Shades of Modern Tapas in Madrid
In addition to world-class museums, historic monuments, posh residences, leafy boulevards, swanky shops, a growing collection of restaurants and bars serving contemporary Spanish tapas have increased the draw of the neighborhoods surrounding Madrid's picturesque Parque de Buen Retiro, commonly referred to by both locals and visitors as 'El Retiro'
Once the gardens of the now-disappeared Buen Retiro Palace, the Retiro Park is the beloved green playground of Madrid. Turned into a public park in the 19th century, this 1.4 km2 (350-acre) swath of green boasts sculptured gardens, a man-made lake dominated by the Monument to the king Alfonso XII, sweeping esplanades and a handful of elegant exposition spaces. It teems with activity at all hours of the day—from families out for a stroll and lovers enjoying a row around the lake, to joggers and athletes-in-training, many of them busily working up hearty appetites.
Fortunately, El Retiro also serves as an axis between different Madrid barrios which, in addition to this leafy park, share the fact that they are home to some of this city's most mouthwatering and exciting establishments on the modern tapas scene.
From Cibeles to the Prado
Along the park’s western boundary lie some of Madrid’s most famous monuments, from the stunning white Palacio de Comunicaciones (once the central post office and now city hall) to the Iglesia de los Jerónimos (church) and the world-famous Prado Museum, among others. The adjoining area is mostly residential, comprised of tony apartments with gasp-worthy views of the park. Now this neighborhood is also home to a handful of modern tapas bars that are well on their way to becoming culinary monuments in their own right.
Two such places are situated just behind the old post office on Calle Montalbán. Alabaster is one of this area's unsurprising stars. Just slightly below street level, this immaculate Madrid venture from Galicia's Grupo Alborada presents a mixture of whitewashed ancient brick and glossy black walls. Tall wooden tables and high-backed black stools welcome those looking to enjoy a few dishes in the restaurant’s bar area.
In keeping with recent trends, dishes are actually larger raciones, as opposed to bite-sized tapas, but they are still designed to be shared in either full or half-sized portions. The menu has a decidedly Galician touch. The seawater-cured scallops are on the half-shell with a piparra pepper emulsion and seaweed garnish. The artichoke is breaded, fried and served with a caper, pickle and anchovy sauce with a fragrant touch of mint. Other dishes to try include monkfish "roast beef" with house-pickled vegetables, peas with pea-pod cream and pork rind, smoked sardine with PDO Arzúa-Ulloa cheese and tomato; and the house specialty of steamed hake with lemon-lime pil-pil and spinach. For its part, the wine list has an ample selection by-the-glass, with attention to whites from Galicia (DOs Valdeorras and Rías Baixas), and interesting choices of sherries and sparkling wines.
Restaurante Vinoteca García de Navarra is just steps away. With an outdoor terrace and a more bustling, casual atmosphere, this self-proclaimed wine bar serves up more traditional Spanish fare, albeit in unexpected combinations. Mouthwatering chistorra sausage croquettes, warm green bean salad with foie gras, and an absolutely delicious version of Spanish favorite ensaladilla rusa. The wine list has more than 500 references, with emphasis on classic Spanish regions like Ribera del Duero and Rioja; including some very serious wines like Vega Sicilia Único, Pingus, Artadi Viña el Pisón and Remirez de Ganuza Reserva; and old vintages of Rioja that go as far back as the 1930's.
These, of course, are just a few of the modern tapas options in this area. One street over, on Calle Valenzuela, Restaurante Meating boasts a bright and airy central bar area dressed in antique columns, woods, whites and glass. As the name suggests, the menu is decidedly meat-centric, with emphasis on Galician beef complemented by seasonal vegetables from San Sebastián and Navarre, fish from the Bay of Biscay and cured meats with denominations of origin. The somewhat simple bar menu features a range of small tapas, including the classic Gilda (a toothpick-speared olive, pepper and anchovy), peppers stuffed with crab, and sardines from Santoña with thin coca bread and tomato. Otherwise, larger raciones are also available, including grilled leeks from Goiherri and steak tartar made with Galician beef.
And one shouldn’t leave this neighborhood without stopping by cozy Taberna Restaurante Condumios on Calle Juan de Mena, for a seasonally shifting menu of exquisitely prepared raciones that highlight top-quality Spanish ingredients and put a twist on classic dishes. Cherry gazpacho, house-pickled quail and scallop empanada, among others, are best washed down with one of the carefully selected wines that owner Sebastián López Robledo is only too happy to recommend.
Menéndez Pelayo Ave to Doctor Castelo St
It’s the other side of El Retiro that beckons now, calling for a twenty-minute amble through its leafy paths to come out on the park's eastern border, which lies along the imposing Avenida Menéndez Pelayo. With a couple of streets of nearly back-to-back establishments serving interesting tapas that you shouldn’t pass up, you might want to start fresh another day with a renewed appetite.
Starting on Calle Doctor Castelo and heading away from the park, go no farther than Taberna Arzábal on the corner of Menéndez Pelayo. This restaurant and tapas bar is modern and sleek, while inviting and comfortable, with a large bar area filled with plenty of tall stools and shared tables. Large chalkboards list the tapas and wines currently available by the glass, although the restaurant’s full menu can also be ordered at the bar.
Top-tier Spanish products abound, served in simple but flavorful combinations that come in full or half-portions. The anchovies from Cantabria with tomato-slathered bread are divine, while other favorites include the garlic shrimp, fried eggs with black truffles over potatoes, and the porcini mushroom or Ibérico pork croquettes. The wine list is varied and luxurious, with a range of Cavas and dessert wines by the glass.
The vibe at La Castela, just up the street is totally different. The look of this marble-adorned bar lined with rows of vintage vermouth bottles and displays of fresh products, does little to prepare you for the stunning presentations, delectable flavors and contemporary interpretations of typical Spanish dishes that you’ll find on the menu under deceptively simple names. The milhojas de ventresca is like a gorgeous layer cake of melt-in-your-mouth tuna, roasted red peppers, tomatoes and black olive tapenade, all drenched in extra virgin olive oil. You won’t find potato chips at this bar; rather the free tapa might be a braised endive with an olive oil emulsion. The list of pinchos includes bite-sized dishes like cod with caramelized garlic, Cabrales cheese spread with cured duck ham, and pork trotters with alioli.
Switch gears again a couple of blocks farther when you enter the large and modern bar of Taberna Laredo, packed with enthusiastic patrons. The extensive menu initially seems on a par with the aforementioned establishments: quality Spanish products used in traditional dishes with a slightly modern twist. Yet, a few innovative dishes stand out, the first being the seaweed-ginger croquettes, which are, in a word, delicious. The artichoke, squid and garbanzo stew is tempting, as is the bluefin tuna carpaccio, the fried rabbit "chops", and the xoubas (small sardines from Galicia) lasagna with mango and ginger comfit. The wine list is equally varied, though many of the dishes' interesting flavor combinations would be best served by a glass of Spanish Cava.
Lope de Rueda, Menorca and Ibiza streets
On the next few streets over, there is nearly as much going on in terms of Spanish tapas served with a modern touch. Start with La Montería on Calle Lope de Rueda. With its large windows giving a clear view of the bright and inviting wood-paneled bar (the restaurant is in back), it's almost impossible to resist stopping in for a ración of marinated sardines with Cantagrullas cheese, suckling lamb sweetbreads with asparagus, or cured venison with cherry oil—accompanied by a Spanish wine from their extensive list. Despite its updated lines and modern appearance, La Montería boasts a fifty-year history of sating neighborhood appetites.
Around the corner on Calle Menorca, make a beeline for the not-to-be-missed Taberna La Catapa, which will undoubtedly be overflowing with locals in-the-know. The authentic tapas experience at La Catapa might include hake croquettes, ensaladilla rusa with pickled pheasant, cod tortilla, broad beans with baby squid and a changing selection of fresh seafood. Across the street, tiny Venta La Hidalguía offers simple, quality tapas inspired by Castile-La Mancha in a tavern-meets-gourmet food shop (partridge salad, cheeses and quality preserves).
And finally—though the list could go on and on around here—, head to Taberna Pedraza on Calle Ibiza for deceptively simple tapas that pay homage to some of the finest Spanish gastronomic products in existence, served in a cozy, colorful and tile-lined setting: scrumptious tomatoes that will make you weep, cured 100% Galician beef and a Betanzos-style tortilla de patatas (runny in the middle) that many claim is the best in Madrid.