When we were planning the Basque Country portion of our trip we had two choices. Should we fly into Bilbao and immediately hop a bus to San Sebastian (which is where were focusing our attention) or should we spend one of our precious nights in Bilbao and see what we could find there? We knew that Azurmendi was within a reasonable distance but we wanted to save our time and dollars for San Sebastian. So we hopped onto “Where Chefs Eat” and found a recommendation near our hotel at the Guggenheim, Baita Gaminiz. It looked pretty interesting so I made a reservation for a river-side seat at 8:30pm.
It soon became clear that our best hope for a great experience here was with the food. We walked by earlier in the day and thought it would be worth checking that our booking was ok and that everything was in order. But when I asked if we were good for 8pm I was quickly cut off and told, “You said, 8:30pm. It’s 8:30pm only.” Well, simple mistake on my part! No problem, we said, we would return at the correct time looking for a great meal. Unfortunately, when we arrived to an empty dining room (it was quite early for Bilbao) were sat inside, not outside by the river. When I asked why I had been told our table had been confirmed I was simply told that it was booked out. By the time we finished at 10:45pm there was only two of six tables with guests.
In any case, I’ll get to the service later but let’s focus on the food. It was incredible! We chose to do the chef’s suggested menu, which comprised four primary dishes with a couple desserts. At 45EUR it was amazing value as the standalone dishes were over 80EUR on their own. We started with “Tuna and Gilda salad (olive, anchovy, and chilli pepper) with roasted bell pepper”, which is a play off the famous Basque pinxto of the same name. It was familiar and fresh but also unique at the same time. A good start for us as we are massive Gilda fans. BTW, if you ever want to read an interesting story look up the birth of the Gilda – it’s a funny combination of pop imagery and the blending of cultures.
Next was our favourite dish of the night, “Creamy rice with cuttlefish and Norway lobster served with crispy bacon”. This was part of their turf and surf options and was one of those dishes that you walk away thinking you can recreate as it appears simple but it is extremely complex. The deep purple hue from the cuttlefish ink matched with the crunchiness and saltiness of the bacon created an incredible contrast.
Next was a traditional dish of “Thin sliced cod in pil-pil sauce with leeks and crab cooked in garlic, onion and peppers”. To be honest, the way the Basque take a rock-hard piece of salt cod (bacalao) and transform it into a flaky and tender piece of fish amazes me. This dish was smooth, rich, and soft. Pure Bilbao on a plate!
Our last main was “Golden brown magret of duck with foie gras and cocoa salad”. We saw a number of different cocoa plays on this trip and this one didn’t disappoint. The foie didn’t overpower and they didn’t let the cocoa play first actor – the duck was front and centre.
We finished with a couple light and fresh berry desserts. They were just the right size to complement the prior dishes. It would leave us perfectly satisfied.
Now, I said earlier that I would get to the service. It was extremely poor, to say the least. Our tattooed female waitress would literally drop our plates on the table and then dash away. No real explanation as to what we just were given, no smiles and no warmth. I honestly believe we are very friendly and polite travellers but no amount of smiling and broken Spanish on our side could elicit any change in her mood. And once the place got busy around 9:30pm, forget even getting service. We had to wait for ten minutes to ask for our bill and then another ten to pay. This just compounded the other rough spots from the night. It’s incredibly unfortunate as we now look back on the night unfavourably – but have to remind ourselves just how good the food was.
If you can put rude and slow service to the side this place is quite a find. I would go back now, but with very different expectations.