Bilbao is situated in Granary Wharf and is a good size room, small enough to be intimate but large enough to accommodate enough people to give it atmosphere. There is a selection of seating types ranging from tall chairs at the bar, through conventional tables and chairs to elongated tables with benches, which is where we chose to sit as we wanted to be near the window.
We arrived at 12.30 at which time there were only two other customers present but within half an hour the bar filled up nicely. This may have been due to the special offer which means that some of the tapas are half price on Mondays. We ordered a couple of drinks while we perused the menu. I made it clear to the waitress, an authentically Spanish woman, that we were in no hurry and ordered a selection of breads and oil (£2.50) to sustain us during the selection process. There were four types of bread, two of oil and a sherry vinegar. The waitress said that one of the oils was quite hot, although it proved not to be fiery, whilst the second one was infused with garlic. Luckily we both sampled this one as otherwise we may have had to have travelled home separately. The sherry vinegar made a refreshing change from balsamic but it was much sharper and when Lynne took her first taste it hit her hard enough to bring on a coughing bout. When the bread was dipped in oil before being immersed in the vinegar it took the edge off and was really good.
From the menu we decided that we would go for a couple of half price offer tapas and order two more from the blackboard specials. Tapas must be the most ridiculous food ever invented. The word ‘tapas’ is Spanish for ‘cover' and evolved in bars where the owners would place a saucer on the top of glasses of sherry to stop the flies from committing Harakiri in said vessel. The story is that one enterprising bar owner put a morsel of food on the saucer as a free sample to attract customers. Word of this got round and after a while a kind of tapas war broke out with barmen competing to get the punters into their place by offering more elaborate selections. Now, if I wanted to deter flies from congregating round my customers’ glasses of sherry, the last thing I would do would be to put a plate of food on it! But what do I know?
From the half price offer we ordered Patatas Bravas with garlic mayonnaise and ‘Atomica’ sauce (£4.95), and Spicy Chorizo cooked in cider (£4.25). Both prices quoted are the full prices as shown on the menu. From the blackboard we chose the Aubergine stuffed with spinach, rice and blue cheese (£3.95) and Pork Sirloin with sherry sauce, garlic, mushrooms and ham (£5.95). To drink, we thought that we would keep in the Iberian vibe and ordered two sherries, a fino and a manzanilla, both of which were £3.75 for 75ml. These were served properly chilled, being bone dry, and came with a life story told by the waitress. The fino comes from a village by the sea which gives it a salty taste whereas the manzanilla is produced inland which doesn’t. Both were excellent and cut through the various sauces admirably. There was no saucer put over the glasses but as the rain was falling in bucketloads outside and the temperature was more October than July, there was never going to be any risk of sharing our drinks with flies.
I don’t know whether it was because I had told the waitress, whose name according to the bill is Irene, that we were in no rush or if this is the normal service but the Potatas Bravas and the chorizo arrived quite some time before the other two dishes. We made a start on the early arrivals. The potatoes were presented in slices and drizzled in the two sauces. They were perfectly cooked and the creaminess of the garlic mayonnaise which was heated, contrasted marvellously with the piquancy of the Atomica sauce although this was not as hot as its name suggests. The chorizo was suitably spicy and the sauce kept it moist. In retrospect I think that these dishes may have been served first because they were ordered from the main menu and were probably pre-prepared so just needed heating. The same could not be said for the other two dishes which were obviously cooked from scratch to order. The pork sirloin was cooked on the pink side which made it melt-in-the-mouth tender. People have a thing about pork being cooked to death for fear of food poisoning but there is no reason why it cannot be served a tad on the rare side which, as with all meats, gives it a better texture and taste. The sherry sauce with garlic was a fitting enhancement to the pork whilst there were two types of mushroom. The ham was finely diced and there for the background flavour rather than as an ingredient in itself. The surprise of the quartet was the Aubergine which was soft and sweet although the rice gave it a firmer texture and absorbed quite a bit of the flavour. The cheese on top held everything together both in a physical and taste sense. When we placed our order I asked Irene if two dishes each would be about right, she said that we could always order some more if there was not enough. It turned out that there was more than enough for the average appetite, luckily, despite her slender frame, Lynne can tuck food away like a good ‘un but we still had to decline the offer of a look at the dessert menu.
Bilbao is a small plot of Spain by a railway station in Leeds and a very welcome addition to the city’s food scene. As good as the food is, the lasting memory of the bar is the excellent service which was informative and attentive without being overbearing. Muchas Gracias Irene.