Benjamin Bensoussan gracefully prepares course after course of imaginative small plates at the hip Le Cabrera. // © 2011 Mindy Poder
Assistant Editor Mindy Poder and Restaurante Arce’s chef Inaki Camba collaborate on the menu before lunch. // © 2011 Mindy Poder
Chocolateria San Gines serves churros — long, lightly oiled, crispy fried dough straight from the kitchen to the table — with thick hot chocolate. // © 2011 Mindy Poder
At El Club Allard, chef Diego Guerrero creates playful food, including a chocolate dessert disguised as a fishbowl. // © 2011 Mindy Poder
Mama Framboise returns to simple, high-quality ingredients for baked goods that everyone can recognize. // © 2011 Mindy Poder
Newly renovated Mercado de San Miguel offers 20th century architecture and more than 30 unique food vendors. // © 2011 Mindy Poder
Eating in Madrid is an all-day adventure that’s partially, but not purely, gluttonous — some of my favorite eating experiences helped me understand Madrid’s old customs as well as its current culture. To achieve this balance when traveling in Spain, embrace the local eating framework set in place, not only to experience Madrid like a local, but because it will afford more and better dining options.
Breakfast, or desayuno, is served around the same time as in the U.S., and clients are likely to find a large continental breakfast at their hotels and at cafes, filled with pastries, croissants and other sweet and savory dishes, best accompanied by thick, hot chocolate and cafe solo (a single shot of espresso served in a dematisse) or cafe cortado (espresso with a splash of milk). Lunch (comida) is not served until 2 p.m., but it’s worth the wait, as it is typically the biggest meal of the day, filled with several courses, including wine and dessert. Typical Madrid cafes serve “menu del dia,” which is usually three courses and wine for a modest price. Usually $13-$20, these meals include bread and wine and courses including paella, steak and dessert. Clients may be able to find restaurants that will serve them dinner as early as 8 or 9 p.m., but why? The hours between lunch and dinner are reserved for snacking. Merienda (or afternoon snack) is enjoyed around 6 p.m. and is typically coffee, with churros or pasteles (pastries). Tapas are an after-work tradition and usually involve a drink and a snack, from meatballs to Spanish tortillas (egg and potato omelets). Then, it’s time for dinner which, nowadays, can be as extensive as lunch.
Following this framework should provide clients with plenty of time to fit all of the following on their plates.
Lunch and Dinner
Most Memorable Meal:
It’s not rare for a restaurant review to say “go here because of the chef,” but it’s not just the chef’s cooking prowess that makes Restaurante Arce a must-visit. Inaki Camba, the chef at Arce, is a boisterous personality — he comes to every table and interviews patrons on their hunger level and food preferences, turning the menu creation into a convivial and collaborative process. I can’t take credit for the expertly executed lunch of mushroom risotto, fried cauliflower, fried cheese and ice cream though — that was all because of the chef.
Oldest Restaurant in Madrid:
There are 13 restaurants in Madrid that are 100 years and older, but recommend Casa Botin to clients because: It’s 300 years old, making it the oldest operating restaurant in not only Madrid, but the entire world; they can take a photograph at the corner table where Ernest Hemingway is said to have sat during his visits — I did!; and they can enjoy one of Madrid’s specialties, cochinillo, or roasted suckling pig.
La Bola, founded in 1870 and located near the Royal Palace, serves a typical Spanish stew called Cocido Madrileno. The meal is commonly made in Spanish homes — an important context which La Bola understands. Made up of three small and busy rooms, which recall a busy household, the restaurant is cozy and intimate. Vegetables and meats are slow-cooked together for hours and, then, the liquid is extracted and served in a bowl first, with noodles and, like most complete Spanish meals, crusty, white bread. The waiter removes the lid of each diner’s individual earthenware clay pot to unveil a cloud of steam which eventually dissipates to reveal tender meats, vegetables and chick peas. The dish is not for the squeamish, as large cuts of various meats are served together — one diner even found some pig hairs on her pork. Americans may find inspiration in the clientele — locals, including nuns — but, if not, the Manchego pintxo may be easier to stomach. The dish, which comes from Manchego but does not feature the cheese which many associate with the region, is a rich, red stew of tomatoes, peppers and onions, topped with a fried egg.
The Hotel Silken Puerta America is quite the spot to visit — each of the 12 floors is designed by a different designer, resulting in more of a museum than a hotel. Indeed, it’s quite amazing to see how each designer interprets the same space’s possibilities and, as a guest, it’s fun to tour a floor that looks like a space ship as well as an immaculate white space, seemingly imagined for a Kubrick film. Sharing the hotel’s slant toward creativity and innovation is the formal dining restaurant at the hotel. However, where the hotel sometimes favors form over function — the hotel even supplies guests with a placard to notify housekeeping that something needs fixing — the restaurant excels at innovative cuisine that needs no repair.
The underground level is a specialty cocktail bar, and the ground level is the kind of space where you can sit at the bar and watch the chef — most likely a tall, young, bespectacled French import named Benjamin Bensoussan — gracefully prepare course after course of small plates, reconsidered for a city that is increasingly eschewing tradition. Le Cabrera could easily fit in amongst Los Angeles’ and New York’s best gastropubs, which have been taking a cue from Spain’s small plate establishments for quite some time now. Traditional tapas, including patatas bravas (fried potatoes) and pan con tomate (bread with tomato) take on new life here, reinvigorating the popular concept for locals and visitors alike. Don’t miss Diego Cabrera’s cocktails either — the Argentinean mixologist’s extensive menu offers originals as well as classics that complement the lively atmosphere.
Snacks, Breakfast and More
Best Churros and Chocolate:
Chocolateria San Gines
It’s easy to spot Chocolateria San Gines — it’s the building next door to the nightclub with a huge line in front of it. The line, however, is for the 118-year old churro shop, and for good reason. Spain claims to have created the churro and Chocolateria San Gines serves the long, lightly oiled, crispy fried dough straight from the kitchen to the table, piled high on a plate. Unlike the U.S. — which typically serves a Mexican-style churro — the Spanish churro is not topped with cinnamon or sugar, though sugar can be requested and sticks easily to the warm, soft dough. The churros are accompanied by a semi-sweet hot chocolate that is extremely thick — partaking in the decadent custom is one way to understand the Spanish saying that “things should be clear and chocolate-thick.” San Gines also serves porras, which are a thicker version of the fried dough and a more efficient accomplice to the generous serving of chocolate. Chocoleteria San Gines is open at all hours, except from 7 to 9 a.m., and is most bustling in the early morning hours, after the nightclubs and in between meals. Energetic clients can do like the locals: follow up a night of dancing with churros and chocolate before meandering through El Rastro, a gigantic, open-air flea market.
Find Cloistered Cookies:
Convento de Corpus Cristi
Leave it to nuns to put speakeasies to shame. Within walking distance from some main attractions – including the Plaza Mayor – there is a quiet block with a nondescript building. At this old building, which dates back to the 17th century, guests must press the button on the telecom and respond to the high-pitched, sweet voice on the other end. The voice is angelic for good reason — it belongs to a nun. The building is a convent, housing nuns who sell cookies via what is best described as an oversized Lazy Susan that allows the nuns to sell without compromising their anonymity. Upon gaining entry into the building (saying “dulce,” or sweets, should work), pastry seekers need only to veer to the left, where they will encounter a wooden door which opens to the Lazy Susan. Selections vary by the day, but often include traditional favorites such as mantecados (shortbread biscuits). Look for the nuns at Plaza del Conde de Miranda, 28005.
Taberna Angel Sierra
At Taberna Angel Sierra, clients can enjoy draft vermouth. Though the tavern is located in Plaza de Chueca — one of the most avant-garde and gay-friendly neighborhoods in Madrid — the tavern opened in 1917 and has retained its classic look and charm. To complement the very sweet vermouth are tapas, or snacks, including olives, anchovies and tuna, which are on display in a case underneath the ornate gold taps.
Most Interesting Desserts:
El Club Allard
A former exclusive old boy’s club would not be my first guess for creating the city’s most innovative desserts. El Club Allard still smells of cigars and lights up with chandeliers, but it delivers desserts that are just as imaginative and unique as the rest of its two-starred Michelin menu. Edible versions of a plot of dirt, a fish bowl and a hardboiled egg were as inspired as they were delicious, displaying the best — and sweetest — side of chef Diego Guerrero and Spanish modernist cuisine.
The modernist thread in high-end Madrid cuisine is not for all occasions — sometimes you just want a freshly squeezed orange juice, a cafe solo and a piece of cake, like grandma used to make. This is exactly what I found at Mama Framboise, which opened in July to roaring acceptance by locals in the Las Salesas district. According to chef Angel Sanchez, a 36-year-old baker’s son trained in Barcelona, the goal of the cafe is to bring back pure, simple flavors that anyone can recognize. Mama Framboise touts itself as Madrid’s first boulangerie and everything is homemade and much of it is locally sourced. And, if my conversation with Sanchez is any indication, it’s all made with lots of love.
Best Homemade Truffles and Macaroons:
This fashionable little shop takes its truffles and macaroons seriously, painstakingly ensuring that every bite is decadent and delicious. Refusing to mass produce their popular treats, the shop is serious about maintaining the quality of its hand-crafted cookies and confections.
All You Can Eat and See:
Mercado de San Miguel
When approaching Mercado de San Miguel from the street, clients will see a dynamic whirlwind of color and people. Through the glass walls is the market, which dates back to 1916 but was long dormant until it underwent a multiyear renovation and reopened in 2009. The market is a popular spot not only for its Beaux-Arts architecture and location, adjacent to the Plaza Mayor, but for its late hours and more than 30 stalls, offering everything from organic ice cream to croquettes, paella and wine. This is an ideal destination for clients who have a brief time to sample Madrid’s specialties and interact with Madrilenos as well as for those who seek a bustling buffet for the senses.