By Mario Bermeo, Jr.
Many know the city of Bilbao for the Guggenheim museum, but there is one artist in Bilbao that is not housed in the museum—Alvaro Garrido, a very humble chef who came to Bilbao in 2006 and opened Mina with a single vision—to focus on high gastronomy and high service. Unlike many other high gastronomical destinations in Spain, this one is a hidden gem and continues to impress.
Mina which means “mine, or little mine” in Spanish, is perfectly suited. With only six tables and a young team of eight to ten chefs in the kitchen, Alvaro Garrido brings his vision, or better yet his dream to life. His nickname for the restaurant is “The Dream Theatre,” and with a high level of both molecular and classic techniques, you too will think your experience at Mina was but a dream.
Reservations are a must, especially now after receiving their first Michelin Star in January 2013. I visited Mina a few months ago, and believe me the experience still lingers in my dreams. As previously mentioned, it is a hidden gem, but not to worry, its popularity has raised it to a level which assures that pretty much all taxi drivers know where to find it. The reason why, may be simple—chances are, they have dined there before. With an inexpensive and daily changing menu, it is a wonder why it took so long for them to get recognized in this fashion. They have three menus which change daily; their 7, 10, or 14 course menus, ranging from 60-114 Euros, VAT included. Since it was our first visit, my parents and I each took the seven-course menu, and with hindsight, should have taken the fourteen.
As you traverse the stairs and are greeted by your maître d’, as well as the entire staff on the floor, you are escorted to your table. Although Mina only has six tables, it is still very spacious with large windows, bricked walls and warm colors from floor to the ceiling. Additionally, there are metal beams running along the dining room floor symbolizing the mine, or ‘food mine’ in which you are seated. I advise to reserve a table by the window and to arrive in time to experience the Bilbao sunset as it sets on the river and food market that lies in front of the restaurant.
We should have known this would be one of our favorite restaurants of all time from the beginning. Speechless from the moment I sat down, the warm colors and brick walls reminded me of my father’s first restaurant. The sommelier brought the wine list, and to my father’s disbelief, he saw on the list a wine he had not had for over twenty years; Viña Tondonia White Reserva 1992, which as recommended by the sommelier, would be perfect for that days menu—serendipity!
As dinner began, more memories started to arise with each and every dish. The olive oil brought to the table reminded me of how much I love Alberquina olives. The amuse bouche which was a warm celery consommé with salty chives, brought me back to my childhood, with memories of celery salads that my mom would make. The first seafood dish was an amazing oyster that was hiding underneath a white cloud of salty beurre blanc butter and surrounded by sautéed bread crumbs. The taste and texture was similar to that of Oysters Rockefeller and brought memories of the time in which I fell in love with them as a child, sharing them with my father in Oyster Bay.
The next two dishes where that of molecular gastronomy genius; first it was an all onion dish: in gelee, cream, raw, dehydrated and crisp form—till this day my mother still talks about it. The second molecular masterpiece was an ostrich egg lightly placed on a bone marrow soup, with a hint of bone au jus and finished with slivers of wild mushrooms as the cherry on top.
After all of these molecular surprises and exploration, it was time to go back to basics with the dinner entrees. First up was a seafood dish, which consisted of a perfectly pan seared Hake with a delightful crispy skin, just a few endive shavings and a smooth dashi reduction sauce. The smell brought me back to the first time my parents brought my sisters and I to a Chinese seafood restaurant on 8th Avenue in Brooklyn. I am well aware that Dashi is Japanese, but the aroma correlated to this memory. The next and last dish before the dessert was a perfectly sous vide lamb loin, which was then seared and accompanied by a balsamic glazed pumpkin puree and a little swoosh of a light coffee sauce. This dish not only activated my memories of the first time I fell in love with lamb, but my parents memories as well.
This may sound cliché, but the dessert was really the cherry on top of an amazing dinner. Not only did it deliver a hint of genius, but it embodied my favorite teenage memory of all time; the first time I had a drink with my grandmother. It was a delicate crème brulee with a Disaronno granita; the granita was what triggered the memory of my grandmother. I was fifteen and during a visit to her home in South America; my mother, grandmother and I visited my uncle’s bar. He gave me a Disaronno and orange and my mother was a bit upset that her brother gave his nephew a drink. But as cool as my grandmother was, she backed me up as she tasted my drink and told my mother that my uncle simply gave me orange juice. As my mother looked away as to not question her mother, my grandmother looked at me and gave me a small smile and blinked her eyes, pretty much saying “I got you, don’t worry about it.”
The dinner had ended, and as we sat and reminisced our completed meal with a cup of coffee, Alvaro Garrido came out of the kitchen and came to our table to thank us personally for choosing Mina. As we stood up to shake his hand my mother began her compliments. We talked about food, and how and why he chose to cook the food he prepared that night, and every night. We exchanged words about dining and experiences involving food as we ended once again complimenting his genius and finished with a few pictures.
We began to leave to our awaiting taxi and took one final glance at the wine cellar on our way down. As we stepped outside, I looked back at the building and the sign of Mina with a smile on my face and no need of words to say how happy I was to have dined at “The Dream Theatre.” As the taxi drove away, the only thing on my mind was to start counting the days to when I would be back here exploring another synchronized performance in the theatre that is Mina.