Like most tourists, I suppose, we did a tour of the Guggenheim before having lunch at Nerua (one Michelin star). Also like many others, we found the building’s architecture more impressive than the art it contained. There were several notable exceptions, however. Gazing at, and walking through Richard Serra’s oversized geometric shapes (The Matter of Time) was quite enjoyable. The oversized geometric shapes invite not only viewing, but actually entering and walking through them. It quite took one out of oneself.
Also noteworthy was Louise Bourgeois’ iconic, and commanding, sculpture of a gigantic spider in front of the museum. The work’s title, Maman, suggests the artist’s relationship with her mother may have been complicated.
Nerua is conveniently close to the museum, being part of the same building. Entrance to the restaurant is through the kitchen area and one is struck, first, by a shout of greeting from the kitchen staff. Our own entrance was complicated by the fact that the staff had some confusion about our reservation. We had to go back and forth with them several times to convince them that we really did have one. About the third go round, we showed them the confirming e-mail that they themselves had sent us (which we had tried to show them since the beginning) and they then discovered that they had transposed M.’s name (who sent the original e-mail) and my name (under which the reservation was made). The take home lesson is that if you have a confirming e-mail from a popular restaurant, take a copy with you when you go.
Our bona fides having been established, we were guided to the far end of the kitchen where the sous chef presented several amuse bouche items and discussed the layout of the kitchen. There were several items, but the one that really stood out for me was a green juice prepared from tomatoes that tasted as fresh as spring itself. This presentation was a very good way to start lunch and helped make up for the fumbled reservation.
The first thing we noticed on entering the dining area was the minimalist decor of the place. The restaurant is in the same building as the Guggenheim and the ceiling tiles are the same as are used in the museum (nice touch), but otherwise everything is plain walls and tables. One man’s minimalist is another’s antiseptic and I am afraid I fall more into the second category. The featureless room made it hard not to be distracted by the movement of the staff and the other customers. This relates to my personal taste of course, but the distraction was a real thing for me.
We were there for the food, not the decor, and in that department we were not disappointed, at least in the main. We chose the 18 product menu with ten wine pairings. A couple of the courses fell flat but, overall, the lunch was a success and we enjoyed it very much.
We chose the 18 product meal with 10 wine pairings and, overall, we had a very good lunch and an enjoyable experience. High points were: several of the dishes reached near-epic levels, the warm introduction from the kitchen staff as we entered, the preparation of the amuse in the kitchen and the wine pairings. However, the meal was priced to perfection so I feel justified in commenting on a few other aspects that seemed less than optimal.
I have already mentioned the mix up with the reservations. Such things happen occasionally and is not a disaster, but the issue seemed to take a long time to resolve given we had a printed copy of their confirmatory email.
The second issue is perhaps more a matter of taste and concerns my reaction to the decor. Some no doubt prefer the severe minimalism, but to me it seemed cold and unwelcoming. The decor made it hard for me to concentrate on the meal. Indeed, I felt much more focused on the food in the cavernous and busy The Jane in Antwerp than I did at the much smaller Nerua.
Finally the food itself. Many of the dishes were first rate, but there were a few that were merely interesting and one or two that fell flat. Perhaps it is inevitable that there will be a few courses out of 18 will be disappointing, but as I mentioned, the meal was priced for perfection which makes it difficult to feel forgiving.
Bilbao is a charming town and I would very much like to return someday. If we do however, I would probably choose another one of the fine restaurants in the area, despite the enjoyable experience we had at Nerua.
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