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Madrid’s cuisine – between cooking pot and syringe!

Madrid’s cuisine – between cooking pot and syringe!

E. Tresmontant - 2009-11-25

Today there is not one but two dominant styles of cuisine in Madrid. One, traditional and popular, revolves around the cocido simmering in the ancestral cooking pot (la olla). The other, creative and cosmopolitan, makes no bones about using syringes, like a chemist… The choice is yours!

The changing face of Spanish gastronomy
Over recent years Spain has experienced a real gastronomic revolution, comparable to France’s “nouvelle cuisine” in the 1970s. Four of its chefs have become world-famous stars: Catalan chefs Ferran Adrià (in Rosas) and Can Fabes (in Sant Celoni) and Basque chefs Juan Mari Arzak (in San Sebastián) and Martín Berasategui (in Oria). At their instigation, talented young chefs have begun to emerge all over the place (in Cáceres, Girona, Sanluca la Mayor and Madrid in particular) and cultivated Spaniards have developed a passion for this “creative cuisine”, which is now considered the most representative element of avant-garde Spain…
Although Madrid has no specific regional culinary tradition (apart from its generous stews, the cocido and puchero!), the Spanish capital proves to be a fascinating place to observe contemporary Spain, torn between tradition and modernity.
Indeed on the one hand, the tabernas and tapas bars continue to serve traditional fare that is inseparable from a typically Spanish way of life. On the other hand, there is the refined world of the “grand restaurants”, frequented by the wealthy inhabitants of Madrid who go there as you would to the theatre or opera... Between the two, a multitude of delicatessens which did not exist 10 years ago have sprung up in the city centre, for example the “Club del Gourmet” in the Corte Inglés department store, and the superb Gondiaz boutique near the Royal Palace, which offers a large selection of ibericos de bellota hams from Salamanca, Andalusia and Estremadura.
Living on Spanish time
The first thing to say to people preparing to visit Madrid is that Spanish time, as celebrated by Ravel, is a tangible reality here! Winter and summer alike, the shops open from 10am to 2pm and from 5pm to 8pm. Only the department stores are open non-stop from 10am to 8pm (and sometimes 10pm, like Corte Inglés). Mealtimes are also something of a culture shock for foreigners, since the people of Madrid have lunch between 2pm and 4pm (sometimes even 5pm) and never dine before 10pm...
Tabernas and traditional restaurants
In Madrid, there are two ways to sample Spanish cuisine: either in the form of tapas in the tabernas, or in traditional restaurants where the people of Madrid like to go with their families in the evening, or for business lunches.
The tabernas are still authentic places and have not been spoilt by tourism. In the morning, people from all social classes come for their cafe con leche and churros (traditional doughnuts that are eaten as soon as made). The tapas ritual precedes meals – starting from 1 o’clock in the afternoon and 7 o’clock in the evening – and tapas bars thus constitute a focal point of Spanish social life: an open place, where friends meet up and enjoy una cerveza (a Spanish beer) or glass of wine. These little portions of cooked food, served hot or cold, come in great variety (like Italian antipasti) and enable visitors to sample the various products of Spain: bacalao frito (fried cod), huevos estrellados (fried eggs and potatoes), roscas de embutidos (stuffed brioche buns), boquerones (anchovies), manchego (unpasteurized ewe’s milk cheese from La Mancha), olives, Andalusian gazpacho, serrano ham, chorizo, longaniza (a spicy sausage with aniseed), boutifar (black pudding)...
In the chic district of Salamanca, the José Luis taberna serves one of the city’s most famous tortilla de patata. The Casa Labra, near the Puerta del Sol, a historic 19th century tavern, offers cod-based specialities. More simple and popular, the snack-bar style El Brillante is an institution in Madrid: it stands opposite the prestigious Reina Sofia Museum, and you can come here for a quick bite and enjoy excellent bocadillos (the equivalent of our sandwiches) with calamari, anchovies or chorizo.
If you want to try an authentic traditional restaurant, we recommend El Rincón de Esteban. Set in the heart of Huertas, the literary district, opposite the Chamber of Deputies and a stone’s throw from the Thyssen Museum, this establishment is famous in Madrid, as much for its cuisine as for its charismatic owner. Here you will sample hearty and copious local cuisine in a friendly atmosphere. The clients are loyal; people come here with their families and the waiters know everyone’s habits! To begin with, it is impossible not to make a beeline for the fresh anchovies, which are eaten on croutons rubbed with oil and tomato. Red partridge from Toledo, grilled langoustines and tuna escabeche (in a spicy marinade) are among the chef’s specialities. As for the Galician pork chop with fried onions, it goes very well with one of the strong wines from the vineyards of Madrid. From 47 to 56 euros (approx. £32 to £38). 
The people of Madrid are also very fond of fish and seafood, as evidenced by the immense Mercamadrid * and countless fish restaurants. The classics of popular Spanish cuisine are served here: Valencian paella, large prawns and sardines grilled “a la plancha”, sea bream Madrid-style (baked in the oven with garlic, pimento, herbs and tomatoes), Biscay-style cod (with tomatoes, onions, peppers and hard-boiled eggs), calamari in ink, Balearic crayfish soup, white tuna with tomato or with potatoes from the Basque Country, fried hake... One of the capital’s most famous fish restaurants is Moaña, not far from Plaza Mayor. Specialising in Galician cuisine, this establishment boasts a superb shellfish tank and offers no less than 75 different dishes! From 42 to 58 euros (approx. £28 to £39).
Although the Spaniards introduced cocoa, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes into Europe, from America, it was from the Moors that they learnt the art of preparing rice. The El Pato Mudo (“The Dumb Duck”) restaurant right in the city centre is famous for its traditional rice-based recipes, prepared with duck, fish or vegetables. Warm welcome and affordable prices. From 25 to 35 euros (approx. £17 to £24).
Two young go-getters of Madrid’s creative cuisine: Jaime Renedo and Francisco Javier Roncero
Created a few months ago in the trendy district of Chueca, this restaurant is open only in the evening and is already causing a sensation in Madrid. During the day, it is an Asian antiques shop. In the evening, the tables are set amid enchanting decor, between 18th century Chinese beds and Indian hangings studded with precious stones. The soft candlelight, Zen presentation of the dishes and silence, undisturbed by music, give the finishing touches of real luxury to this place. In the kitchen, Jaime Renedo, 23, is what is known as a phenomenon: self-taught, adventurous and modest, every evening he produces polished and flavourful dishes that combine produce from Spain with flavours from Asian cuisine. The lobster with fresh pasta and bellota ham is thus seasoned with herbs and served as a pho (Chinese soup). Tuna belly is presented as a sashimi wrapped in Nori seaweed. Of more Spanish inspiration, the garlic soup with bitter almond ice cream and Jerez (Sherry) vinegar is divine! Despite its abundance (six tapas, two starters, three main dishes and two desserts followed by petits fours), Jaime Renedo’s sampler menu is appealing in its elegance and lightness. Reckon on 80 euros (approx. £54) without wine.
La Terraza del Casino
If you regret not being able to dine at El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s extremely famous restaurant in Rosas, you can always console yourself by going to La Terraza del Casino. Founded 170 years ago, a stone’s throw away from the very lively Puerta del Sol in the centre of Madrid, the building, which housed the old casino, is magnificent and very exclusive: you will only be allowed into the restaurant, which gives onto one of the city’s most beautiful terraces, smartly dressed and wearing a tie… Although the atmosphere is rather formal, Francisco Javier Roncero’s cuisine is full of fun and sparkle. Indeed, this disciple of Ferran Adrià applies himself to reproducing the revolutionary tapas for which the Catalan master is famous, whether it be the “air of carrot” (frothy carrot foam), parmesan spaghetti, spoonfuls of piña colada, caramelised mango ravioli, or white chocolate lollipops and lemon and coffee candy. Some tapas are created before your very eyes, for example the “melon caviar”, whose juice, contained in large syringes, is plunged into liquid nitrogen where it condenses into small balls. Various iced cocktails are served between dishes, in order to clear the palate... If you are more excited by the presentation and transformation of the products than by their actual content, you can still enjoy some dishes with a very earthly flavour, such as the cepe mushroom tartare with bellota ham. Each month, Ferran Adrià comes here to dictate a new menu, which is put together like a music score. Francisco Javier Roncero, for his part, performs his role as faithful executant with great panache. Sampler menu at 100 euros (approx. £68).
*Since 1982, Mercamadrid has been the largest fish market in Europe and the second largest in the world after the one in Tokyo. 18,000 buyers come here every day and it keeps more than 700 companies in business, over 170 hectares (420 acres)! 
Address book
Casa Labra
12 rue Tetuán
Tel: 915 310 081
José Luis
Calle Serrano, 89
Tel: 915 630 958
El Brillante
Dr. Esquerdo, 7
Tel: 917 255 211
El Rincón de Esteban
Calle Santa Catalina, 3
Tel: 91 429 92 89
Calle de la Hileras, 4
Tel: 91 548 29 14
El Pato Mudo
Costanilla angeles, 8
Tel: 915 594 840
Travesia de San Mateo, 4
Tel: 91 310 09 65
La Terraza del Casino
Calle de Alcalá, 15
Tel: 91 532 12 75

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