Review: Restaurant Amarena, Bilbao, Spain

Arriving late in the afternoon in Bilbao, Basque Country, K and I were stuck for ideas for dinner. Having been fully engrossed in our travels at that point through the Netherlands, Belgium and France, we hadn’t really done any research into what Spain, and more specifically the Basque Autonomous Region, offered in terms of regional dining specialities.

Walking through the Old Town, we saw groups of people out drinking at bars and eating little bar snacks, but nowhere did we actually see anyone having a full meal. It wasn’t until later after doing some research that we realised it was normal to have drinks and pintxos (like tapas) at bars until about 9pm – 10pm, at which point you move onto a restaurant to have dinner.


My stomach doesn’t agree with those dining hours though, as it demands satisfaction from an evening meal no later than 8pm! So with some difficulty, we found a proper sit-down restaurant serving up early dinners to tourists like ourselves – Restaurant Amarena.


We steeled ourselves for the very worst in tourist dining experiences – high prices, generic menus, bland food. The lack of locals in the restaurant all seemed to indicate that we had a less than ideal foodie evening ahead. Luckily, it proved to be the exact opposite as you’ll see later on!

Warm seasonal vegetable salad, $7.50 Euro

Warm seasonal vegetable salad, $7.50 Euro

We started by sharing the Warm Seasonal Vegetable Salad as an entree. The whole salad was lightly dressed with a tasty tangy vinaigrette and a little cucumber and tomato salsa, but the highlight was definitely the charring on the winter vegetables in the salad. Nothing quite beats smoky chargrilled eggplant and capsicum, and sweet caramelised pumpkin.

Braised veal cheeks, $9.90 Euro

Braised veal cheeks, $9.90 Euro

K ordered the Braised Veal Cheeks – and didn’t expect too much from the description on the menu given it was listed with a sub-$10 price point. He was very pleasantly surprised when this dish was set in front of him – soft, tender veal that fell apart with a single touch. Served with some roast potatoes and a strong savoury gravy, this dish was a hearty meal that really hit the spot.

Basque hake with prawns and clams, $13.50 Euro

Basque hake with prawns and clams, $13.50 Euro

I chose to have a local seafood specialty – the Basque Hake with Prawns and Clams. The most disappointing thing about this dish is that it was only served with two clams and two prawns on top, as I would have expected a little more for the price. Still, the fish was cooked beautifully, and the herbed buttery sauce was absolutely delicious, especially when sopped up with the complimentary bread.

Pantxineta, traditional Basque dessert, $5.90 Euro

Pantxineta, traditional Basque dessert, $5.90 Euro

We shared a dessert to finish our meal – Pantxineta, a traditional Basque dessert. I had no idea what it was when we ordered it, as the waiter who didn’t speak English very well simply said, “It’s a traditional cake”. What it actually is is a puff pastry tart filled with custard, topped with nuts and icing sugar. This was served on a bed of thick and rich dark chocolate sauce, and a less impressive scoop of vanilla ice-cream on the side. It was absolutely delicious in its simplicity, definitely a dessert that I’d like to try and replicate when we return to Australia!

Overall, our meal at Restaurant Amarena was an amazing start to our time in Spain/Basque Country. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of each dish presented, especially as we had walked in expecting to be gouged in a tourist trap. Further research after we left the area advised us that this level of quality is consistently maintained throughout all restaurants in the Basque Country, where food plays an integral part in local culture. A good reason to return to Bilbao?

Restaurant Amarena is located at 18 Calle Santa Maria, Bilbao, Spain.

Chanoy Honeymoon: Provence and Toulouse, France, October 2015

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

While we had originally planned to spend a few nights on the Cote D’Azur, we decided to skip that part of the trip as they had recently suffered through some heavy rainfall that had resulted in unprecedented flooding and loss of human life. Why put extra strain on local resources? Instead, we spent an extra night in Torino and then drove straight through to Provence, and the little farmhouse (complete with rabbits, chickens and dogs!) that we had rented just outside of Aix-en-Provence.

It’s quite a scenic drive, even along the toll roads. I particularly enjoyed driving over the Italian-French border near Embrun, where we stopped for a simple lunch at the bakery. It’s particularly nice taking your bakery purchases and moving onto one of the many beautiful outlook points in the area to eat your sandwich – whether it’s overlooking the mountains and valleys, or to a picnic area by the serene waters of Lac de Serre-Ponçon.

As we drove closer to our farmhouse, I decided that I wanted to stop by the regional area of Valensole, which is reputed to be the home of the famous lavender fields of Provence. Of course, what I probably should have done beforehand is research the growing time of lavender…as it was, I learned when we arrived that lavender only blooms between June and August, and so we were nearly two months too late to enjoy the views! The more you know…

Still, that couldn’t spoil our stay in Provence. Our farmhouse was adorable and cooking some simple rustic stews in our little kitchen made our stay feel particularly authentic. It was also well located, with Aix-en-Provence proving to be a good base to other scenic towns in the area. I did find it hard to get used to our bio-toilet though…let’s just say that I’m now fonder than ever of toilets with flushing water. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to simply covering up my ‘business’ with sawdust.

So, what did we do in the area? We spent some time in the town of Aix-en-Provence, which is particularly picturesque. One of the main highlights of the town is the pride they have in their most famous past resident – the artist Paul Cezanne. There’s a fantastic walking tour (both self-guided or with a guide) that you can do through the city centre that takes you past some of the key locations of his life. His preserved studio is also available for visits, slightly outside of town.

Given that I’m not personally a fan of his post-Impressionist style, I much preferred our visit to Nîmes. About two hours away from Aix-en-Provence, Nîmes actually offers some of the best-preserved Roman architecture in the world. The Nîmes Arena is actually in such great shape that they still use it to hold concerts and other performances…imagine attending a concert in an arena that dates back two thousand years! There are other Roman buildings and ruins in the city including the Maison Carree and the Tour Magne. It’s definitely worth a visit!

In fact, the whole Provence area is worth a much longer visit than we were able to spare – with all the distinct little towns in the area each with their own personalities and attractions, you could very easily spent three weeks here. We’ll definitely have to return for a longer trip next time.

Our next stop was in Toulouse for a brief sojourn before we ventured into Spain. Particularly noteworthy for the great meal we had at Mon Canard, the rest of the town centre isn’t too remarkable or different from other medium-sized French cities – there’s a river, some bridges, old churches, town squares, etc etc. I think the main highlight for K was our visit to the Airbus factory located in Toulouse – as a designer/engineer, being able to see the assembly line for the A380 plane was a real thrill. The Airbus museum included old Concorde planes and Super Guppy cargo planes which you could enter, and is worth the additional entry fee.

And with Toulouse, we said goodbye to France and set our sights on our next destination – Spain!

Review: Mon Canard, Toulouse France

Shockingly, we hadn’t eaten any duck in the first few weeks that we had been in France, and so K determined to find a restaurant specialising in cassoulet during our short stay in Toulouse. Did you know that cassoulet and other dishes involving duck are considered a regional speciality around Toulouse? This point was made quite clear when we walked past a restaurant called Mon Canard late on our first evening in the city, and decided to go back for lunch the next day.


Mon Canard is located just slightly out of the old town and shopping districts of Toulouse, near a couple of universities and larger office buildings. This has the benefit of making it relatively tourist-free, and very affordable for the local students and workers. Still, they have a menu in English so you won’t run the risk of ordering any less appetising parts of the duck and receiving a nasty shock when a duck gizzard salad (one of the items on the menu!) is placed in front of you.


We arrived at the restaurant early, almost as soon as it opened its doors at 12pm. Unsurprisingly we were the first ones to be seated and order – I’m not sure if I could get used to the later dining hours that we were exposed to in southern France and the Iberian peninsula!


The earlier dining time did mean that we got to see the waiter/owner in action as he started to prepare the restaurant for the lunch crowd. Most excitingly, this meant seeing him take delivery of a giant burlap bag of bread rolls from the local bakery, and start slicing them with a bread guillotine. Nothing better than super fresh bakery bread served directly to your table!

Mon Canard midday menu ($14.90 Euro) First course Homemade Tender Foie Gras (extra $1 Euro)

Mon Canard midday menu ($14.90 Euro)
First course Homemade Tender Foie Gras (extra $1 Euro)

K was set on just ordering one main dish (the cassoulet of course), but I decided to try the restaurant’s special two-course midday menu. My first course which I shared with K, was Homemade Tender Foie Gras. What I liked about this foie gras was its rich meatiness and gamey duck flavours, but I have to say that I wasn’t particularly keen on the texture. It was a lot smoother than the commercial foie gras that we tend to eat, and it lacked a certain rawness that I like in my foie gras. I do like that it was served with some palate-cleansing salad though!

Castelnaudary's cassoulet with veal's juice ($16.40 Euro)

Castelnaudary’s cassoulet with veal’s juice ($16.40 Euro)

Was K’s Cassoulet everything he dreamed about and more? It was incredibly rich and creamy, and being served in the ceramic dish meant that it stayed hot for a long time – important for a thick and stodgy dish like this. While the beans were cooked well, they managed to bridge that treacherous gap between firm and mushy. The sausage was very strongly porky and meaty, and the piece of duck meat was particularly tender. It was a very large serve – easily enough to serve two people (with an entree), so the fact that K managed to finish it all did mean that it put him into a food coma for the rest of the day!

Grilled Duck Confit

Grilled Duck Confit

My main dish was a Grilled Duck Confit – quite easily one of the best duck dishes I’ve ever eaten, right up there with the Peking Duck pancakes I had in Beijing. The duck meat was amazingly tender and sweet – and when I say that the meat just fell of the bone, I mean that in a literal sense. Yet, the skin was still deliciously crispy and savoury. The battered zucchini slices were less impressive…but let’s face it, the main attraction is the confit duck!

Home-made french fries at will

Home-made french fries at will

The Mon Canard midday menu also comes with Home-made French Fries on the side, described as ‘at will’. I didn’t put it to the test as I was already full enough as it was, but my understanding is that you can ask for more french fries completely free-of-charge if you’re able to finish the first serve. If I had space, you bet I would have asked for more of these fries as well – super crispy and tasty, made of a type of super-flavourful potato that I’m sure we just don’t get in Australia.

I don’t often order duck when I’m out at restaurants – it’s difficult for many chefs to get right as the meat can become dry quite easily. After our meal at Mon Canard, I can say with some confidence that this isn’t an issue that you would ever encounter here – instead what you’ll get is deliciously prepared traditional French duck dishes for a reasonable price. Well worth a visit if ever you go to Toulouse and feel like some local cassoulet or duck confit!

Mon Canard is located at 12 Boulevard Lascrosses in Toulouse, France.