Etxanobe lunch (Bilbao)
Etxanobe is one of the five restaurants we visited in October on our trip to Barcelona and Bilbao. I have a trip thread at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/921710 but when I post photos for the different restaurants they get appended into one photo group, so I'll break out the last three restaurants with separate threads to make it easier to view the images.
ETXANOBE – this is one of the four Michelin 1* restaurants in Bilbao. It’s located near the top of the Palacio Euskalduna, a large conference center and music hall with a 2,100 seat auditorium and a 614 seat theatre a short walk from our hotel near the Guggenheim.
The cuisine is a mix of ‘Traditional Basque’ and ‘Creative’. Owner-chef Fernando Canales has a popular television show and you can find many short Spanish videos featuring him on Youtube, like this one on cooking steak and potatoes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLWHq7...
Why we chose it: I wasn’t sure if we’d arrive in Bilbao before lunch as I’d heard the airline was often late, and I wasn’t sure if we would be hungry given we dined at Sant Pau the day prior and had a reservation for Azurmendi the next day, so we made no firm plans. It was either here or Aizian in the Melia Hotel if we were hungry, or maybe the tapas bar La Vina del Ensanche if we didn’t have much of an appetite. But our flight was on time and we got our room right away and were hungry, plus Etxanobe opened 30 minutes before Aizian.
Since there’s not much mention of this restaurant on Chowhound I’ll spend some time with the descriptions. Also it turned into a wonderful dining experience thanks to the chef.
Ambiance: the dining room is fairly large, probably seating 50 – 60 diners, with nice views of the waterfront. There’s also a shaded terrace with another 6-8 tables. Given the elevation of the restaurant and the river view it was probably the 2nd most scenic restaurant location on our trip, after Sant Pau. On our visit they had a large group event with 25-30 diners and had divided the main salon with a portable screen. We started off on the terrace but I couldn’t handle the smokers so we ended up in a smaller section of the main hall with a party of nine and 4 other smaller tables.
If the weather is good and you are either a smoker or don’t mind others smoking at nearby tables then the patio is a good bet. Otherwise try to get a seat near the window overlooking the river.
The food: since we were dining at mostly ‘fancy’ restaurants on this trip I wanted to try some ‘traditional’ dishes for once, while my wife was more adventurous. The a la carte menu was grouped into traditional Basque starters (5 items), Etxanobe starters (9 choices), a separate section of five (!) hake dishes, seafood (9 choices) and meat dishes (10). Plus thirteen dessert options.
They offer a six course seasonal tasting menu and an 11 course “Conozca el Etxanobe” (‘Get to know Etxanobe’) tasting menu, but we went for the “Menu Gastronomic”, which allows you to pick five courses and a dessert off the a la carte menu.
Here’s where I made a big mistake ... I thought each of us could pick five different things (it said ‘A partir de 1 y hasta 10 comensales’ ... ‘from one up to 10 guests’) but they wanted you to pick five common items and then split them. Our waitress spoke only Spanish and couldn’t get that across to us (I understand enough Spanish to pick this up had she worded it differently, but I thought she was telling us we couldn’t order something because of my wife’s gluten allergy). So we had to wait for about 10 minutes while an English-speaking waiter finished setting up the big tables for the large group.
Once he helped us I caught on quickly and apologized, but he was very gracious and said we could just go ahead and get ten items, which I thought was extremely kind of them. This was also when I asked if we could move inside because of the smokers (I’m extremely sensitive, unfortunately), which they handled gracefully as well. I knew we were becoming the high-maintanence table (everyone else spoke Spanish) and felt self-conscious about it, but they handled things perfectly.
I should mention that they offer the menu in English (in the restaurant, if not on their web page) and also give each table an iPad with photos of almost every dish, so in general they are English-friendly. I just threw them off with my misunderstanding of the Gastronomic menu terms.
Anyway, back to the food. Couple of amuse-bouches, then for my first course I had fish soup (comfort food – OK dish, but comfort food) while my wife had ‘lobster salad’, which wasn’t a salad and didn’t look like a typical lobster dish (photos of my wife’s dishes below). She rated this dish ‘exceptional’, our first A+ of the trip. (The Spanish menu calls this dish “Ensalada de bogavante templada con esfera se sus cabeza”.)
My second course was two big chunks of smoked octopus, which my wife said was the best octopus she had ever eaten (I liked it OK, but it was a big course – probably too heavy). It also came with some smoke-infused soft tofu gnocchi.
Her second course was amazing for such a simple dish ... just broad beans with an egg yolk (“Habitas estofadas con yema de caserío”), but the beans had perfect texture and a subtle taste. I was offered a couple of beans, which were wonderful, then I dipped my fork in for a couple more, then on my third pass with a bigger spoon I was rapped across my knuckles with her spoon, so I didn’t get to try the yolk or sauce. But this was a really special dish and she gave it another A+ (photo below).
At this point the chef-owner, Fernando Canales, stopped by for a grip-and-grin, like he does with every table (and like Carme Ruscalleda did at Sant Pau). He’s a very animated, articulate chef who has his own cooking show on Spanish TV, so he has a smooth table-side manner and enjoyed talking about his cooking. He speaks pretty good English and I can speak a little Spanish.
When I mentioned we were on a foodie trip that included Sant Pau and Azurmendi and a Martin Berasategui restaurant he perked up. And when we praised him profusely for the bean dish he opened up a bit more. I asked how he cooked it (‘sous vide for 17 hours’ – it’s possible I lost something in the translation here – ‘only young peas from one district in the south of Spain’ – the flavor was due to ‘la cebolla’ or onions). I asked if this was a seasonal dish (thank you for the Spanish lessons Duolingo.com) or year-round and he either said it was available just in May and October or maybe from May to October (I need more Spanish lessons).
My wife told him that dish was worthy of a Michelin 3* restaurant and that we hoped to return next May and perhaps have it again. Even I thought she was getting a bit carried away :)
Shortly after this the English-speaking waiter appeared with a bottle of white Rioja (Finca La Reñana, from Luis Alegre) and offered us a glass ‘compliments of the chef.’ Fernando appeared moments later and said this wine had been named ‘the best oaked white wine in the world’ by Robert Parker of Wine Advocate. I found this hard to believe given the great oaked chardonnays from Burgundy and Napa, but when I did an internet search later I found words roughly to that effect here: http://www.riojawine.cn/en/rioja-chin...
It was definitely the best Spanish white wine I’ve ever tried (Parker’s score was 92) and a good match for the food dishes. I gather that aging white wines in oak is not typical in Spain but it worked here. The wine was actually not expensive (about $20) but only 35 barrels were made so I doubt I’ll ever see a bottle in a US wine shop.
Anyway, my next course was a hake dish selected by our waiter (I had to try hake once; now I know and that itch has been scratched), with salsa verde, hake cheeks and clams. Not bad but basically more comfort food. My smug little wife kept her winning streak alive with a creamy mushroom soup that had bits of grilled ‘cigalitas’, which are probably crawfish – the English menu called them ‘scampi’. She rated this another ‘excellent’ dish.
Fernando appeared with a plate of either crab or lobster legs, saying ‘try it right now!’. We each broke one open and sucked out the flesh, which was fresh and succulent. ‘These are best when they are fresh’ he said and it seemed you could almost taste and smell the sea from them.
My fourth dish was “Rape asado con su hueso sobre compota de cebolla morado de Zalla” (Monkfish roasted on the bone over carmelized Zalla onion compote) and my wife’s was ‘Sauteed scampi with vegetables’. She thought scampi meant shrimp when she ordered but was very happy with the taste of the crawfish, rating this another ‘exceptional’ dish. My monkfish was my best savory dish of my courses, I thought, but I was still eating comfort food.
Our last savory dishes were suckling lamb shoulder for me and ‘Rib of Euskal pig with mushrooms’ for my wife. Mine was very good but hers (again) was exceptional (‘the best ribs in the world’ said Fernando ... my wife felt they were the best ribs she had ever eaten). Chef said he had cooked the lamb and the ribs sous vide, which accounts for their tenderness.
Before dessert Chef brought us a pre-dessert of a thin raspberry wafer over what I think was lemongrass ice cream (not sure; it wasn’t on the menu). We also were given a sweet red dessert wine (can’t remember the name).
For desserts I had “millefeuille of apple and baked fresh pasta”, sort of like an apple strudel. My wife, who is allergic to gluten, was happy to hear that they had a chocolate cake / brownie dessert that didn’t use wheat flour (which also came with ice cream). This is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes that our waiter suggested for her: “Josefina Maguregui cake with hazelnut cream”. Once again she was really happy with this dish.
Later when I did a search on ‘Josefina Maguregui’ just to learn who she was this page came up :) http://365bilbao.com/2012/08/22/paste...
I’m not sure why we got on so well with the Chef. We are not hip or cool or trendy, we are older than PBSF (and that’s old). I’m sure the Chef never even knew our names. I guess its because we had a genuine appreciation for his cooking and an interest in his techniques and he picked up on that.
Pros: the ‘cocina creativa’ dishes my wife had were excellent and she ranked her meal second only to Azurmendi even though the cost was less than half that of Lasarte, Sant Pau and Azurmendi, and 35% less than at the other 1*, Alkimia. At the end of the trip I asked her to name her ten favorite dishes from the five restaurants. She picked four from Azurmendi, one from Lasarte and five from her meal here at Etxanobe.
Wine service was excellent (nice matches to the food), and we really enjoyed our personal interaction with Chef Canales. Nice setting with the views from on high.
Cons: the ‘traditional’ dishes I had were OK but surely more expensive than you could find at a less posh traditional Basque restaurant. So you probably need to choose the right dishes to get the full Michelin experience.
Thanks, and good timing since next week we'll be in Bilbao again and stopping by to dine with Chef Canales a second time.
I also need to make some corrections/clarifications to the original write-up, as my Spanish skills slowly improve:
* 'Josefina Maguregui' is Chef Canales' grandmother and this dish was one of her recipes.
* what I referred to as 'scampi' or 'crawfish' in two dishes were actually 'cigalas', which I had trouble translating accurately. Apparently 'scampi' just refers to the tails. I also called the small ones, "cigalitas", 'roasted prawns' in the photo with the mushroom soup.
Eventually I learned what it was -- from Wikipedia, "Nephrops norvegicus, known variously as the Norway lobster, Dublin Bay prawn, langoustine (compare langostino) or scampi, is a slim, orange-pink lobster which grows up to 25 cm (10 in) long, and is "the most important commercial crustacean in Europe." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nephrops...
* The "English-speaking waiter" is Zigor Gutiérrez, a gentleman who speaks four languages and is actually the manager of the dining room.
* What I called "Lobster salad" in the first photo is, I now believe, "Tartar de Gambas con gel de lemongrass".