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.
One look at the the interior of Bazaar, with its décor based on artfully displayed dried goods, and I knew I was in a chain restaurant. In this case, however, I was pleased, because the chain has only two links, and I had made the first of them, Crema Canela, one of my regular stops in Barcelona.
The Madrid incarnation copies most aspects of its Catalan progenitor, including the occasionally surly wait staff, but the space is bigger and brighter. The menu combines fresh ingredients with a cooking style that is part Mediterranean, part pan-Asian.
On a recent visit, I stuck to the Mediterranean, working my way through a bright salad topped with crunchy goat cheese croquettes before moving on to grilled vegetable tartlets drizzled with an almond-based romesco sauce and a simply prepared salmon steak dotted with fennel leaves.
Everything seemed more healthful (in a good way) than the average Madrid meal, except for the desserts, which were mysteriously named and constructed. I had the Isimos, two muffin-shaped cakes with oozing chocolate and butterscotch centers that prompted the people at the next table to ask, "What is that?" I honestly couldn't tell them.
I wandered across the original incarnation of La Musa, an all-purpose cafe-wine bar-restaurant, late one afternoon as I was walking through the streets of the Malasaña neighborhood north of the Gran Via. It was still too early for dinner by Spanish standards, but I was hungry, and at that hour, I was happy to find a place that was serving.
The menu was built mostly around salads and innovative tapas, and I happily devoured my order of crisp sautéed green tomatoes topped with goat cheese and a dab of strawberry jam. It was so good that I returned with friends later in the week. But this time, we went at the more socially acceptable hour of 10 p.m. and could not get in the door because of the crowds. The same held true a few weeks later at lunchtime.
The choices on the well-priced menu del día change daily, but one recent meal featured a creamy corn soup swirled with tomato marmalade and lightly sautéed fillets of sole served atop bacon-flecked lentils. The dessert, a strawberry panna cotta, was weirdly unsweet.
If it weren't for the prices, Maldeamores would be my favorite neighborhood restaurant. It has that kind of feel: exposed brick walls, mushroom-colored velvet curtains and jazz playing on the stereo. Clearly, some better-heeled Madrileños treat it as their haunt; on the night we ate here, Spanish actor Jordi Mollà sat alone at one of the tables, looking like a regular.
The food is just as satisfying: interesting combinations, skillfully prepared. The menu roams from Italian-ish zucchini flowers stuffed with a monkfish mousse to Thai duck carpaccio. Geoff and I started with a caprese salad enlivened with sweet red piquillo peppers, and a remarkably delicious profiterole stuffed with melted Brie, grilled pears and shiitakes, and capped with a tangle of frizzled onions. We split a main course: a well-prepared American-style pork tenderloin served with a baked potato covered in olive oil.
For dessert, we sampled chocolate in three swoon-inducing variations: mousse, ice cream and a warm cake that oozed in the center.
In the summer, the old military quarters on Conde Duque, north of Plaza de España, hosts an outdoor concert series. That's how I discovered Toma, which is in a neighborhood that draws few tourists. The menu posted in its window looked as though it belonged to a Santa Monica bistro and for good reason: The previous chef and owners are American, as is the current owner. This cozy place has only six tables, plus a few barstools tucked into a tiny, blood-red room.
We started with delicious curry-infused steamed mussels, served in a copper cataplana, a Portuguese hinged casserole dish. A perfectly seared strip steak and fresh grilled tuna paired with wasabi aioli made for entrees that were simple but tasty. So too was the strawberry mousse we split for dessert, which somehow managed to be fluffy light and decadently rich.
Nina is in Malasaña, a neighborhood largely given over to popular bars, and looks as though it belongs in New York rather than Madrid. For one thing, there's the industrial décor: exposed ceiling ducts, dim lighting, floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows. The staff is clad in black, and a line of people waits at the bar. For all that, the service on the busy Saturday night that we visited was friendly, and although the restaurant certainly packed in the tables, the ambience was warm rather than annoying.
Nina says its fare is "creative Mediterranean," which turns out to be mostly a good thing. The kitchen was out of the salad I chose, but the chilled tomato soup with basil ice cream turned out to be a happy substitution. The classic revuelto de morcilla — scrambled eggs with blood sausage — came studded with raisins and pine nuts; the cod, another Spanish staple, got an imaginative jolt from a rich, honey-infused aioli.
On Sundays, the restaurant abandons the Mediterranean to embrace its New York tendencies: The fixed-price brunch includes bagels, chocolate chip muffins, eggs Benedict and Bloody Marys.
Global sampler in central Spain
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WHERE TO EAT:
NoDo, 150 Calle Velázquez; 564-4044. Dinner for two, about $120.
Mosaiq, 21 Calle Caracas; 308-4446. Dinner for two, about $70.
Bazaar, 21 Libertad; 523-3905. Lunchtime menu del día, about $9.50. Dinner for two, about $50.
La Musa, 18 Calle Manuela Malasaña; 448-7558. Lunchtime menu del día (three courses plus wine) costs about $11; tapas $6.50-$15.
Maldeamores, 6 Calle Don Pedro; 366-5500. Dinner for two, about $120.
Toma, 14 Calle Conde Duque; 547-4996. Dinner for two, about $60.
Nina, 10 Calle Manuela Malasaña; 591-0046. Dinner for two, about $80.