RESTAURANTE GUGGENHEIM At Guggenheim Bilbao, 2 Avda. de Abandoibarra; 34-94/423-9333; lunch for two $60. Only Martín Berasategui, the guru of Basque nueva cocina, and his young protégé, Bixente Arrieta, could create a menu worthy of Frank Gehry's theater. The marmitako (fisherman's stew) is a mysterious green broth with lobster chunks and a cloud of soft sheep's-cheese mousse, served on an undulating white plate that echoes the shape of the building. Another brilliant conceit pairs a striking glass bowl of garlicky white salt-cod emulsion and a dish of blazing red tomatoes stuffed with tiny squid and black rice. Dessert?A rank of miniature glasses and cups filled with a revisionist rice pudding, caramelized passion fruit cream, and other stylish creations. Of course, the curvy blond dining room and the Gehryesque corrugated cardboard boxes that hold the menus are design statements in their own right.
EL PERRO CHICO 2 Aretxaga; 34-94/415-0519; lunch for two $52. Perro Chico's lusty lunches have drawn the likes of Jeremy Irons, Antonio Banderas, Dennis Hopper, and Gehry himself—who has already eaten here some 40 times. (Rumor has it that the indigo of the Guggenheim's administrative annex was inspired by the walls of this restaurant.) Swoon over the saucy clams and artichokes, whose taste coats the mouth with pleasure like a precious Rioja reserva; or the succulent merluza (hake), its sweetness enhanced by a topping of gratinéed béchamel and scoops of divine mashed potatoes. Ask to see the guest book, with doodles from the well-fed Richard Serra and Francesco Clemente.
ETXANOBE 4 Avda. de Abandoibarra; 34-94/442-1023; dinner for two $65. Postmodern chintz?The concept works—sort of—at Bilbao's most talked-about new restaurant, which is housed in the gleaming Palacio Euskalduna, the first installment in the city's ambitious riverfront development. Etxanobe's oversize ruffles and frills pay homage to the bourgeois coziness so beloved by the Basques. Chef Fernando Canales follows a similar line with his carpaccio of sweet, slightly unctuous cigalas (crayfish) swirled with a hearty bacon vinaigrette; his oven-baked skate, topped with a raviolo oozing a velvety cream of porcini; and his oxtail crépinette, so dark and rich it tastes almost like chocolate. Cleanse your palate with a tart yogurt ice cream, and then step out onto the terrace for a nocturnal view of the Guggenheim.
BASSERI MAITEA Atxondoa, Forua (a village just north of Guernica); 34-94/625-3408; dinner for two $60. City dining is fine, but for a seriously sybaritic meal, head out to a country caserío, or farmhouse restaurant. With its lush gardens, massive stone walls, thick beams, and a crackling fire, the antiques-filled Basseri Maitea is the favorite of insiders. While the place excels in typical haute-rustic delicacies (tiny calamari with caramelized onions; a mille-feuille of blood sausage and foie gras), the house pride is the chuletón a la brasa, a heroically scaled T-bone, beautifully marbled and suffused with the fire and smoke of the grill.
CUBITA KAIA 10-11 Muelle de Arriluce, Puerto Deportivo, Getxo; 34-94/460-0103; lunch for two $65. One of the thrills of eating in Spain is discovering cutting-edge creativity where you least expect it. Case in point: Cubita Kaia. Its mall-like location in the posh seaside suburb of Getxo (accessible by the Norman Foster-designed subway) is simply a smoke screen for the most exciting fish-cooking in town. The young chef, Álvaro Martínez, trained at such three-Michelin-star temples as Arzak in San Sebastián and El Bulli in Catalonia. It shows in his whimsical poached egg with truffle shavings and bacon ice cream, or the immaculate piece of lenguado (sole) resting on sautéed artichokes garlanded in a crimson beet vinaigrette. Prefer a simple, traditional hake and clams in salsa verde?Martínez can do that too. Brilliantly.
The Basque answer to tapas, the baroque tidbits known as pintxos are laid out on Bilbao's bar counters like savory wedding cakes—all mayonnaise froufrou, vegetable confetti, showers of chopped egg. The Sunday afternoon pintxo graze around Casco Viejo, Bilbao's Old Quarter, is a cherished local ritual. Here, Guggenheim chef de cuisine Bixente Arrieta traces his favorite route.
Start by jostling through the crowds at the Plaza Nueva flea market to Víctor Montes (8 Plaza Nueva), where dozens of 24-karat pintxos occupy center stage in a vintage bar festooned with wine bottles and hanging hams. Then head for the tiled Bar Bilbao (6 Plaza Nueva), less fancy but equally adored for its bacalao al pil-pil (salt cod with garlic emulsion), and silky anchovies curled around brittle green olives on olive oil-drenched toast. Around the corner, the humble Los Fueros (6 Calle Los Fueros) plies working-class regulars with amazingly fresh small langoustines, rolled in sea salt and sizzled on the plancha (iron grill) to crunchy perfection.
At Txiriboga (13 Calle Santa María Kalea), the air is infused with alcoholic fumes and filled with shouts for more rabas—slices of fried calamari—and tangy bonito salad. Last but not least: the hip, happening Gatz (10 Calle Santa María), one of the new breed of Bilbao bars, for irresistible tartlets of bacalao and Basque ratatouille), and canapés of pink jamón iberico mousse. After yet another round of young Riojas and crisp Navarra whites—the preferred accompaniment to pintxos—a siesta will seem a very promising prospect.
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