On a recent trip to Bilbao we went to Nerua, a restaurant that everyone said was amazing and a must go. We did a fair amount of research on this place before making the reservation. We read that Josean Martinez Alija was a fantastic young chef with innate talent and creativity. We read that the restaurant recently received its first michelin star, something that is always impressive, and from many posts we read, all that ate there loved it and talked of the food in lovely poetic ways. Given all the hype we were excited, and decided it would be a good place to celebrate the eve of jose’s bday. (Who doesn’t love a bday champagne toast at midnight?)
When we arrived we were greeted by all the chefs in unison saying hello in Basque, similar to what you might expect at small Japanese places in NYC. While a bit forced, it was a nice way to be welcomed. We were then ushered to the open kitchen where one of the chefs told us about how the kitchen was an experimental place. It seemed like it, As I looked beyond into the expensive and beautiful space, the chefs all appeared, like scientists, insanely focused and tweezing up a storm.
The Snacks: The chef then gave us some broth and a wafer. And told us that these embodied the flavor of the terrior. Perhaps thats what they were going for, but in my mind I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was taking communion. One dry chalky wafer in one hand and some bland tasting broth to wash it down with. The chef then told us a story about their special bread that is made with corn and how it is a reflection of the area around them. This left us eager to try this “special” bread. After the speech was over we were escorted to our seats. Jose and I traded subtle smiles as we thanked them for the “treat”.
The Space: Next up we were brought to the dining room…ok I was shocked by what I saw… white nothingness everywhere mixed with a few candles and my least favorite frank gehry chairs (that to me resemble a twisted up wood nest. They had to bring in a little nature somehow.) I love minimalism but seriously?? what the heck was the designer thinking. There is no way this concept would pass in my interior architecture crit at risd! So it was bad enough that the room looked like a new build high rise apt that hadn’t been moved into but to top it off this bland space didn’t have any occupants. It was empty with the exception of us and a family of four. Not a good sign in my opinion. I don’t know about you guys but I deeply dislike dining in silence. It was so uncomfortable that Jose and I felt the need to whisper to one another which produced awkward conversations.
The space according to an article: “Each table is a blank canvas, draped with heavy, luxurious linens. There are no candles. No flatware or bread plates or flowers. The art is in the food—which appears equally spare, garnish–free and without sauce—and how diners connect with the dishes.” hmmm
The Service: To us the scene was very formal, souless, quiet enough to hear a pin drop, and sadly the service didn’t add any relief. While the waiters seemed nice and efficient at their jobs there was no story behind what they put in front of us. They simply whispered the dish and its contents and left. I always think of waiters as the bridge that connects the diners to the chef and the kitchen. They are the story tellers/educators, and often times the reason why we, the diners, are romanced by a particular place or experience. There was no romancing here.
Lets talk about the food. Having spent a total of 8 years in art school I have seen my fair share of projects that sound amazing when explained eloquently through the mouth of the creator but once that creator walks away from the piece it can’t communicate on its own. Often times what is in our head doesn’t make it to the physical world with all its intended glory. We have all probably experienced this. For Jose and I this is how Josean’s food came across. (especially after watching his lectures where he pontificated about his perspective on food.)
Many of the dishes were flat and void of flavor. No matter how sterile and white the surroundings were the food did not shine through. I am a diner that loves to be challenged by Haute Cuisine but the dishes did not make me curious to want to know more, instead they made me confused. The bread, even after the elaborate story, was dry and bland and did not come with any sort of oil or butter. (jose was sad given his bread obsession)
The only dish that was decent was the onion dish. It was delicate, inventive and flavorful.
This dish was very confusing. We were not able to understand the though process behind this dish, what was the chef trying to achieve. The pasta was very aldente, to the point it was crunchy and tasting like raw pasta, overpowering uni flavor. This is fine, we were very eager to understand what was behind this dish, what was the chef trying to tell us, so we asked one of the servers. The server gave us a very “helpful” response: This is pasta, like the one from the supermarket
The dessert provides the last taste of a place and the dessert we had was odd and unsettling in its flavors and textures.
I guess this is what I was supossed to think about Josean’s food.(I lifted this copy from a interview I found online)
Alija strives to connect diners with familiar elements in food. But instead of leaving their memories in the safety of Grandma’s kitchen, Alija coaxes diners further. He presents unassuming ingredients and changes their textures, flavors, and aromas.
“To surprise with the familiar is difficult, as it is inherently a challenge,” says Alija. [Simplicity] transports us to the essence: the earth and its bounty.”
Alija boils his dishes down to their most essential ingredients, a process he compares to writing Japanese haiku, where no syllable can be wasted. And like haiku, the simplicity doesn’t lie in Alija’s method; it’s in the clear, uncluttered translation of his ideas on a plate.
The Cost: After all of this it was a sad moment when I got the check and found it to be on par with a place like L’Arpege in Paris or Noma. When I saw this my heart sank and I went into a quiet depressed state. agh! In my mind there was no way this place was deserving of this high dollar amount. No way Jose!
So not only were we both sad and strangely still hungry, due to the fact we didn’t finish most dishes, but when we walked out to the kitchen to get our coats there wasn’t a person in sight. The kitchen was shut down and everyone except one of the servers left. What if we wanted to get an additional dish?? That was the straw that broke my back. I have never seen that before especially at a place where you are paying a pretty penny for. Shouldn’t they say goodbye like they said hello?
It may have been Jose’s bday dinner but Sadly our dinner at Nerua was so disappointing that it put us in no mood to celebrate. In fact we complained all through the meal, the entire walk home and additional hours while researching chef Josean Martinez Alija, in hopes of better understanding what he is all about. (cause the meal gave us no clue)
All this being said I need to be fair and state that Josean was not there in the kitchen that night, but that should be no excuse. I know there are off nights in the business and I truly hope thats all it was, a bad night.