The great tapas crawl of 2010: Madrid

We didn’t have the best weather in Madrid (very cold) or in Seville (rainy) so we focused our energies on the things we could do indoors, mainly eating.  Of course we had our share of visits to the Prado and to the Reina Sofia, and also spent half a day inside the third largest cathedral in the world in Seville.  But I will always remember our trip to Madrid and Seville for the delicious tapas we ate.

After an action packed week in Florence and Rome, we had an early morning flight to Madrid.  By the time we arrived at our hotel, we were exhausted and deflated like three day old birthday balloons.  To add to our already sorry state, our room wasn’t ready so we had no choice but to just head out and look for something to eat and drink.  I don’t know about the rest of the world but my travel day outfit is not meant to impress anyone.  I offer my apologies to those who have to look at me but the primary purpose of my travel attire is to provide the maximum amount of comfort to me, especially on this extended journey where I am carrying a giant backpack.  I wear my yoga pants, a worn out cotton shirt, sneakers, sometime glasses, and a baseball cap.  In other words, I don’t look like one of those Gwyneth type celebrities coming off of their transatlantic flights with their cashmere wraps and Jimmy Choos.  When I asked the reception where we could get a quick bite to eat, she pointed out two chain restaurants in the neighborhood (one of them was an all you can eat buffet place).  Really, the way I was looking and feeling we were ripe (no pun intended) for a quick and anonymous trip to the closest McDonalds but no.  That just wouldn’t do for us.  After the briefest walk-by to check out the places she suggested and immediately rejecting them both, we remembered a small and modern looking restaurant next to our hotel.  So that’s where we went…  Embarrassed by our decidedly shabby appearance at this stylish restaurant, we darted downward glances as we scurried to take our seats at the bar.  Once we saw the menu and bottles of wine stacked up to the ceiling, we finally relaxed.  Bring on the Spanish wine and tapas!

Feeling better on our "travel day" at Vadebaco

Vadebaco is a new bar and restaurant near Teatro Real; I believe it took over where La Viuda Blanca used to be on calle Campomanes 6.  They have over 350 bottles of wine (40 by the glass) and offer tapas as well as a full menu.  The food here was eclectic and the tapas we had were refined and sophisticated.  We ordered two different types of croquettes (one with jamon Iberico, the other with shrimp), spinach samosas, ensalada rusa, and some chorizo.  With some wine and tapas in our systems I was beginning to feel like a human being again and could finally take in the rest of the restaurant.  The entire wall behind the bar was painted black and was used as a giant chalkboard to note the specials of the day, and one particular dish caught our eye because of the word truffles.  “Crema de patata trufada con setas de temporada”  Hearing our interest in this dish, the gentleman sitting next to us turned and said that it was extraordinary.  When his wife nodded in agreement and smiled at us, that was all the encouragement we needed.  A few minutes later a beautiful flat glass vessel with our “potato soup” floating in the middle arrived.  We immediately perked up when the unmistakable aroma of truffles reached our nostrils.  This was definitely a dish you smelled and appreciated its appearance before you took a bite.  And the first bite was amazing.  All we could do was to look at each other and grin as we scooped and slurped.  It was creamy, luxurious, hot, salty, but earthy and comforting.  Exactly what we needed.  We returned again another day to have lunch there but I much preferred their gorgeous tapas.

Crema de patata trufada con setas de temporada

We had heard and read much about calle Cava Baja and all the tapas bars you can find there.  So one night, we went out to try as many tapas bars on that street as possible.  Real Madrid was playing in Barcelona that night so most of the bars without a big screen TV was almost painfully empty, and the fact that it was a cold weekday didn’t help either.  But with curiosity for new tapas bubbling over, we walked into a very quiet and subdued bar area of Casa Lucio.   As soon as we spotted white anchovies in the glass case, we knew we did the right thing by venturing out.  We pulled up to the bar, ordered two glasses of rioja, and asked for a plate of the white anchovies.  I am used to grey-ish brown anchovies packed in oil in jars and tins in the U.S.  Compared to those small things, these plump white anchovies looked like their much larger, well-to-do cousins bathing and flaunting in glistening olive oil.  For the next 45 minutes, we stood there savoring every last bit of salty brininess of the best anchovies we ever had.  Since that night, we’ve had anchovies skewered with olives, on top of mousse of bacalao, fried whole, on toast with tomato puree, and served on potato chips, and more.  But in my book, these white anchovies eaten without anything else to dress them up were the best.

White anchovies at Casa Lucio

At Mercado de San Miguel

On the same night, we tried two other tapas bars on Cava Baja but they didn’t make any lasting memories for me.  What we did love, however, was Mercado de San Miguel.  The day after we arrived in Madrid, we stopped at this beautifully restored market after our morning café con leche to see what we could find there.  We took a full tour of the market first to get the layout of the place, noting where the wine shop/counter was (important!) and what everyone was selling and eating.  From wild mushrooms and mountains of cured ham to fresh seafood and all kinds of olives, the market is well organized and everything is presented beautifully.  If you get there when they open at 10AM or much later at night (they close at midnight or later), I suggest you grab whatever looks good or intrigues you.  There is a vendor near the front who sells all kinds of cod and seafood bites on toast we liked very much.  The giant plate of jamon Iberico and chorizo wasn’t too shabby either.  Of course we had some olives and a slice of tortilla Espanola, too.  I should also mention that the wine guys are really nice (Thanks Pablo, for making our wine tasting so fun!).  There are plenty of seating options in the market itself and don’t be surprised if you end up sharing your table with a friendly stranger or two.  We met a nice fellow from Paris who was traveling alone and eating everything in sight like we were.  We even saw a Spanish TV personality and a camera crew doing a segment while we were there.  It should definitely be on your itinerary for your next trip to Madrid.

So delicious! At Mercado de San Miguel

Our last night in Madrid, we went to a restaurant but had our meal tapas style.  La Gabinoteca is a bit out of the way (by that I mean 10 minutes or so on the metro) but I wanted to go there to eat everything Anthony Bourdain ate on his show “No Reservations.”  I don’t know whether it is a popular place in Madrid with the locals but on a Tuesday night, we had no problem walking in and getting seated right away.  There is a small bar where you can have a drink and get the same food (if you watch the “No Reservations” episode on Madrid, that’s where Tony Bourdain ate.  But we opted to sit upstairs in a little cozy nook.  We ordered ourselves a bottle of rioja and settled down to go over the menu.  Our waiter explained that the food is served like tapas in smaller portions and that we should order 3 or 4 dishes per person.  The menu is separated into several sections from lighter/starter like items to more heavier, seafood and meat based dishes, to dessert.  I scanned the menu to see if I could remember what Tony had and oddly enough, I did recall some of them and that’s basically what we ended up ordering.  Along with the food menu, there was kind of a decision tree wine chart you could follow to see what kind of wine was right for you.  You’d start by deciding whether you see yourself as or prefer more of a modern/contemporary or classic style.  Then you choose between one composer or another musician, then this film or that, etc.  And at the end, you end up with the perfect bottle of wine for your style and personality.  There were a other fun and quirky things that had us laughing at the restaurant.  One of them was a chart in the bathroom where various singers, movie stars, and artists’ height were posted.  You would walk up to the chart and see whether you are as tall as Cameron Diaz or Clive Owen or Salvador Dali.  I never knew Edith Piaf was so short?!?

A jar of goodness at La Gabinoteca

By the time we discussed how tall Demi Moore was our first set of vegetable dishes arrived.  I don’t think Tony Bourdain eats a lot of veggies on his show but we needed some veggies in our diet so we ordered some asparagus and their salad of the week.  Not our absolute favorites but both dishes were well seasoned and we liked them enough.  Things got a lot better with our little jar of deliciousness.  A small mason jar came to us with mashed potatoes.  Not just regular mashed potatoes but these tasted as if someone mashed French fries (no big lumps).  On top of the potatoes was a very softly cooked egg.  It was definitely not poached by itself and then added later, but appeared to have been cooked in the jar, on top of the potatoes so I would guess that it had been cooked in a bain-marie.  On top of that was black truffles.  I could have had two jars of this by myself, it was so good!  My other favorite was this shrimp dish, which our waiter wanted us to know was raw.  It was presented on a thin black slate, finely pounded down and seasoned, with caviar, garlic chips, and olive oil.  Just writing about it is making me want to get some right now.   Good memories.  To mix it up a bit, we had their version of perros caliente (see photo) and we ordered our own “do it yourself” dessert.  You are supposed to create your own masterpiece, take a photo, and send it to the restaurant.  If your photo is chosen, you get a meal for two!  I think we did pretty well but we had more fun eating strawberry foam straight out of the spray can than anything.  Tony didn’t disappoint us with his pick.

Following Anthony Bourdain's footsteps

Perros caliente

Our "do it yourself" dessert making kit

With so much good food in Madrid, I wasn’t sure how things could get better in Seville…  to be continued!

Vadebaco: Calle Campomanes 6, Madrid

Mercado de San Miguel: Plaza San Miguel (west of Plaza Mayor), Madrid

Casa Lucio: Calle Cava Baja 35 (south of Plaza Mayor), Madrid

La Gabinoteca:  Calle Fernandez de la Hoz 53 (esquina con Breton de los Herreros), nearest subway is Metro 1: Rios Rosas, 7: Alonso Cano, 6: Gregorio M.

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