September 16, 2016 / 1 Comment
A must visit not just because of it’s world famous museum, Bilbao is fast developing a foodie reputation to rival it’s big brother in the culinary stakes, San Sebastian. Just an hour or so away from the famed Basque cuisine capital, Nerua is one of the establishments leading the way in Bilbao’s fine food scene.
Housed inside the Guggenheim, Nerua clearly gets a big tick in the location box. If visiting Bilbao, or taking a day trip from San Sebastian, it doesn’t get more two-birds-one-stone than the Guggenheim/Nerua double. But make sure you book both well in advance to ensure you’re not standing in an hour long queue to get into the museum (from my personal experience, I don’t think it’s worth the wait but then art on the plate is more my jam). There is one window in the restaurant that has partial Guggenheim views, so if this is a big deal for you, make sure you mention that when booking.
Ascending into Nerua (the entrance is from the exterior of the museum) you enter a sea of cream – open kitchen to the left, restaurant to the right. It’s not immediately apparent what you should do or who you should talk to as there’s no reception area, so after feeling a little awkward and confused we were greeted and headed to the kitchen to start our experience withs some signature snacks.
Snacks are usually a highlight of any long format dining experience for me, and Nerua’s offering certainly didn’t disappoint. Our convivial host explained the local history behind each item we were served – the first being an insanely good, radioactive-green tomato broth. Tomato derived soups, consommés, broths and foams are so hot right now in the world of fine dining, and this was among the tastiest I’ve had. Give me a whole bowl of this stuff.
Next up was cod skins – fried in hot oil in front of you to form cod skin crisps, finished with a dusting of paprika – oh so local. Also local we’re told was my non-seafood substitute – a lettuce, potato and red onion skewer. The story about it’s origin as a traditional pintxo was probably better than the taste but hey, I’ll pass it on the story merits alone. Last but certainly not least was the ‘fried egg’. Sounds simple – little fried balls of quail egg – but it embodies the taste of ‘fried egg’ more than any I’ve ever eaten. Amazing.
Snacks done, it’s now time to enter Chef Josean Alija’s serene, quiet, and formal dining room. As previously mentioned, one window (the only window in the restaurant) looks out to the exterior of the Guggenheim, and being second table back from this window, from my seat I had a peek of the view. It’s cream on cream, save for some beautiful and comfortable architecturally styled wooden chairs – and the single asparagus flower on the table (exactly what this flower was was the subject of much debate at our table – let’s just say, I won).
A classical soundtrack works perfectly in Nerua’s serene dining space, the swooping intensity of Ludovico Einaudi’s Primavera conjuring up mental images of kitchen flourishes and service ballet. I felt like we were in a real life episode of Chef’s Table. I suppose in some ways, we were.
I took my particular seat at the table for lighting reasons (hey, the camera eats first…aaaand then the iPhone second), but as the meal progressed I felt lucky to have my view outwards towards the museum, and not the interior facing view. This is because throughout the meal there are a lot of staff based at a central service pillar in the restaurant that was behind me – really, quite a lot. Not that I don’t love fantastically attentive Michelin starred service, I do – but having so many people watching you eat and waiting for you to finish adds quite a bit of pressure which I think was quite noticable from my husband’s vantage point. Surely there’s got to be a better place that staff can wait between courses just so as not to stress the diners?
Our first bread to start was a tiny, tiny roll, infused with olive oil – amazing. I wish seconds had been offered. I would have happily entertained thirds even. The second bread was a very large slice of corn bread – but with no olive oil or butter, it was just too dry, so sat uneaten on the plate.
You’ve got three choices (well, four if you count a la carte) in terms of the size of your menu. This is great news as it introduces a range of price points too. I believe these are some of the secrets of Nerua’s success, accessibility and choice. Well laid-out and explained choice to be precise, which helped to speed up the decision making process. You’ll know each and every course coming to you in each option of 9, 14 or 21 course menus which makes the decision a lot easier than blind menus. Priced at 105, 145 and 175 euros respectively, these options offer both a great entry price point and great value at the top end of the spectrum. Due to my food allergies (seafood), we created a custom menu at the 14 course size (well, plus one sneaky extra course).
TOMATOES, aromatic herbs and caper base
WILD ASPARAGUS, avocado, arugula and chlorophyll
ZUCCHINI FLOWER, plum and curry
WHITE TURNIP, Parmesan cheese and Iberian ham
SHALLOTS in green sauce
BEANS in vegetable juice
LAMB CHEEK, cauliflower and Manzanilla wine
QUAIL, mashed potatoes, almond and wheat juice
VEAL SWEETBREADS, potato puree and coffee
RACK OF LAMB, celeriac cream and sherry juice
BEEF TENDERLOIN, cauliflower puree, garlic stalks, mint and coriander
STRAWBERRIES, apple and fenugreek ice cream
FIG, mint and iced fig tree milk
GOXUA…mamia and caramelised corn cream
MOCHI…”Bollo de mantequilla”
Our first taste of the main event, ‘Tomatoes’ was a dish that inspired confidence in what was to come. I loved the uniqueness of this dish – it consisted of five assorted peeled cherry tomatoes infused with different herb oils. The mint and rosemary were the best of the bunch and the burst of intense herb flavour was fantastic. I wasn’t a fan of the smoky broth they were sitting in, but really enjoyed guessing which herb was infused into each tiny tomato flavour bomb.
The next dish to usher us gently into our journey was ‘Wild Asparagus’ – a simple green salad meets fine dining. Elevated in it’s execution with paper thin parmesan sheets and chlorophyll puree, it was simple, elegant and delicious. By contrast it was so surprising that the next dish (Zucchini flower, plum and curry) was a total strikeout for me personally – almost no flavour evident and the filling of the zucchini flower had a watery, curd like texture…the gritty mouthfeel was just unpleasant.
A classic Nerua dish quickly had proceedings back on track though – their interpretation of pasta carbonara. A fun twist on the dish, with turnip stepping in for the pasta, this was delicious (I mean, how can you go wrong with Iberico ham) yet still delicate.
A duo of dishes up next took us in to simple and savoury vegetable territory, with varying degrees of success. I loved the sweet and subtle ‘Shallots’ – elegant if not exciting, but satisfying none the less. This dish did a good job of amplifying the beautiful flavour of shallots. The ‘Beans’ were definitely interesting, and I appreciated the smooth, creamy texture of the beans, but I’m not one hundred percent sold on the aniseed powder and vegetable juice combination. This one didn’t really tick the ‘enjoyable’ box for me.
We now headed into the meat portion of the menu, and bear in mind our menu is more meat heavy than the traditional menu as we eliminated the seafood dishes due to allergies (of which there are a LOT on the menu – so if seafood’s not your thing, advise in advance).
The ‘Lamb Cheek’ with cauliflower is a perfectly tender, delicate introduction the carnivorous side of Nerua, and I definitely enjoyed this dish. Cauliflower puree is just so irresistible when done right. By right, I mean how Nerua does it, not how I do it at home…theirs was so smooth, silky and creamy!
Quail with mashed potatoes, almond and wheat juice was up next. I’m usually a big fan of quail, and parts of Nerua’s application of the teeny tiny bird were a hit – the crispy lollipop was fantastic – honestly, just give me a bowl of those. The green coated, breast segment on the other hand, was just a little well, ‘wheaty’ for me and I just didn’t get it.
Our next dish, for me, was a controversial addition to the menu (and one I saw a little too much of on my recent fine dining tour)…sweetbreads. It just conjures up that…’euurgh’ moment in my mind (annnnd evidently in the mind of the hubby, and most people I talk to it seems). It’s a ‘mind over matter’ type dish for me. The moderately tasty creamy interior and crunchy exterior still battles with my brain screaming, ‘it’s a pituitary gland! Aaaaaagh’!!! I battled through most of it, but I think the portion was a little too much sweetbread for me on this one. I understand why chefs want to use them, and hey, maybe they love them – but honestly I’d rather not battle through anything at when I’m paying fine dining prices.
Ok – relieved that one’s over! Back on to the good stuff, ‘Rack of Lamb’. It’s well, as advertised, and a nice large portion too. Tender, juicy, delicious – no complaints here at all, especially when it’s accompanied by one of my favourite (and in my opinion, most underrated) vegetables of all time, celeriac. That stuff is just so good!
Now for the star of the show (sorry, spoiler alert). If the sirloin isn’t on the menu when you dine, I send my condolences. Such a succulent, superbly seared hunk of steak…seasoned with just the right amount of salt atop. Divine texture, cooked perfectly, with that superb cauliflower puree again making a ‘best supporting vegetable’ worthy appearance. The sweet garlic stalks reminded me of many other allium family members (of which I haven’t met a member I don’t like) and the teeny tiny mint and coriander leaves gave just enough pop to lighten up proceedings.
The sirloin was the perfect sayonara to the savoury section of our meal, and sweet arrived in style with ‘Strawberries’.
This dish is a flavour marriage made in heaven from the first bite. Who knew strawberries and fenugreek go so well together? Insanely delicious and kudos to Chef Josean on this combination.
I’ll admit, the next dish hadn’t rocked my socks from the on-paper description, not having been a big fig fan throughout my life. But wow. Wow. The mint gel that explodes from inside the fig, a taste that is so different, a little challenging texturally but at the same time heavenly…you’ve just got to try this one.
Our penultimate course was a little sneak preview of next season’s menu, a traditional dessert, Goxua. I wasn’t sure what to think of it at first glance, but it was another winner (I’m not an expert on how to describe this dish so I’ll leave it for you to experience yourself).
Rather pleased with the dessert performance, one more beautiful morsel remained for us to conquer. It seems Nerua have a thing for mochi – and this might be the best one I’ve tasted yet. It’s a take on the traditional Bilbao pastry, the “Bollo de mantequilla”. According to Google’s Spanish Wikipedia translation, it’s “a kind of Swiss or brioche bun cut in half and filled with a layer of butter cream, egg and a layer of sugar on top”. A mochi that tastes like pastry, cream, butter and sugar? Uh, yes please. It reminded me of licking the whisk coated in butter and sugar as a child. So bad, yet so goooood. The perfect end to a delicious lunch.
Nerua is a must visit when you’re in Bilbao, and perhaps one of the most conveniently located top restaurants in the world. It’s achieving great success on the world scene with it’s recent placing of #55 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 51-100 list and currently holds one Michelin star.
It’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience that gets off to a fantastic start with the snacks (and that baby olive oil bread), a section showing such promise I’d recommend they extend that part of the experience further. The lamb cheek, lamb rack and sirloin were particular highlights in the protein department, but I felt that we had a lot of repetition on the protein + a puree + a jus theme. Admittedly we did have a custom menu featuring more meat dishes than the usual, but I still would have liked to have seen more variation in techniques and dish composition throughout these courses rather than what felt like just slight variations on a theme.
Vegetables too get special tender loving care at Nerua, as we learned in our kitchen welcome, and it definitely translates on the plate. The herb infused tomato dish stands out as a really unique and memorable preparation, but there were some dishes that just didn’t excite in this department. I’d have loved the vegetable dishes to put a bigger smile on my face, I guess that’s the best way I can describe my feelings on that section of the menu.
Desserts were the real winner on the day – something I didn’t expect at all. The flavour combinations were innovative and all sweet dishes we tasted were well executed. I really can’t fault the desserts at all, I’d happily eat the entire dessert menu again – please!
Service was friendly and pleasant, but having so many staff waiting at the central pillar in the restaurant is a little off putting while you are dining, and timing was a bit speedy for us too – we saw our next course piling up before we were finished the previous one, and there was rarely breathing space between plates (though I will admit I’m a slow eater and hey, photos need to be taken too).
Speaking of plates, there wasn’t much ‘art’ adorning them. Being housed inside an art museum, I really expected more from the plating. There really wasn’t much plating at all to speak of, I feel this was such a missed opportunity to create that ‘wow’ factor when the plates are placed in front of the diner. Some elevation in this area would really add to the overall experience – we do eat with our eyes first after all.
Those who have done an extensive amount of fine dining will probably feel the one Michelin star rating is a fairly accurate assessment, though it feels a tad more polished than most one stars. Personally I’d like to see a little more complexity in courses, more detailed plating, more discreet service and just a little more ‘wow’ when I take that first bite. Given some advances on these points I wouldn’t be surprised to see it gain another star soon. One thing I do know is I’ll be keenly following the goings on at Nerua in the future to see what delicious dishes Chef Josean has in store.