The Art of Living
Chefs who introduce familiar ingredients in new ways and open up our minds to the possibilities, chefs who elicit emotion and change the way we think, these chefs give our lives meaning much in the same way our college professors and business mentors have done. They’re educators, innovators & guides to the ‘good life.’ Chef Josean Alija of Nerua is all of the above.
Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication
Upon walking into Nerua, you are standing in the beating heart of the restaurant. First stop is the kitchen for a few ‘welcome bites’ while adjusting to the surroundings. Next you are whisked off to be seated in the blank canvas that is the dining room overlooking the Nervion river and the Louise Bourgeois ‘Maman’ Sculpture (spider) outside the Guggenheim.
A few tables with white linens and barren walls line a half circle with natural light illuminating a stark yet welcoming room. There is something extra special about dining in a Michelin Star restaurant attached to a museum; the finest art in human history shares walls with the No. 56 best chef in the world¹. We’re about to consume Guggenheim with our eyes, hearts and stomachs.
Soul & Precision
We opted for an 18-course tasting at lunch with wine pairing. Grapes and blends are unique in Basque Country which prompted us to choose the pairing. We normally only order one wine pairing (if at all) and one non-alcoholic pairing as to temper sobriety. The wine added so much depth to this menu, we are grateful that we added the service and would encourage others to do the same.
Each dish is prepared with great effort and precision. Certain ingredients are cooked for under 1 minute while others are cooked for 18+ hours to achieve desired texture and nutritional values. The combination of ingredients took us on a very consistent journey avoiding peaks and valleys but rather humming along at a wonderful cadence with delicious bites persisting throughout the 3.5 hour experience.
The standout detail of the day was the temperature, design and curvature of the utensils and linens. Not only was wine paired to enhance the experience, but spoons and forks were heated in tandem with applicable dishes. The drop of the wine glasses was sleek and arousing like the figure of Marilyn Monroe as if she had popped in to join us for lunch. There was something erotic about running our hands down the hourglass shape of the wine glasses as we stole kisses between courses. Our favorite non-edible aspect of the meal was the attention to detail of the plates, utensils and linens. A myriad of small details that obviously have led to and perpetuate the continued successes of Nerua.
The Menu & Platings
It’s as if the brush strokes of Claude Monet slipped off their canvas and ended up on our plate, that’s the best way we can articulate the softness and beauty of the platings at Nerua. ~ E.B. Woodward
Below we have presented just a few highlights of our favorite flavors and the beautiful yet simple presentations of garden vegetables, wine, seafood and dessert.
Turning a Dislike Into a Love
One of our most exquisite bites of the year occurred Tuesday, Sept 5, 2017 at Nerua Guggenheim Bilbao. Mostly because Chef turned an ‘ingredient dislike’ into a love at different points for both Brandon and me. Brandon hates onions. I strongly dislike shrimp. We never mention our preferences to restaurants ahead of visiting (even when they ask) because we prefer to experience their expertise in totality. It’s not like we have allergies or dietary restrictions, so if we said anything, we’d just be whining about onions and shrimp. We simply try everything that’s placed before us and then eat around anything that we don’t love. We’ve been doing this for years, no problem. We’ve got a 90/10 run rate with this approach as 90% of the time we love everything that is served at a fine dining restaurant. At Nerua, we ended up with a 100% run rate. We trust good chefs to use onions responsibly and to prepare shrimp in a palatable way and not only did Chef Josean prepare every course perfectly, he turned our two main ingredient-dislikes into LOVES.
We were pleasantly surprised and are pretty excited to share these special moments with you.
A dish was placed before us with three prawns perched atop peach reduction dressed in paper-thin summer truffle with a side of shredded beans. Such a beautiful, delicate, earthy, sweet, oceanic combination. The most striking outcome for me (Erin) is that I typically avoid shrimp on account that I don’t like the texture or flavor, but I always gravitate to truffle, so when this dish arrived, the juxtaposition made me stop and stare. ‘Love and hate’ had arrived on one plate. Upon picking up the fork which had been heated to an ideal temperature, the softness of the dish began when my hand touched the utensil. The curvature also added beauty to each mouthful. I closed my eyes and transformed. At that moment falling entirely in love with Josean’s shrimp dish. The shrimp were BBQ’d for 1 minute and took on the flavor of the peach and truffle – exquisite!
Brandon’s moment of transformation arrived eight dishes later when the ‘Tuna Belly’ was placed before him and our lovely Stefania (chef’s wife & Maître) and Joserra (second Maître) offered the description of onion as a primary ingredient of the dish. I bit my lip and stared at the lone flower on the table, feeling my heart sink a little for Brandon. With much hesitation, Brandon picked up his fork and tested a corner. I enjoy onions without apprehension, but since we’ve been married, I try to avoid them only so he’ll kiss me later and he’s made it clear he despises onion breath (ha!). As I made my way through this dish, getting braver with the sauce, I notice Brandon soaking up every bit of the onion sauce with a spoon. Perplexed he turned to me and said, “this isn’t my idea of onion, it’s prepared just right.” At that moment, his dismay for onions morphed into radiant joy but only because Chef is an expert in his craft.
This was a first for both of us to fall in love with historically non-preferred ingredients. At best, we usually just nod and move on. In the same way that we had to ‘kiss a lot of frogs’ before finding each other, we’ve also had to choke down a lot of shrimp and onions before finding “the one!” And to each find our ‘one’ unexpectedly on the same day, made the discovery even better. For us, these two dishes are the benchmark for quality preparation and we’ll be on the quest to find something in the future that surpasses our enjoyment. Thank you Chef Josean!
Chef’s Table vs. Dining Room
Before booking at Nerua, decide what mood you want to be in on the night of the reservation. Elegant? Then go with the dining room. Playful? Then go with Chef’s Table. We had the pleasure of doing both. Chef’s Table was whimsical and intentionally less coherent in flow. Chef presented items that would appear on the fall menu while mixing in ideas for 2018. He’d explain preparation of the dish, leave us to take a bite and then immediately ask for our feedback while making us laugh along the way (fitting to our personalities). A few dishes made us light up – the ‘Carbonara,’ traditional noodles and Iberian pork cooked for 18 hours at 62 degrees C in a savory coconut milk and ‘Duck Paw with aubergine’ just like it sounds, the webbed foot of the duck, was cooked for 12 hours and it was entirely delicious (one of a kind!) – while all dishes were quite impressive and very different from the traditional tasting menu, to elaborate on Chef’s Table would/will require an entirely separate post because there’s so much to share. Suffice it to say that we were extremely pleased with the presentation and would recommend both or either reservation based solely on mood.
World’s 50 Best June 2018
The great news for us as Tastemakers is that awards ceremony in June of 2018 will be held in Bilbao, Spain. There are several excellent choices along the way of fine dining in Basque Country and Nerua is one that cannot be missed. Our Spain adventure of 2017 was the most satisfying and fun we’ve ever had in Europe thanks to our gracious hosts who treated us like family and showed us around narrating the gastronomic progression of Bilbao. There is something extremely magical about the people, scenery and cuisine in Northern Spain. We cannot wait to return!
Click here for Nerua Bilbao reservations.
Thank you for reading!
E & B Woodward
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¹William Reed, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017