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!
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.
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.
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.
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.