It’s a bit unnerving when you go somewhere for lunch and there’s no menu.
But at the laid back Bilbao Pintxos and Tapas Bar in Leeds, the lack of one encourages you to just sit back and go with the flow.
Situated in one of the arches at Granary Wharf, the glass fronted bar has a contemporary feel, with a mix of high and low tables and benches.
But probably the best place to perch yourself is at the long bar, lined with plates and plates of pintxos.
Like tapas (which Bilbao serves in the evening), Pintxos are small snacks traditionally eaten in bars in northern Spain, especially popular in the Basque country - which has long been on my list of places to go. However I’ve been to other parts of Spain where tapas tends to be served in this style - on plates along the bar, so you can snack as you sip something chilled.
It’s a gripe of mine that in England, tapas bars rarely follow this theme, instead encouraging you to bulk order and rush to eat each dish before it goes cold.
So it was with relief and excitement that we realised we were in for a traditional lunch at Bilbao.
Our friendly waitress was quick to offer us the lunchtime special of three pintxos, or a plate of paella, with a glass of wine, pint of Estrella or soft drink for £7.95. Great value for money in Oliver’s opinion.
We ordered our drinks and began to browse the plates, which had little handscribbled pieces of card to explain their ingredients. Each looked a towering treasure of flavours, spiked with a toothpick to a piece of bread. The waitress hovered behind the bar with a plate and pincers, ready to grab our choices and heat them up if desired.
My first was goat’s cheese, with caramelised onion and quince - classic combinations, and when heated the cheese went deliciously gooey.
A tasty pintxos served chilled was smoked salmon wrapped around chargrilled veg, with onions and slices of sweet prawn, on top of pieces of gammon with a creamy mayonnaise. My dining partner’s plate included a mini hamburger on top of aubergine, mushroom and chargrilled tomato and another had a slice of pork loin with mustard and cheese. All of this would be absolutely sufficient for a lunchtime bite... but the other pintxos we hadn’t yet tried proved too tempting, so we ordered three more. One of those ended up being my favourite of the day - black pudding on ‘atomic sauce’ - tomato, red pepper and fiery chilli - topped with a fried quail’s egg and what seemed to be a basil oil. It was delicious, with the black pudding not at all like the typical English kind. It crumbled and dissolved in the mouth with an incredibly subtle flavour.
Don’t expect a formal, restaurant-style outing at Bilbao Tapas Bar, but do expect to get fed well. It’s a fabulous place to natter and nibble with your mates over a drink. With the food already prepared, you can just as easily grab a quick lunch as you can while away an entire afternoon. I think it’s fair to say we will be returning soon to do the latter.