Best bite bar none
Nigel Richardson samples a variety of Bilbao’s pintxos
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
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.