Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bilbao Eats: Restaurante Guggenheim

As museums go, the Guggenheim Bilbao is pretty incredible. The place is something to behold from inch to inch: the Gehry building, the artwork outside (including this Koons flower pup), the artwork inside... it's really overwhelming, and a good example of how an institution that makes that large of an artistic statement will eventually mould a city's identity.

When it comes to Basque cuisine, most will tell you to make the drive from Bilbao to San Sebastian, which has more Michelin stars per capita than any other place on earth (for example, one of the fathers of new Spanish cuisine, Arzak, hails from San Sebastian). But when Food & Wine magazine calls Josean Martínez Alija, the chef at the Restaurante Guggenheim, "Europe's most thrilling young chef," you know you gotsta check it out.

The restaurant, located on the second floor of the museum, features a more standard bistro out front, but with the formal dining room in the back looking over the river. The place is posher than most museum restaurants; I can't remember chilling out at the Glenbow while sitting on Gehry designed chairs.

We both ordered the tasting menu, which we try to do in order to really get a sense of where the chef is coming from. This started with a chilled cranberry juice or tea, spiced lightly with cinnamon, which was just sweet enough to have flavour, but just neutral enough to serve as a palate cleanser. At the same time, the server put a huge aspirin pill in front of us, and poured a touch of water on top. After a minute, the pill grew into a wet napkin (the picture shows it just after the water was poured on it). If this was the opening act, we were anticipating some really crazy shit to go down next.

As an amuse bouche, we were served a small piece of bread that had been infused with herb oil (can't remember which herb). When I say infused, I don't mean that it was merely soaking in herb oil: this bread tasted as though it had been completely made out of herb oil, but with nary a drop appearing on the plate. And yet, at the same time, the bread wasn't soggy at all, but light and chewy instead.

Alija is known for emphasizing on local, with the menu spotlighting certain 'slow food' dishes. This white asparagus dish exemplified this: the white asparagus is lightly grilled, eaten with your hands, and accompanied by a juniper and chevril 'gel' dipping sauce, which really helped to heighten the natural flavor of the asparagus without over-complicating the mix of flavours.

The next dish played on the same theme, but took it to a whole other level. The menu listed it as "roasted aubergine flavoured with 'makil goxo', based on a yogurt emulsion* 'Farga' olive, a thousand years [sic] old olive tree)." As far as I can tell, this was an amazingly slow braised eggplant, cooked to the point of ridiculous tenderness but without having the eggplant fall apart, with a licorice flavoured glaze, and plated like a painting with the yogurt emulsion on the side, which helped to balance the strong licorice taste.

I can't overemphasize how beautiful this dish was plated, and wish that the picture did it more justice. At the same time, I'm not usually a licorice fan, but the level of thought and care put into this dish really elevated the eggplant above it, and it is, by far, one of the most memorable things I have eaten in my life. Here's a video of Alija speaking at a Pecha Kucha night: I don't understand a lick of Spanish, but if you forward to 3:35 or so, you can see the plating of this very dish, and the thoughtfulness involved.

The crazy flavors were toned down for the next course, which worked well as a bridge to the meat courses coming up. I could just describe it as a roast avocado in a squid broth, but the menu listing does it alot more justice: "vegetarian foie. (avocado), with a juice of baby squid, acidulated and coriandered." If you've never done yourself the favour of putting an avocado on the grill, do it: it brings out an incredible butteriness and sweetness to an avocado that can't be beat. You almost can't go back to having it raw, and it works well in guacamole too. This avocado was lightly salted, but the squid broth really took it somewhere else, adding an immense richness to the dish that made it something quite special.

A fish course came next: steamed hake resting on a wild garlic and caper sauce, with a touch of lemon and herb. Hake can often be quite dry, but this came out as moist as a halibut.

My meat course was "Thoughts of lamb grilled over a fire of dried vine cuttings, on a base of Tolosa beans and hints of hot spice." Or, in other words, lamb brains. For the most part, brains taste alot like sweetbreads (which are other glands), but these seemed to be even softer and mushier. In other words, they're certainly not for the squeamish, and the light foam in the sauce probably ain't gonna help either. I do remember this being quite amazing, but I probably remember it more as the time I ate brains.

My lovely companion, quite understandably, wanted to sub in another option. Instead of brains, she had a course of Iberian pork. I can't remember what this was served with, but take note of the colour: this pork was served medium rare. Again, not for the squeamish, but the rareness of the pork did help to keep the natural taste of this dish intact, and made it quite a rich, wonderful thing (well, the one piece I tried, anyway).

As a pre-dessert course, we had slices of pear with hazelnut, poached in a "Garmillas" cheese "serum" (whatever that is) with elder flower. This was a good touch of sweetness to bring us to dessert, but without being a diabetic, syrupy nightmare than many poached pears end up being. Nice, delicate and light.

The dessert continued on the licorice theme from the eggplant course, with a licorice ice cream, black olive ashes, and a "casein" of aromatic herbs. The casein is an amazingly rich cream, which was pretty necessary considering how strong licorice can be. I remember this dessert as being mostly about those two flavors, and don't remember much about the black olive ashes.

If there's one thing I love about getting a tasting menu, it's the free stuff that you're often served as well. Post dessert is an amazing thing that can bring tears to my eyes. This was either a berry-flavored mousse or a pannacotta of some sort, with a nice little Pocky-style breadstick thing topped with pistachio. By this point, we were full to the point of obscenity (considering this was a late lunch), so I can't say too much about it.

After years of having Adria and molecular gastronomy re-make Spanish cuisine in their image, it's interesting to see Alija and what he's doing in the wake: where do you go from such a notorious movement? If the tasting menu is any indication, Alija emphasizes the "naturaleza" elements of what both Adria brothers have been doing, but in a way that, despite all the technique and complexity that must go on behind it, showcases simplicity, or, as Food and Wine put it, "aggressively purist." The odd thing of it is, Alija also makes it seem completely decadent.

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