Casco Viejo: A trendy bar serv­ing a young crowd in a cor­ner of the Plaza Nueva, the heart of the old town, Zuga spe­cialises in am­bi­tious com­bi­na­tions in­clud­ing goat’s cheese with man­zanilla sherry, dried fruit vinai­grette and honey; liver with red fruits and Mo­dena vine­gar and turkey neck (sur­pris­ingly ten­der and de­li­cious) in a filo par­cel on br­uschetta.

Sa­si­bil, Calle Jar­dines, Casco Viejo: One of sev­eral bars that ex­cel in, and serve, just one thing, in this case pro­duc­tos del mar : grilled fish, an­chovies from the fish­ing port of On­dar­roa and shell­fish. There is also a small restau­rant.

Gatz, Calle Santa Maria, Casco Viejo: Gatz is 2008 win­ner of best bar in the Mues­tra de Bares de Pin­txos and cer­tainly one of my friends’ favourite haunts. The

Stand-up act: Vic­tor Montes bar and cafe is one of Bil­bao’s most fa­mous and is in­vari­ably in­cluded on a city food tour

Gas­tro­nomic gath­er­ing: Eat­ing out in Bil­bao spe­cial­ity of the house is ba­calao (salt cod) al pin-pil: suc­cu­lent lit­tle bombs of fish, gar­nished with browned sliv­ers of gar­lic. There is a print on the wall fea­tur­ing a foot­baller in the red and white uni­form of Ath­letic Bil­bao, chat­ting up a girl in this very bar. Look at his legs,’’ says Juan. He looks as if he eats a lot of pin­txos.’’

Ir­rintzi, Calle Santa Maria, Casco Viejo: Next door to Gatz, and named af­ter the ul­u­lat­ing Basque cry with which peo­ple are said to have hailed each other across the val­leys, this has the most help­fully dis­played pin­txos, each flagged with neat la­bels, so you don’t have to ul­u­late above the din to ask what they are. The choice is imag­i­na­tive, in­clud­ing onion stuffed with black pud­ding and pep­pers, and cro­quettes made with squid in its ink (a new dish).

Eguiluz, Calle del Perro, Casco Viejo: This is one of sev­eral ex­cel­lent cazuelita bars on this street, a cazuelita be­ing a hot dish served in a ter­ra­cotta pot; it’s big­ger than a pin­txo, smaller than a main course. Here, they in­clude paella, grilled prawns, meat­balls, tripe, and snails and cost be­tween and

Bi­toque, Calle Ro­driguez, Arias: This small, self­con­sciously fash­ion­able bar was the win­ner of the golden beret for best pin­txo in Bil­bao, the cham­pion be­ing a some­what pre­ten­tious con­coc­tion of egg yolk, po­tato, pancetta and an air of cheese, for a steep Like a cock­tail bar­man, the chef makes mine while I wait and I’m dis­ap­pointed; it’s a tri­umph of style over sub­stance. Other pin­txos in­clude grilled scal­lops with vi­o­let and gold pota­toes’’.

Cafe Es­to­ril, Plaza Cam­puzano: Among a clutch of bars pop­u­lar with foot­ball fans be­fore and af­ter games, it is known for its Cam­paris and Mar­ti­nis. Pin­txos in­clude ham and green pep­pers, ba­calao with pep­pers, and bonito (tuna) with may­on­naise.

La Vina del En­sanche, Calle Diputa­cion: Wood­pan­elled and cheer­ful, with a bar carved from a sin­gle tree, this is one of the old­est bars in the city (es­tab­lished in 1927). It spe­cialises in hams and chorizo, and has the feel of An­dalu­sia, reckon my com­pan­ions. There is a shop and del­i­catessen at­tached.

Bar Lekeitio, Calle Diputa­cion: An­other clas­sic bar of Bil­bao, packed with young and old, and named af­ter the pretty Basque fish­ing port of which there is a blown-up old pho­to­graph on the wall. Its star pin­txo is the tor­tilla paisana but they are also proud of their ta­cos with raw ba­calau, gar­lic and pars­ley. Tele­graph Group

Check­list

The Best Gas­tron­omy Map, a free leaflet from Bil­bao Turismo, is an ex­haus­tive list­ing and map of the city’s best bars and restau­rants. The main Bil­bao Turismo of­fice is at Plaza En­sanche; www.bil­bao.net/bil­bao­tur­ismo.

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