Madrid, the New Gourmet Capital?
By Per Bjørnar Grande,
As a restaurant reviewer I tend to use the summer to update myself on what happens in the gourmet world. Over the last two summers I have spent my holidays checking out restaurants in Madrid. As a reviewer for several Norwegian newspapers and founder of www.femstjerner.no I feel an obligation to constantly be on the lookout for the new and spectacular. Right now it seems to me that Spain offers the most innovative cuisine. Many summer evenings over the past two years I have therefore been spent among dark clothed waiters and sommeliers in the capital of Spain, where I have eaten both at restaurants who serve food which is labelled as molecular gastronomy and at more traditional places with a certain reputation and where classic dishes are served.
Pricy on Food, Cheap on Wine
To put it bluntly, Madrid is the city where it happens anno 2012. I have over the years eaten my way through over 70 restaurants with a Michelin star, mostly in Europe, but nowhere have I experienced so much new, exciting and spectacular as in Madrid. I've actually never eaten innovative cuisine at this level, either in Paris or in London. The problem with Spanish gourmet restaurants, however, is the price level: Most of the tasting menues lie in the price range between €100-150. In Paris and London it is possible to eat more cheaply for lunch. In Spain one rarely has lunch offers. However, one is served about ten dishes and at the same time one does not have to pay more than around €20 for the cheapest wines. So economically it evens out in relation to the best restaurants in other European food metropoles.
The Very Best
The very best (and prettiest) Madrid restaurant is currently La Terraza del Casino located along Calle Alacalá. The super experimental Paco Roncero experiments on the theme of "tapas". It begins with a cocktail, then nine snack dishes, nine tapas dishes, three desserts and finally what is called "morphing", which are three types of petits fours. No one could ever forget the Frozen strawberries filled with parmesan cheese. Possibly even better is the White chocolate with foie gras. These dishes pass beyond the bounds of good food and introduce new flavour combinations, that surpass those I have previously tasted. Paco Roncero has two michelin stars, but should, of course, have had a third - if the michelin guide were still not slightly lagging behind and still favouring French cuisine.
Another gourmet kitchen with extreme pretensions and overtly experimental, is Diverxo. Diverxo is a few minutes by taxi north of San Bernabeu stadium, ie about 10 minutes from the centre of Madrid. Here at this restaurant with two michelin stars, the emphasis is on food and temperature. We ate a wonderful steak fried for 112 hours at exactly 55 degrees. The phrase "melts on the tongue" must here be understood literally.
El Club Allard has gone from one to two stars over the past year. Given the ability to combine the classic with the innovative, it is very deserved. Although the building, close to Plaza de España, is a Grade II listed modernist building, the dining rooms are traditional and very elegant.
The most sympathetic of the new chefs is Sergi Arola. I have eaten at Sergi Arola Gastro, both in 2011 and 2012. However, I thought the food was more interesting in 2011 than in 2012. He has, in my view, taken the earth & eco consept a bit far. But no one will be able to forget his morell stew or the sensation when you put the fork in what you think is a tomato and then it turns out as something completely different - and much better. Unlike many two star restaurants, Sergi fully deserves both.
Disappointments Among the Best
The great disappointment among Madrid's gourmet restaurants was Santceloni. The chef at Santceloni, Santi Santamaría, had, until his death in 2011, three Michelin stars. The three michelin starred restaurant, Can Fabes, is situated near Barcelona. Its Madrid restaurant had and still has two stars. That today it still has two michelin stars is a mystery to me. This restaurant visit was very expensive and the food was without exciting flavours. I have rarely tasted such tame dishes in a gourmet restaurant (although the technical skill is adequate). It cannot be explained by anything other than that a new and mediocre chef has taken over. The old chef, Santi Santamaría, was well known for his uncompromising battle against molecular cuisine, which he believed threatened the classic kitchen. He ended up in a quarrel with Ferrán Adrià at El Bulli and claimed that some of the new molecular cuisine was directly harmful to health. He actually went so far as to assert that the authorities, led by the minister for Spanish culture, should intervene.
Another disappointment is Viridiana, a very fashionable and expensive restaurant two steps from the Prado Museum. Many of the concierges in the best Madrid hotels recommended this restaurant. The food is ok, but when both first and main courses costs €35 each, ok food is not good enough. Thus Viridiana is far, far from the best.
A little less disappointing, but still a disappointment, was the Japanese fushionrestaurant, Kabuki Wellington. Of the approximately ten dishes on the tasting menu (€91), I remember only one of the dishes as spectacular, namely Thinly sliced white fish with white truffle pâté. I talked to the boss, Sergi Arola, about the place. He believed that Kabuki is not on the level with the best in Tokyo. However, great chefs are coming in great numbers to learn how chef Ricardo Sanz merges East with West.
In the case of a more unpretentious, classic kitchen, I would recommend Jockey. It is located across the road from the Interior Ministry, and therefore serves a clientele of suit-clad, politicians with silver-gray, well-groomed moustaches. The food is unpretentious, classic and exquisite. The interior is reminiscent of a Ralph Lauren store. Service is sometimes a bit arrogant, sometimes very warm. But beware of the lady who welcomes. She could even get the likes of Ronaldo and Casillas to develop low self esteem! Jockey serves, among other things, schnitzel, steak and traditional fish dishes while a bottle of wine costs as little as €15. Those who enjoy a power lunch combined with good food & traditional, elegance, and a slightly snobbish aura with hints of the old world, will love Jockey. Newly renovated in an old world manner Jockey has lots of atmosphere. Strangely, this restaurant is not mentioned in the Michelin guide for 2012.
Go Go Go!
Those who want to indulge in a gourmet weekend or, better, a week of gourmet food should take a trip to Madrid. You will probably return to your home town with a firm conviction of never having dined better. Probably you will never eat better. Besides, you have sampled the future of cuisine. However, I would think that it will still take some years before families’ sit together enjoying sardine sorbet!