Bite into Madrid
Photography: SHARYN CAIRNS
Along with gay marriage, ethnic diversity and the kind of skin-tight fashion that would have given Franco a heart attack, count a true culinary scene among the changes that have come to Madrid in recent years.
It wasn't very long ago that the Spanish capital's best restaurants were overstuffed French places or expensive Basque ones, while every other locale doled out dreary menus del día featuring overcooked paella and greasy fried pork cutlets.
These days, new gourmet shops pop up every month, and everything from the startling textures of molecular gastronomy and the high-impact flavours of Nuevo Andino cuisine - the style of cooking that unites Peru's traditional dishes with those brought by its immigrant communities - to nicely updated versions of the country's regional cuisines are there for the tasting. Here are 10 of the best places for savouring old and new Madrid.
From his kitchen at the upscale Terraza del Casino, El Bulli-trained Paco Roncero has made a name for himself as the purest Adrià acolyte in town. But at his new place in the Hotel NH Paseo del Prado, there's nary a foam or centrifuge in sight. Instead, he's taken a page from avant-garde Barcelona chefs Carles Abellan and Alberto Adrià, and opened a tapas bar that focuses on classic small plates. Each dish showcases top-quality ingredients, from the crunchy ham croquetas to the anchovy filetes set on slices of tomato-smeared bread. There are a few surprises - try the 'tin' of mussels in escabeche - but mostly this is the stuff Madrid tapas bars have been serving for decades, beautifully adapted to modern tastes.
Plaza de Cánovas del Castillo, 4, +34 91 330 2400.
Like a New York critic with his favourite diner, every Spanish foodie has a preferred taberna, one of those old-fashioned places that dish out simple, well-prepared raciones and the comforting stews that Spaniards refer to as cocina de cuchara or 'spoon cuisine'. In Madrid, the taberna of preference is Los Asturianos, a zero-décor locale in the Chamberí district, where the sons of chef Julia Bombín - that's Doña Julia to you - serve plates piled high with briny steamed cockles and deep cazuelas of beef cheeks in red wine. Needless to say, dishes from the region of Asturias, such as the rich, meaty fabada, an Asturian-style cassoulet, take centre stage. As does the shockingly good wine list, more than 300 bottles strong.
Calle Vallehermoso, 94, +34 91 533 5947.
From a herbaceous Torta del Casar to more than a dozen tangy Manchegos, Poncelet stocks Madrid's finest selection of cheeses. Inside this sleek, wood-panelled shop, the knowledgeable staff sells plenty of Reblochons and Taleggios, as well as crusty breads and a fine, if limited, selection of wines. But the real reason to come is for the wide, nearly comprehensive selection of Spain's regional cheeses. Indirect lighting and a constant temperature of 18C - to say nothing of the in-house affineur - keep every Idiazábal and Cabrales perfectly ripe.
Calle Argensola, 27, +34 91 308 0221, poncelet.es.
Chocolateria San Gines
It doesn't get more classic than this. Tucked into the bend of an alleyway just off central artery Calle Mayor, the San Ginés has been serving chocolate and churros to the city's party-goers and insomniacs since 1894. Closed only during the two hours of early morning when no self-respecting Madrileño is awake, its churros, piped in thick spirals into immense pots of oil, then snipped into sticks, are always hot and fresh. Its hot chocolate is thick enough to stand a churro in and has just the right level of sweetness. Despite the bright lights and formal atmosphere (gilt-edged walls, uniformed waiters), it's a favourite stop for club kids on their way home, hence the lines at 5am.
Pasadizo de San Ginés, 5, +34 91 365 6546.
Crammed into the awkwardly divided ground-floor of the new Hospes Madrid Hotel, Senzone doesn't look like much. But, man, can Francisco Morales cook. The 26-year-old chef trained at El Bulli and Mugaritz, though his style - restrained without being minimalist - is his own. From the lightly sautéed trompettes de la mort that he tops with a translucent rectangle of unctuous pancetta, to the crisp-cooked haricot he tosses with calamari sliced so thin it looks like fettuccine, Morales lets his gorgeous ingredients speak for themselves. And in a city that tends towards meat and potatoes, his emphasis on seasonal vegetables comes as a revelation.
Plaza de la Independencia, 3, +34 91 432 2911.
Madrid has never been a great city for Asian food but, in the past few years, places such as Alberto Chicote's Nodo and Ricardo Sanz's Kabuki Wellington have made it a surprisingly good place for Asian fusion. Now, young chef David Muñoz, who trained at London's Hakkasan, has made it even better. At his tiny restaurant in the working-class Tetuán neighbourhood, he combines Japanese, Latin American and Mediterranean influences to turn out explosively flavoured dishes such as toltilla - a reinterpretation of the classic Spanish potato omelette that turns a barely poached quail egg, rich potato-and-onion purée and a wonton skin into the dim sum of your dreams. His five-spiced rabbit in carrot-skin ravioli is just as delicious. That, plus the paltry number of tables, explains why it's almost impossible to get a reservation.
Calle de Francisco Medrano, 5, +34 91 570 0766.
Sergi Arola Gastro
Before he became Spain's savviest chef (the high-end kitchens, the swish sandwich bars and the consulting gigs with airlines and hotels), Sergi Arola, formerly of the twin-starred La Broche, was a rock musician. Now that he's opened his own place, he has a little more room to let his rebellious spirit come through. Gastro is an understated restaurant but the plates Arola puts together for his prix fixe menu - a plump row of charred sardines drizzled with the garlicky Mallorcan sausage called sobrasada; a lush scallop showered with truffle shavings and sitting in a caramelised 'vichyssoise' made from the leek-like calçot - are nothing short of sexy.
Calle de Zurbano, 31, +34 91 310 2169, sergiarola.es.
Juana la Loca
This place has pretty much everything you could want in a neighbourhood bar: a lively but laid-back atmosphere, great food and waiters who bring complimentary cava with dessert if they like you enough. The tapas list is long and mildly innovative; try the tuna carpaccio with saffron-tinted puffed rice, or the crab and goat's cheese tart scented with roasted peppers. But don't pass on more familiar offerings: a pintxo of roasted artichokes with garlic confit and what may well be, thanks to the neat trick of caramelised onions, the best tortilla in the city.
Carrera de San Francisco, 4, +34 91 364 0525.
Astrid & Gaston
In a country that, culinarily speaking, has never embraced its colonial past, Madrid has managed to get its arms around Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio. The upscale atmosphere, for one, defies Madrileño expectations. But even more compelling are the pristine flavours he pries from five different kinds of ceviche, and the sensual textures of his buttery, ginger-inflected scallop tiraditos. Acurio makes a few playful concessions to Mediterranean tastes, toning down the heat in some dishes and topping a dulce de leche with a thick squiggle of port-flavoured meringue. But his pisco sour, needless to say, is totally authentic.
Paseo de la Castellana, 13, +34 91 702 6262, astridygastonmadrid.com.
Madrid's best and biggest wine shop stocks some 4500 bottles from every corner of Spain and beyond. Knowledgeable staff, as well as helpfully posted tasting notes, make navigating the vast selection easier. Best of all, the upstairs restaurant, which turns out surprisingly good bistro fare, lets you try any bottle in the house, at cost, and without a corkage fee.
Calle de José Ortega y Gasset, 16, +34 91 426 0599, www.lavinia.es.