CHEF CONCIERGE • March 2019
A queen of Spanish cuisine, Nieves Barragan is the talented chef behind Sabor, which opened last year on London’s Heddon Street and was awarded its first Michelin star just eight months later. Here, she shares an insider guide to her beloved Bilbao
Breakfast worth getting up early for
Scala Cafe is a real classic, with a bit of a retro 1960’s feel, all wooden interiors and a horseshoe-shaped bar. The white toast, grilled with lots of butter and strawberry jam then dusted with icing sugar, is amazing. Order a latte to have with it; in Spain lattes are shorter, a bit more like a flat white.
Hip hangout where children are welcome
Azkuna Zentroa is a former wine warehouse transformed into a multi-use cultural hub. Left abandoned for 30 years, it’s been restored by renowned French designer Philippe Starck and has an impressive columned atrium. It’s packed with fun things for the family – a cinema, reading area, swimming pool and lots of children’s workshops, as well as restaurants including tapas joint The Boar.
Foodie souvenir to take home
There are two things you mustn’t miss, and both can be bought at Arrese (pictured below), the oldest family bakery in Bilbao (open since 1852). First, the handmade truffles are divine, with a buttercream centre and coated in the best chocolate. Second, get some carolinas – the pastry crust is a bit like that of a pastel de nata, but it’s then topped with meringue, with one side dipped in dark chocolate and the other in sweet egg yolk. Several shops sell them across the city, even at the airport.
Best food market
La Ribera Market is Europe’s largest covered market, with 10,000sqm of shops and gastro-stalls, selling everything from omelettes and pintxos to seafood and chocolate con churros. It’s open six days a week (with shorter hours on Saturday; closed on Sunday) and there’s a bar where you can enjoy live jazz.
Favourite place for sweet things
A Bilbao must-try is a bollo de mantequilla, a delicious brioche bun, packed with a rich buttercream. For the best one head to Martina de Zuricalday (pictured below) the Basque Country’s oldest artisan bakery, founded in 1830. I always visit here with my mother when I’m back home.
Tastiest ‘grab-and-go’ eaterie
In Bilbao there isn’t really a street food/truck scene, but salt cod is a typical dish some places serve to take away. If I want comforting salt cod like my Mum would make, I go to La Casa del Bacalao, which has been selling cod – salted, soaked and in many dishes – for 40 years. Everything is homemade and laid out in terracotta dishes; just pick what you fancy and they’ll heat it, then you can eat in or out.
Where to impress on a date
Just before sunset, make for Rooftop Le Club on the top-floor terrace of the Ercilla Hotel (pictured below) and order a glass of chilled vermouth. If the weather is fine, enjoy sprawling views of the city’s rooftops, but if not, snuggle down inside on one of the sofas by the fireplace.
The pintxos hotspot
One of Bilbao’s oldest bars, Cafe Iruna is a striking spot that also does great pinxtos. It’s close to the Jardines de Albia, and inside you’ll find walls covered with tiles, bright murals and stained glass, all inspired by Andalucia’s Islamic palaces. Try the pintxos moruno, succulent lamb skewers (I serve a version of it in my restaurant, Sabor) with a cold beer.
Dining experience worth leaving town for
Just 10 minutes from the city centre and close to the airport is Aspaldiko, a 16th-century wooden farmhouse. Here, chef Javier Villar whips up traditional Basque cuisine in a marvellous rural setting – think salted cod and lots of stews. Having dinner here is like dining in someone’s home. Fantastic.
Interview by Ianthe Butt. Nieves Barragan is chef director and co-founder of acclaimed restaurant Sabor. To book your table, click here