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Jun 18 2015

New Tapas in Old Madrid

Madrid, a bastion of Spanish tapas where local flavors converge with regional gastronomic recipes, now fully integrated into the city’s cuisine after years of migration to the nation’s capital. Likewise, tradition mingles with the modern pace of a cosmopolitan city, and while some things stay the same, others are in a constant state of evolution; and Spanish tapas are no exception



In the Spanish capital, tasty stalwarts of the local tapas tradition (think croquetas de jamón, ensaladilla rusa, patatas bravas, huevos rotos, boquerones en vinagre, etc.) are increasingly sharing the limelight (and at times the menu) with avant-garde culinary creations and nuanced versions of beloved favorites. In Old Madrid, namely the bustling neighborhoods of La Latina and Huertas, temples of modern tapas and innovative flavors often blend seamlessly into the row upon row of traditional gastronomic establishments. Though some are newcomers, a surprising number are already modern classics and established favorites among locals and visitors alike. Fortunately, these two barrios are in easy walking distance from one another, making it feasible to enjoy the following tapas route in one night, or spread out over several days. The only thing you’ll need to bring is a hearty and adventurous appetite. 

La Latina, the modern classics

Nestled "behind" Plaza Mayor, La Latina was once part of the medieval city. Today the area's tangled streets are still dotted with cobblestone squares, ancient churches and traditional taverns. What is arguably the heart of the area's food scene, Cava Baja street, was in fact once part of the ditch around the medieval city wall, vestiges of which can be seen under glass floors in some of the street's wall to wall restaurants and tapas bars. This area is ruled by the unofficial tapa hopping norms of classic Madrid: bars open for the 1pm aperitivo hour, when locals might order a vermouth, small beer (caña) or wine with a free tapa, before going home for lunch or out for a sit-down meal. Things pick up again at around 8pm, as friends meet up over tapas and larger raciones

In addition to these traditional patterns, classic aesthetics also rule this historic barrio. But don't let the look of places like Casa Lucas fool you. Though it has been around long enough to be considered a Madrid classic, its tapas are anything but. With a modest bar, pleasant decor and handful of simple wooden tables and low stools, Casa Lucas leaves the sophistication up to its food, which is mostly served in ración sized portions meant for sharing. The rabo de toro (bull's tail) falls apart into incredibly tender and slightly sweet morsels that have been slow cooked with wine and vegetables to the point of submission and then mixed with pistachios and prunes.

The fardos (bundles), strips of tender calamari bound together with bacon and served over a squid ink mousse, are not to be missed, nor is the octopus carpaccio, which is thinly sliced over a mound of pimentón (Spanish paprika) and bacon flavored potatoes. For something slightly smaller, try one of three tostas, like the Madrid, which is topped with grilled blood sausage with onions over candied tomatoes. And while it’s unusual to find wide selections of wines by the glass in Madrid restaurants, this is something that these contemporary tapas bars seem to have in common. In addition to an attractive wine list, diners at Casa Lucas can try a glass of vermouth, Sherry, Cava or wine from DO Vinos de Madrid, DO Campo de Borja, or several other regions.

 For an exceptional selection of by-the-glass Spanish wines, pop into Tempranillo, just down the street. The old world-feel and classic decor of this tapas bar is lorded over by a giant wall of ancient wine racks. Though the list rotates regularly, you might be lucky enough to order a glass of a formidable Spanish wine from a world-famous winemaker like Vega Sicilia or Álvaro Palacios. The tapas menu is extremely product based and for the most part exquisitely simple: fresh grilled asparagus in season, thin slices of boletus mushrooms, barely grilled and drizzled with olive oil; seared fresh foie gras with baked apple. 

At the end of Cava Baja, cross the slightly wider Carrera de San Francisco (without forgetting to look right at the impressive San Francisco el Grande church) and step into Juana La Loca. Also a long-term tenant of La Latina, this streamlined restaurant is dominated by a long bar covered in glass display cases filled with colorful pintxos like its famed candied onion tortilla de patatas (potato omelet).Both the selection of tapas along the bar, and those found on the incredibly diverse menu are characterized by interesting combinations of quality Spanish ingredients like sobrasada, Idiazabal cheese, sardines, Butifarra sausage and artichokes from Navarra, served in mouthwatering dishes like Semi-salted albacore tuna Carpaccio in almond olive oil and inflated saffron rice. 

Next, veer off onto the somewhat quieter Cava Alta and look for Matritum. This cozy restaurant only has a small standing-room bar just inside the door. Even so, it's worth a stop for one of the always-creative tapas like the blood sausage and quince croquettes or roasted red pepper salmorejo with Amontillado Sherry gelatin. The menu changes every few months, as does the carefully compiled wine list, which often features lesser-known Spanish wineries or interesting regions.

Huertas, where the action is

While there’s something about La Latina that still conveys old world tradition, Huertas, or the neighborhood sometimes referred to as Santa Ana after its central plaza, exudes a certain buzz. Maybe it's the cultural legacy left by former residents from Spain's Golden Age such as Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) and Lope de Vega (1562-1635), or the steady stream of street performers, vendors, tourists and plenty of locals, but regardless, this charming, historic and mostly pedestrian area has been undergoing a culinary transformation as of late that is characterized by new strongholds of contemporary cuisine in the form of restaurants and tapas bars. 

One such place is TriCiclo, one of the hottest tickets in Madrid dining right now. Three is the number to know here: three chef/owners, three categories of dishes and three sizes of each: tapa, half-ración and ración. The first two sections of the menu are decidedly Spanish in terms of ingredients and inspirations, and the resulting recipes are as innovative and tasty as they are stunningly presented. Morel mushrooms with cream, egg yolk, crunchy lamb sweet breads and tender garlic shoots; roasted cod pil-pil with spinach, garbanzos and black Butifarra sausage; razor clams, octopus, trout roe, crucifers, seaweed and oyster leaves; and house-marinated and smoked mackerel with roasted peppers and black olives, to name a few. All of this is complemented by an ample and well-compiled list of Spanish wines and various Sherries, as well as a denim clad wait staff and low key vintage-rustic decor. Though the dining room reserves way in advance, the bar is first-come-first-serve for tapas and the menus are the same. 

Just a few streets away, Villa Paramesa is the recently opened Madrid branch of Valladolid's famed tapas restaurant by the same name, which was named "Best Spanish Gastrobar" at Madrid Fusión 2014. Located on Prado , Villa Paramesa Madrid is a modern, open space dressed in whites and beiges, that lets its colorful, creative and award-winning tapas do the talking. The red prawn tartar and lemon meringue is served in a vertical cone with a tempura-fried whole prawn head, the sardine ceviche is perched on a sweet red onion ice cream in an edible caramelized boat made of Kombu, the juicy pork rib ravioli melts in your mouth and the Cocido Madrileño croquettes are a perfect and flavorful manifestation of this beloved local dish. These are true tapas in the best sense of the word: individual portions that in most cases are designed to be eaten with your hands. 

Ana La Santa is another neighborhood newcomer; a large, bright and airy space located at the front of the Hotel ME, with sweeping views of the Plaza Santa Ana. This combination lobby, restaurant, lounge and tapas bar serves food all day, which is best enjoyed at the massive wraparound bar or any of the wooden, plant adorned tables next to floor-to-ceiling windows. The tapas menu mixes classic fare like croquetas and sliced jamón, with new inventions such as suckling pig cracklings with lime and jalapeños, red peppers roasted in honey, and truffled meatballs with wild mushrooms. 

And those who are hankering to dine on the creations of one of Spain's famed avant garde chefs, but in a casual and lively tapas environment, should head directly to Vi Cool, the tapas bar concept created by chef Sergi Arola. Here, diners can sample Arola's iconic interpretation of patatas bravas, made famous at his original two-Michelin star Madrid restaurant La Broche; or dig into a seasonal menu characterized by tapas like hake fritters with squid ink aioli, Carpaccio of Ibérico pork "secreto", and several different cocas (Catalan flatbreads), topped with a huge variety of ingredients, among other things. Cold and hot raciones and tapas with a twist in an establishment that manages to mix industrial, rustic, contemporary and traditional decor in a way that can only be described as cool. And all of this in a neighborhood that never seems to sleep.


Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
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