Baita Gaminiz - Amazing Food & Value, But Service?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Imago and the Perfect Roman Meal and View! (Michelometer at 6*)

Much like in Milan, we didn’t have much of a clue as to the local food scene and searched high and low to find recommendations of places that would fit in nicely with our global culinary tour. One place we found that not only had a Michelin star but was recommended in “Where Chefs Eat” (which I highly recommend, by the way) is Imago, which is just above the Spanish Steps in Rome. And as luck would have it, our hotel was just a few paces from the steps as well so it would be a good option in the Roman heat in a suit. 

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What we didn’t expect, however, were the views. Simply amazing views out over the entirety of the city and we were kindly placed at a window that took it all in, including our first sunset in Rome. Magical.

“Where Chefs Eat” says that it would take some incredible cooking to overshadow the views and chef Francesco Apreda has done just that. And not only was the food incredible the service was light and friendly. This is Michelin-starred dining the way we like it – relaxed and comfortable, fun and whimsical, but outstanding and world-class. Imago hit all the notes for us and made for an incredible evening.

Apologies in advance, the lighting was very poor midway through the meal so I’ve had to try to enhance them to be able to get an idea of what we were eating. But to be honest, while the food looked good it tasted just that much better. You have to experience this place for yourself!

Things got started off with a couple little amuse bouche, the first being a deep-fried quail egg with a chilli jam. We were already rolling...

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Next was the breaded scallops stuffed with buffalo mozzarella, celery and truffle. I hate to admit it but this was the first time I had shaved truffles. It was everything I hoped and really inspired me to pick up a number of truffle products in the deli the next day to take home.

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Aperitif i hand, the Gourmet Female was ready to go! I can't say enough about the location and views. Spectacular.

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Next up was baby prawn tartare, oil-flavoured bread and citron. The prawns were incredibly light and soft (and of course, raw) and the citron really added an explosion of flavour. We found ourselves eating this one tiny bite at a time, hoping that it wouldn’t end. Definitely a great way to start.

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Well, we hit our favourite dish early at Imago, with the parmesan cheese ravioli in cold tuna broth, double malt and 7 spices. The thought of cold tuna broth concerned me a bit but it was so much better than I could have imagined. The raviolis were light and the broth very smooth. And the best thing was they gave us two tubes of the chef’s special 7 spice blend! Well, they first gave only one to the Gourmet Female but once they learned how much I love to cook they brought a vial out for me as well.

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By this time it was clear to us that the chef had spent some quality time in Asia, learning how to pair exotic ingredients with his modern Italian dishes. The next dish paired sparkling wine risotto with pepper and sesame blend, caciotta cheese and balsamic vinegar. We’ve had many different risottos over the years but this one was amazing and not heavy in any way. And it was just the perfect size to keep us going until the next dish.

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I know this dish is hard to see but, to be honest, even if it was much clearer it would still be difficult to discern what’s in it. The chef created a dish of capellini pasta with garlic, olive oil and chilli pepper, smoked eel and cocoa. We both made a face when we read “smoked eel and cocoa” but it was gorgeous! The eel had a mild flavour and the cocoa added a real richness to the dish without making it too heavy. Civilisations for thousands of years have used cocoa as a spice in savoury dishes so maybe we should get into using it some more…

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Again, another one that’s hard to see in the photo but it was pretty much as described - duck breast Tandoori-style, baby lettuce and wine-flavoured apricots. I’ve become a bit of a duck fan over the last few years and this one definitely didn’t disappoint.

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Just as we thought we were about to hit the main dessert dish the chef changed it up on us and brought out a couple surprises. He sent out a beautiful strawberry marshmallow with a coffee ice cream mix and then a fluffy little pastry. Both were gorgeous.  

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As I said at Cracco, we have started to see some trends in the menus on our trip. The finishing dessert at Imago was a memory of Zabaione-flavoured egg, coffee cream and orgeat water ice. You’ll notice that the theme is similar to the dessert at Cracco but when we tasted it we realised it was quite different. It was the perfect ending to an amazing meal.

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One tip we’ve picked up thus far in Italy – you’ll quickly notice that they give the menu with prices to the gentleman and the menu without prices to the lady. Quite a throwback in these “modern” times but we loved it. It seemed old school and classy. In any case, a couple more meals in Italy and then we’re off to Spain!