The cozy American-owned bistro could be in Santa Monica. (Geoff Pingree)

My first real culinary discovery in Madrid — made while I was a student backpacking through Europe — was a restaurant called La Latina in a neighborhood of the same name. The service was rushed, the décor nonexistent and the food not especially good. But the place was exceptionally cheap, and I gradually ate my way through most of its menu, my introduction to traditional Spanish cuisine.

On later trips, an improved budget allowed me to branch out into other restaurants. But I quickly learned that, although the food was better, the menu was similar to La Latina's. Madrid's kitchens seemed to stick to the pillars of Castilian cooking: garlic soup, grilled lamb chops and stewed tripe and beans.

In rival Barcelona, by contrast, chefs were making foam out of squid ink and pairing foie gras with cookie crumbs, all part of a veritable culinary revolution.

But as innovative Catalan chefs have cast their gaze on the country's capital, the spotlight no longer belongs just to Barcelona.

The techniques and fusionist ingredients that make the food exciting in Madrid hot spots such as La Broche and Terraza are trickling down to other, less-expensive restaurants here. When I crave a meal with a little spice or a few fresh vegetables, I now have many more options. Here are some of my favorites.



It's a long cab ride uptown to NoDo, on the northern end of Velázquez Street, above the Barrio Salamanca. That's one of the reasons it took me so long to try it, even though it has been the buzz of Madrid's media. That, and the fact that my tastes tend to differ from those of local critics when it comes to Asian food.

When the taxi driver deposited me in front of a nondescript office building and pointed me toward the ground-floor door, I had some serious doubts.

But once I was inside, my worries evaporated. Rows of sleek tables led through the wood-paneled dining room to a bright, open-air kitchen. Even on a rainy Saturday afternoon, the place was crowded. The menu, melding Japanese and Spanish ingredients and techniques, was full of exciting hybrid dishes that worked.

The chewy udon noodles topped with a thick, orange shrimp-and-garlic-shoot sauce, weren't much to look at, but the blend of flavors and textures was terrific. Among the entrees, tea-smoked langoustines — heads still attached and their crimson shells cut in half for easy access — stood out for their intense flavor and their striking appearance. And ajoblanco, a traditional Andalusian purée of garlic and almonds usually served as a kind of white gazpacho, acquired a new personality as the sauce for a seared tuna steak.

By meal's end, I was kicking myself for not having tried the restaurant sooner.



North AFRICAN is big in Madrid these days — Arab baths and Moroccan home décor stores are popping up all over town — and Mosaiq, in the Chamberi neighborhood, taps into that enthusiasm. It serves Middle Eastern and North African cuisine to a decidedly hip crowd and has become one of the most popular restaurants to open in recent months.

Part of that appeal, I realized as soon as I walked in, is visual: The small, lushly designed rooms are a riot of color — mosaic walls and tables, low banquettes lined in rich orange, turquoise and purple silk. The attractive staff doesn't hurt either: Female conversation at the table across from my boyfriend, Geoff, and me ground to a halt every time our impossibly chiseled waiter entered the room.

The food mostly lives up to the Arabian Nights setting, from Moroccan tagine to Syrian kibbe. Portions are small, so Geoff and I made our way through several dishes, all prepared with a deft hand. Hummus got added depth from a sprinkling of smoked paprika, and the feta and spinach triangles were crisply fried, without a trace of grease. The chicken kebabs were juicy and nicely seasoned; the vegetable couscous was fluffy, deeply flavored and served, authentically, with the broth used to steam the grain.

The dessert menu was limited, so we stuck to sweet mint tea. We were halfway through the pot when an exuberant belly dancer burst into the room. It was a nice touch.