by Owen Lipsett
New York, New York
June 14, 2005
Ortua’s décor is simultaneously airy and homey with blocky wooden furniture that would not be out of place in one of the Basque Country’s sidrerías with tasteful small drawings and paintings decorating the walls. There’s just the right combination of overhead light and space between the tables to strike the perfect balance between cosyness, spaciousness, and charm. My meal began with lemon-infused water and homemade whole-wheat bread whose large, rough, and tasty chunks immediately suggested to me that Ortua’s food was likely to be more akin to hearty traditional Basque cooking than the minimalist and refined nueva cocina vasca(New Basque Cuisine) for which Bilbao has gained an international reputation.
Ortua is clearly a family operation and doesn’t print menus. Instead, the friendly servers (who appeared to me to be husband and wife) recite the two options for the first three courses (appetizer, salad, main) in Spanish. While they probably also speak Basque, I don’t know whether they understand English, although if you asked "¿Qué recomienda usted?" ("What would you recommend?"), they would almost certainly serve something to your liking. I personally chose vegetable soup (sopa de vegetales), followed by a salad (ensalada) of julienned vegetables made quite hearty by the addition of a mixture of grains and sesame seeds. I found both a good deal more hearty and filling, not to mention tastier, than their equivalents at more carnivore-friendly establishments.
Indeed, I found the main course of "meatballs" (alhondigas) made of seitan to be much tastier than most examples of the "real" dish they were intended to mimic that I have experienced. The server proffered the two options for dessert after I had eaten the previous three courses, which, while common elsewhere, is by no means the rule in Spain. I selected the creamy, unsweetened homemade yogurt (yogur), served with honey, and I’d strongly advise you to do the same if the option is available. It’s quite rich – proving that vegetarian cuisine is not always the most healthful!
If you’re a vegetarian, eating at Ortua should be an essential part of any visit to Bilbao... and even if you’re not, it should be!
From journal Bilbao: The Epitome of Urban Renewal