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Madrid for Foodies

by Jeff Heilman

From the avant-garde to the classics, here are five exceptional dining experiences that await you in Madrid.

There’s no stopping “la marcha,” or the lust that urban Spaniards possess for socializing deep into the night. Devoted practitioners of this time-honored art, the denizens of Spain’s capital transform with each sunset into los gatos (the cats) in pursuit of nocturnal pleasures and possibilities.

Food and drink are essential ingredients of this sensual sweep through the witching hours; while some superstitious Spaniards may cap their chimneys to keep evil spirits out, Madrileños uncork the wine and other libations with abandon. Such partying takes stamina, so along with the requisite siesta they fortify by eating up to five times a day.

Starting with coffee and staples like churros dipped in chocolate for desayuno (breakfast), the unhurried culinary procession continues with a mid-morning snack (pincho), typically a small bite. Often pre- ceded by an aperitivo of beer or vermouth, then comes the leisurely mid-afternoon lunch (la comida), the day’s largest meal. Another snack time (la merienda), provides the segue into early evening, followed by much-celebrated tapas time, when the wine and spirits start flowing, and finally a late dinner (la cena) of shared plates ahead of the midnight hour.

Chef Mario Sandoval CREDIT Felix Soriano

Chef Mario Sandoval CREDIT Felix Soriano

While traditionally lagging behind Barcelona in overall culinary star power, Madrid has bragging rights galore, including an exuberant bar culture and treasures such as Mercado de Maravillas (Market of Marvels), and from 1725, Botin, the world’s oldest continuously operating restaurant.

From the avant-garde to the classics, here are five exceptional dining experiences that await you in Madrid.

This year marks roughly 50 years since Pedro Almodóvar arrived in Madrid from La Mancha as an impoverished teenager set on becoming a filmmaker. The rest, of course, is history, with his visionary cinema providing a veritable banquet for his countless fans. The feast extends to Madrid itself, where several restaurants and bars are among his myriad shooting locations (he screened his earliest Super 8 efforts in bars around town). Making for a Almodóvar-inspired culinary mini-tour, these include punk joint-turned-tapas bar La Bobia (Labyrinth of Passions, 1982); famed flamenco bar Villa Rosa, dating to 1911 (High Heels, 1991); 1920’s-era Café del Círculo de Bellas Artes, (Kika, 1993); the Arenal Street location of popular serrano emporium chain Museo del Jamón (Live Flesh, 1997); and former brothel turned cocktail lounge Bar Cock, from 1921 (Broken Embraces, 2009).

With a pivotal scene in Broken Embraces, top billing goes to Museo Chicote (Calle Gran Via 12, Tel: +34-915-326-737. www.grupomercadodelareina.com/es/museo-chicote). Founded in 1931 as an American-style bar by master Madrid mixologist Pedro Chicote (1899-1977), who documented cocktail culture in several books including 1930’s La Ley Mojada (The Wet Law), this time capsule in Chueca, Madrid’s gay epicenter, claims honors as Spain’s oldest cocktail bar.

Where stars including Ernest Hemingway and Ava Gardner (both honored on the cocktail menu) once imbibed, today visitors come for potently poured Sazeracs, Singapore Slings, and other classics, and then soak up the lounge-like atmosphere as star DJs (Bronx-born dance music legend John Morales just played) spin late into the night.

Lunch, or la comida, is the largest and most leisurely meal in Madrid, stretching from two to three mid-afternoon hours on a gentle tide of food, drink, and conversation. Located in the eclectic Alonso Martínez district, Dray Martina (Calle Argensola, 7, Tel: +34-910-81-00-56. www.draymartina.com) is made to measure for melding into la comida mode.

Equally describing the décor and food, comfort is the operative word. Designed by Madrid in Love, an innovative design studio that proudly “takes the blame for Madrid’s pop-up and clandestine restaurants craze,” the breezy white space evokes a country kitchen, with large windows, wicker chairs, mirrors, wooden communal table, and patterned wall paneling among the fetching elements.

La Lonja Raw Bar ceviche

La Lonja Raw Bar ceviche

The menu is inventive, yet uncomplicated. Croquettes are a Madrid staple; as one Spanish writer mused, they “should have a stone, so that we can keep track of how many we’ve eaten.” I started with a double order of six squid croquettes in ink dotted with aioli sauce, and could have kept going, but also calling were main dishes such as the steak tartare with mascarpone cheese, grilled octopus with potato, and pad Thai tacos with guacamole. Dessert was a marvelous flowerpot of vanilla ice cream with chocolate and peanuts on the side, and my third La Carmen (ginger vodka with blueberry juice, and egg white) providing, as the menu promised, a “Happy Ending” to a most relaxing sojourn. Sunday brunch is popular here as well, along with breakfast and dinner.

While attending Eat Spain Up!, a Spanish culture and food event hosted by New York University in Manhattan last fall, I encountered a display of giant prawns, sea bass, scorpion fish, and with a hellish-wide mouth of sharp teeth, a monkfish. “Fresh-caught and flown overnight,” informed José Ángel Mozos Garcia, representing venerable Madrid-based fish and seafood supplier Serpeska. “Where can I enjoy these fruits of the sea in Madrid?” I then asked. “La Lonja,” he answered promptly.

Located in front of the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) by the Teatro Real (Opera House), La Lonja (Plaza Oriente 6, Tel: +34-915-413-333. www.lalonjadelmar.com), supplied by Serpeska and combining three concepts in one, is quite the catch. With terrace views of the Palace, upstairs is upscale seafood-driven La Lonja, where highlights included cream of cauliflower with cockles and creamy rice with tiger prawns. Downstairs features La Mar, serving rice dishes and tapas, and the Raw Bar, where the mouth-watering dive into “sushi Mediterraneo” includes wild red tuna in Japanese “kimuchi” sauce, red prawn carpaccio, ceviche of sea bass and squid, and divine oysters. Along with a fine selection of wines, cocktails including the lively mezcal with lemongrass Oaxaca Dream and a superb dry vodka martini.

Enhancing the theme of a “journey in three stages,” the restaurant also features appealing maritime-themed décor including marine tones, netting, and fish-scaled surfaces and furnishings.

David Muñoz CREDIT Javier Peñas

David Muñoz CREDIT Javier Peñas

With his pierced ears, piercing gaze, mohawk, and reportedly hardcore work ethic, David (he likes Dabiz) Muñoz is a lead role in Clockwork Orange waiting to happen. Once describing his culinary approach as “brutal” and a “gunshot to your head” does little to dispel that impression, but DiverXO (Calle de Padre Damián, 23, Tel: +34-0915-700-766. www.diverxo.com), his Spanish-Asian sensation, is the merriest of riots.

Opened in 2007 and now in a 30-seat location secreted away in the blue-collar Tetuán neighborhood, DiverXO earned three Michelin stars in 2013, making it the first Madrid restaurant so honored since 1995. It was a big culinary step forward for the city, with some likening local son Muñoz to Catalonia’s inestimable Ferran Adrià, of elBulli and molecular gastronomy fame.

Does Muñoz’s culinary vaudeville outdo Adrià’s? Don’t be surprised by unscripted, even cavalier moments, starting with arrival and escort to your table (I won’t spoil the details). This is the epitome of today’s high concept fine dining, including eating with artfully customized utensils or even with your fingers. Amid curtains with eyeballs, winged pigs, and bowls appended with pursed redlipped mouths, prepare to engage, and be engaged, on a tasting trip that can stretch up to 18 courses and some four hours.

Served as complex “canvases” sequentially assembled tableside, bites living up to the staging and scenery included the guacamole and tacos, wonton soup, suckling pig, and monkfish with glass-like potato shards.

Muñoz, who trained in London at Hakkasan and Nobu early on, opened an outpost of his more casual Madrid concept StreetXO in Mayfair last October, with NYC reportedly soon to follow.

As discerning diners would venture beyond Manhattan for destination restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester County, or head to the Melbourne, Australia suburbs for Ben Shewry’s singular Attica, Madrid has a modernist, two-Michelin-starred magnet in family-run Coque (Francisco Encinas 8, Humanes de Madrid. Tel: +34-916-040-202. www.restaurantecoque.com), about 12 miles south of the city in Humanes. With Ferran Adrià among his early teachers, Chef Mario Sandoval exemplifies the master class of Spanish culinary artistes whose imagination and creativity have elevated the country’s cuisine to global preeminence.

Sandoval, whom I also met at the Eat Spain Up! Event in New York (where he gave an amazing demonstration on cooking suckling pig) takes an “updated” approach to traditional Madrid cuisine. Translated, that P means revolutionary practices by Sandoval and his two brothers such as intimate study into the “archeology of flavors” and “memory cuisine.”

With the Sandovals as consummate hosts, the staged experience at Coque, a sublime celebration of food and hospitality, eminently validates the two Michelin stars, awarded in 2004 and 2015. An introductory cocktail and bite in the dazzling glass-floored wine cellar is followed by tastings in the bustling kitchen. Then comes the main event, a multi-course adventure in those “archeological” flavors and the theme of “wood,” centered around preparations in the restaurant’s original 60-year-old oven, including fork-tender suckling pig. The enchantment concludes back downstairs with dessert and cordials, and, like Madrid itself, is magic everlasting.

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