I had heard good things about the cooking of Josean Martinez Alija at the Guggenheim Museum restaurant in Bilbao, Spain for some time, but it wasn’t until this past January when I saw his presentation at Identita Golose in Milan and got to taste a sample of one of his dishes that I knew that I must make a beeline for this restaurant. Alija was using cutting edge technique, but with a rare artistry to make deceptively simple appearing, but beautiful food that tasted marvelous.
I arrived for lunch with my son, Andrew, on a fabulous, sunny day, having just driven from San Sebastian. After a brief walk around the outside of this fantastic Frank Gehry designed building, we made our way to the main entrance of the museum and the restaurant just a short distance beyond that. To get to the fine dining restaurant we had to walk through a more informal cafeteria-like restaurant. The space was smaller than I expected and considering the location, not nearly as special as I had expected either. It was, however, colorful, well-lit and reasonably comfortable. We were given a large, central table overlooking a window to the exterior of the building. It was from here that this photo was taken.
The a la carte menu was beautiful and brief and included something I had never previously eaten – horse, or rather, in this case colt. The degustation menu looked even better and more interesting, however. Simply out of curiosity, I asked if I could substitute the colt dish for the final dish of the degustation – chicken. While I love horses and I know that in the United States eating horse meat is generally not condoned, I don’t believe in an absolute taboo here. I would never expect to make a habit of it, but in this case, the opportunity to try it at the hand of such a cook as Alija truly piqued my curiosity. They assented.
The ball started rolling with a nice glass of cava. We had decided to split a wine pairing, all of which proved to be quite acceptable.
Our first nibble was of the crusty house-made bread. Like just about every other top notch restaurant on this trip, the bread was outstanding and unique. This bread was made from corn flour. In addition to the perfect texture, the flavor was rich and addictive. Once again, I had to restrain myself from overdoing it.
The first amuse to make its way to our table was a plate of crispy quail eggs. The eggs had been coked to temperature onsen style then coated in panko and quickly fried. Much like the quail eggs I was served later that evening at Tickets in Barcelona, the differences between the dishes were subtle. The Tickets eggs had a Canary Islands mojo sauce coating along with bread crumbs, while these were served with a tasty garlic mayonnaise. Both were delightful.
I’m a believer in using as much of a product as possible and apparently so is Alija. The next amuse illustrated this tenet to a tee. Alija took something typically discarded and not only managed to make something useful from it, but he actually made a thoroughly enjoyable dish from anchovy spines. Perfectly fried, the spines were crisp, greaseless and flavorful without being over strong. Served with a dipping sauce made from anchovies and bonito this was a prime example of a wonderful, minimalist cuisine elevating the humblest of ingredients.
This was the dish that for all intents and purposes brought me here. Each tomato, eaten whole, was different from the others, each having a distinct herbal base. Once again, this was a very simple dish on the surface, but its complexity lay within. I was not disappointed as each tomato literally provided an explosion of wonderful flavor, a synergy of tomato and herb.
Fresh white asparagus can be a revelation, especially those from the justly famous Navarran town of Tudela. The gin and tonic like gel provided a nice flavor boost, with a bitter base offset a bit by the sweetness of the orange. The sauce added an adult sensibility, but the star remained the tender, but still crisp asparagus tip.
Tudela was also the source of the beans that provided the centerpiece of the next dish, The pepper air provided a vegetal note that played well off the earthiness of the small fresh beans. This was subtle and light. Alija was showing a deft and novel hand with vegetables, at once reminiscent of Andoni Luis Aduriz yet distinct. Alija, while demonstrating his creativity, was clearly cooking in a definitively Spanish way.
At this point we switched wine gears, drinking a crisp, local Txacoli, which was light years better than one we had poured while eating pintxos in San Sebastian.
Alija continued demonstrating his mastery of both subtlety and vegetables with this next dish. The pea “tears” were the individual peas taken from what we call snow peas. While somewhat similar in appearance to the Zalla broad beans, they were a different product and treated accordingly. They egg yolk was a nice touch that added richness and flavor without overpowering the tender, delicious peas. These peas must have been at the peak of the season as we had them in a number of restaurants during the two weeks that we had been in Spain. Each preparation was different and delicious, providing a wonderful study of the possibilities of the product.
Alija’s cooking, though decidedly adept with the use of Modernist techniques, is clearly of the Earth. This was perfectly illustrated by the onion and lentil soup that came next. Though rich of flavor, the soup was delightfully light for a typically hearty lentil soup. To this point, though not vegan, we had yet to eat a bite of meat – and didn’t miss it.
Though this next dish had meat, the incomparable Iberian pork, the principal result was to continue to demonstrate Alija’s mastery of the vegetable. The pork belly, cooked rare, was delicious, but somehow it seemed to serve as an accent for the wonderful artichokes. The herbs also provided subtle accents, while the wonderful, roasted artichoke hearts and the crisp leaves kept center stage. Alone, the artichokes lacked a certain level of salinity, but when combined with the luscious pork, the balance was perfect.
The next wine took us a little further south, to the Rioja Alavesa. This was a modern style Rioja, meaning that it was relatively high in alcohol at 14% with a big, bold, chocolate and fruit driven kick. Though not something I would want to keep drinking over time, I generally prefer a wine with more of an acid backbone, for a course or two, it worked fine.
This was an unusual dish, but it was a great savory course that featured a particularly complex beet. The bread was remarkable, soft on one side, crisp on the other and full of both a marine as well as a vinous flavor. Simply presented, this was nevertheless a beautiful dish in a number of respects. It was a dish that was worthy of being served in a museum devoted to modern art.
The foie gras was seared perfectly, but what made this dish stand out was the way the flavors of the foie and the sweet carrot morphed seamlessly one into another. It felt like neither ingredient would have been quite as successful without the other – a beautiful marriage.
Alija had already proven his mastery of vegetables. This dish demonstrated his skill with fish. The thick piece of boneless sole (Activa?) was beautifully cooked with a lovely, crisp skin and supporting elements that provided special balance points. The rhubarb added a touch of sourness, while the olve/sherry emulsion added some bitter, acidic and salty notes to balance the exquisite sweetness of the fish. Unfortunately, it is because of dishes like this that we are wiping out the fish in our seas.
In the United States we tend to take chicken for granted. Not only is it ubiquitous, it has become generic, suitable to the lowest common denominator. That is why dishes like this one, which unfortunately I only got to taste from my son’s plate, and the chicken served during the reign of Paris 1906 at Next in Chicago, are so stunning. Chicken can still be special and this one certainly was. It earned its place as the final savory dish of the meal. Alija incorporated wonderful flavors to support the chicken. The lime leaf particularly shone through in support. Chicken like this will never be mundane.
While novel and tasty, the chicken was actually the more satisfying dish. I’m glad I tried it – the colt reminded me of the taste of roasted alpaca in Peru – but the chicken was sensational.
The wine served with dessert was a first for me. I had never previously tried a late harvest Txacoli. This one was from the same winery as the Txacoli that we were served earlier in the meal. This was truly a pleasant surprise. It was sweet, but it had a wonderfully bracing acidity to balance the sugar.
This was not a simple bowl of porridge. Ethereally light, the flavors and texture combined to make a dessert both refreshing and interesting. The eucalyptus, which I feared , was present only in a very mild undertone, enough to provide a counterpoint to the boldness of the orange and the sweetness of the honey.
Alija’s platings are spare and minimalist. He eschews intricate design. His work is more like a Rothko than a Pollock, preferring simple geometry to random chaos. This fabulous bit of bitter chocolate to finish our meal put an exclamation point on that. In addition, it really focused the prominent role of the taste of bitterness in Alija’s cooking. He is not afraid of it, but he knows how to balance it and reign it in so that it accents without overcoming the other flavor components.
Our final bite was a parfait of creamy citrus with a bit of strawberry – a delightful way to end a delightful meal.
Josean Martinez Alija has a special talent in being able to utilize modernist technique to extract the essence of his primary materials. He does so with care and a light touch. His food is designed to be not only delicious, but healthful as well. One need not eat it with an oversized sense of guilt. His is a cooking with which the diner can focus without culinary distraction. It is not so much simplistic as it is pure.
Our lunch was a great way to end the Basque portion of our trip. The food was clean, light and delicious. The only significant criticism I could offer was that the room really didn’t fit the quality of the food, which was a bit surprising given its location in one of the most prestigious modern museums in Spain if not Europe. It’s not that the room was ugly or that it was not decorated in a fashion suitable to the cuisine, though the reality was such that the Pollock like design scheme really didn’t match Alija’s culinary aesthetic. Rather it was the fact that it was a restaurant within a much more casual restaurant and fully open to the latter. That wasn’t truly a major issue, but it did detract from the overall ambiance of the restaurant. The good news, though is that as of this past May 28th, Alija has moved to a new restaurant within the Guggenheim with its own separate entrance. This restaurant is called Nerua, a name derived from the ancient Roman name for the Nervión River estuary located just outside the entrance to the restaurant at the back end of the museum. As the photo above would appear to indicate, the space should be much more in harmony with Alija’s cooking than the old space, which will more appropriately be utilized to expand the casual dining capabilities of the museum in a restaurant called Guggenheim Bilbao Bistro.
Josean Martinez Alija was a culinary force to be reckoned with even before this new development. I can only imagine how much more that will be now.