Right before the holidays I had a pleasure to travel to Madrid, Spain for a pleasure trip, along with a tad bit of business – escaping the craziness of the season here in the states, going to explore a new city and immerse myself into the Spanish culture. The trip was one of the most amazing experiences of my life – a truly fantastic adventure. DAY 1:
After arriving very early in the morning, we decided to immerse ourselves into the local fabric by purchasing a Metro pass to get us around the city and take us from the airport to our hotel. Madrid might just have the best mass-transit rail system in the world – it’s ridiculously clean, all trains are numbered and color-coded (easy for non-Spanish speakers to get around) and it is extremely fast and efficient. As we headed to our hotel, I made sure to take note of the various stops, wide variety of people in this capital city and the spirit of the holiday season.
Getting off at the Gran Via Metro stop, we found ourselves less than 50 yards away from our hotel, the Tryp Menfis ****. This hotel had come highly recommended based on its reputation (now owned by Wyndham International), spacious rooms (by European standards), great room amenities, included full breakfast, and sheer location in the heart of the city. Upon check in, we discovered all of these items to be true and throughout our trip the hotel gave us a great base to start our morning each day and relax before exploring the city.
One of the things that I wanted to do most was make it to a Spanish soccer match and even though La Liga was on a break, the Copa del Rey (King’s Cup) tournament was happening and we had to go. After getting on the Metro for our first exploration without luggage, we traveled to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, home field of the pride of Madrid, Real Madrid. We were able to walk right up and get tickets to the next night’s match and I was absolutely on cloud nine. After walking around the area by the stadium, we hopped back on the Metro and decided to start exploring the area around Sol, the main city center.
We meandered all over the area, from Opera to Puerta Sol, Plaza Mayor and more – finally realizing that it was almost 6pm and we hadn’t eaten lunch! I made an executive decision that the next place that looked good we were stopping into. So, at that challenge, we walked into Cerveceria Santa Ana right off of Plaza de Santa Ana. Some might be skeptical of a ‘restaurant’ like this, but we were in the mood to explore and with all of the meat hanging at the bar, we went for it. After sitting down and realizing that the bar-man spoke a few words in English and my Spanish was just okay, we were able to decipher the menu and get a delicious mixed plate of cured meats and manchego, the best white anchovies I’ve ever tasted (super plump) and a very good glass of Rioja, that was actually made specifically for the restaurant. This was the Spain that I was looking for! We were then introduced to a few more members of the staff, speaking in broken Spanish-English and then they started sending us complementary meat, cheese and glasses of wine. It was a perfect introduction to the culture and with bellies full, we wandered out into the night.
We kept further exploring the city after our meal, realizing that the area we had been venturing around was actually closer to our hotel than we first thought. This turned out to be a very good thing, since if we wanted to walk we could and if we wanted to take the Metro, we could easily ride that as well. After a much needed and almost Spanish-standard siesta, we discovered that it was time for a late dinner (normal in the eyes of the Spaniards) and we wanted something casual. We ventured around the local area, realizing there were some chains and just average restaurants, before turning down a quiet street where we came upon a small little restaurant and bar call O’Munio. We were skeptical at first, but ended up going inside and had a late bite – well worth it! We were introduced to lightly fried baby squid that were some of the most tender, fantastic I’ve ever had. Along with gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp) and a HUGE plate of manchego, paired with a few bottles of red wine the night was fantastic and we floated home.
Mercado del San Miguel
After a good night’s sleep, we were back on foot the next day – exploring the city once again. We finally made it over to the Mercado de San Miguel, a former working market that had been cleaned up and re-purposed as a functioning food hall that the city and its population have fully embraced. There are a multitude of stalls, each specializing in one or a few items, that you could walk up to and order, either standing their eating or moving on to tables in the middle. This concept is slowly being embraced in the states and I believe will grow in the coming years. Knowing it was holiday season was one thing, but the market remained busy all day long at every different time. We popped over to their wine bar having some great wines for less than 4 euro per copa (copa’s are glasses in Spain and how all wine is served) each, then to Meating Point for mini-sandwiches of Beef, Veal and Iberican Pork, then finishing at their nut and snack stand for a great, fresh trail mix.
Taking a relaxing siesta, we then made our way back to Bernabeu for the Real Madrid match. Upon getting off the Metro at this stop, we discovered how serious Spaniards take their futbol. There were people EVERYWHERE decked out in the team colors and vendors covering the streets selling everything from candy to souvenirs to fresh roasted chestnuts. Interestingly enough, fans are not allowed inside the stadium until an hour before game time, which explains the party that was happening just outside the stadium. Once inside, I realized what a hallowed venue Bernabeu is – not only does it accommodate 85,000 people, the grass is the greenest I have ever seen. After a slow start with only half of their normal starters in the game, Real turned it on in the second half and took it to the lower division team.
Heading back to the Gran Via, we decided to take a walk and explore some of the restaurants by the Mercado trying to figure out a late dinner. We happily settled upon Emma Tapas & Cocina, sitting at their 4-seat bar inside the tiny restaurant. Our bartender/server turned out to be a lovely Mexican woman, Vanessa, who had come to Spain to study but decided to stay after she fell in love with the country. She did a wonderful job guiding us through the menu, starting with one of the best Carpaccio’s I’ve ever tasted and Canary Island Goat Cheese (more rustic and ages than I had expected), but a true delight, then finishing with a Galician digestif, in the spirit of coffee.
On Wednesday we took a long, leisurely walk to the much celebrated Museo del Prado – which was teaming with groups and art patrons; very busy with the holiday season. One of the unexpected artistic treats was the first showing ever from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
After leaving the museum we stayed in the immediate area, falling into Estado Puro, Las Tapas de Paco Roncero. Chef Roncero is a much celebrated Michelin-star winning chef who has more formal restaurants but wanted to bring a high-end flair to tapas. The restaurant is very modern, with an open bar/kitchen area and large windows that front their patio along Neptune’s Fountain circle. Favorite dishes were their Iberican Pork Shoulder, grilled and served with sea salt and a spicy Chimichurri sauce along with a DELICIOUS Arroz Negra, with grilled baby squid on top.
For dinner that night we were able to connect with a friend of a friend back in the states, who had recently moved home to Spain and had her join us for a more home style meal. We had been recommended Casa Mingo, a rustic restaurant that specialized in Roasted Chicken. So, we met Marta at this tremendously large hall of a restaurant with heavy wooden chairs and tables that filled the room. At the advice of our friends, we ordered their House Cider (residual sugar through the roof) but refreshing and light), Grilled Chorizo (the best I had in Spain) and a whole Chicken. Let me tell you, this was one of the best, simple meals I’ve had in years. The Chorizo had a great snap and perfect spice blend while the Chicken was moist and tender, exactly how you would dream of it.
Post dinner we took to exploring the La Latina district of the city, which is known for tapas bars and small wine bars. Apparently, on Thursday nights it is tradition to bounce from one bar to another, all the way down the street (we went even though it was a Wednesday and also, still busy!). Regardless, we made a few stops, first at Posada del Dragon (which also has a small hotel above it) for simple wine by the glass and fantastically sweet, buttery olives and then over to La Camarilla for a quick copa as well.
Thursday, we decided to continue the cultural immersion, heading to the Reina Sofia for more modern works of art and different creativity compared to the Prado. The museum is set inside of a former hospital that has amazing architecture and gigantic in scale. The “Reina” boasts one of the large collections of the Grand Masters and it certainly did not disappoint.
Post-museum, we headed back to the Mercado de San Miguel to taste through some more of the culinary stalls and decompress. We did get to try the seafood tapas stand, tasting out a collection of dishes all served on top of toast – silky Smoked Salmon, Smoked Tuna Loin, Salt Cod and Octopus. My favorite was definitely the Salmon, amazing consistency and great flavor. We took these items over to the Pinkelton & Wine bar, where a large variety of wine by the copa was available. Standing there, sipping on a Navarra, then a Ribero del Duero Crianza, while snacking on tapas; I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect lunch.
That evening we wanted to once again embrace a more home-style meal so we made the decision to head to another restaurant La Sanabresa (Calle Amor de Dios 12) – home-style Spanish cooking that was the highlight of the trip. Four daily 3-course menus, starting at 9,60 euro up to 25,00 euro. What a great treat this was. The restaurant had been very highly recommended by a variety of people and guides, with the main comment being get there early or you’d be waiting all night for a table! So, we listened and made it there right at opening to discover we had taken one of the only available tables, as large holiday parties and groups were coming to take over the restaurant. After deciding on another great and simple bottle of Spanish red, we dove into the menu. We ordered sautéed mushrooms with garlic, which I believe may be the best I have ever tasted. They were a huge portion served in a cazuela that was fragrant and purely delicious. And then, the sautéed chard with onions and garlic, no slouch of a dish either. Next course, we enjoyed sautéed sweetbreads that were a platter more than a plate and the roasted rabbit; a truly rustic dish that had flavor, composition and depth. These simple and straight forward dishes embodied true Spanish cooking from the heart and perfect for the Winter season.
Before calling it an evening, we stopped into Perlora Restaurante (that we had walked past a few times before and it looked very approachable and well done) for a bottle of wine to finish the night. Sitting at their 5 seat bar, the hospitality that the bar-man and sommelier provided us with was absolutely superb, very much in keeping with the nature of the Madrilenos overall. The wine we selected was a Rioja from Allende, 2005 vintage. This bottle was silky and polished, with great fruit on the nose and a great balance of oak and tannin through to the finish
On Friday we chose to explore the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum – an ode to Spanish and Dutch artwork. This was a more serious museum, with heavier paintings and focus, with the exception of their rotating ground-floor exposition, which was more modern in nature and from around the world. I’m glad we had a chance to visit the museum, but it was definitely not my favorite. After a quick walk to the Parque del Retiro (commonly referred to as Madrid’s living room), we hustled back to the La Latina district for a late lunch at one of the highest recommended restaurants’ on our list, Taberna los Huevos de los Lucio. This is the smaller, sister restaurant of their better known family spot across the street, but as the name says, they are known for their eggs. After finding the only two open seats at the bar, we immediately dove in, ordering their fresh squid in salsa verde, Roasted Asapargus with lightly poached eggs and sea salt (delicious) and some more wonderful Ribera del Duergo, the Solano Hacienda. As it turns out, we made quick friends with a server and their chef, both of whom were Columbian and best of friends.
Dinner that night was a quick walk from the hotel, in a different neighborhood than we had visited up until that point. This restaurant was in a more residential, blue collar area and Red Light district, and actually a basement location. Taberna Agrado was founded a few years ago by an English chef who is doing his take on modern Spanish cuisine. After settling in we were greeted by a gentleman who was from Argentina and had come to Spain twice before, fell in love with the country and was committed to being back in the country. He was able to guide us through the menu quite well; all of which could be found on the black board, which was the wall to the kitchen. We started with a delightful appetizer of fresh Spring Onion that was in a light tempura batter – nice concept here. Moving on, we then tasted the Queso Majorero Plancha, which was a Goat Cheese from the Canary Islands that had been griddled and served warm, with a crust. Next course was a Ox-steak that was topped with huge flakes of sea salt and seasonal padron peppers – excellent flavors overall and we finished with a rare Red Tuna loin, sesame crusted with a chili dipping sauce. The wine that night was all by the copa, as everything was 3,50 euro and under, with the highlights being the Carmelo Joven, from Ribero del Duero and the Finca Violetta.
Saturday Christmas Eve, was going to be our last full day in Madrid, so we wanted to make the most of it; especially that night was the Noche Buena celebration – the most important night of the year in Spanish culture. Everyone stops working early, closes shops down and spends it with their family. First stop was a visit to the seasonal arts festival that was being help down the street from us in the Via Espana – an interesting collection of crafts people, creative exhibitions and holiday gifts. The best we saw was Jose Diaz, a leather craftsman, that created purses, satchels and wallets. After a final visit to the Mercado, we stopped for a late lunch into a restaurant that we had walked by at least 6 times and every time, it smelled more delicious! Santo Restaurante & Deli was a cute little South American meets Mediterranean restaurant that is off the beaten path, with great food. It was a white washed room with blonde wood floors and a comforting feeling about it. As we knew we were going to have a big dinner that night, we kept it simple only going for one course each. We had a fantastic mushroom ragu over polenta (not very common in Spain) that was seasoned extremely well and light in flavor. And we selected the special of the day, a Roasted Cornish Game Hen and side of polenta. Now, let me tell you, this bird was moist, flavorful and cooked perfectly.
Being that we knew almost every neighborhood restaurant was going to be closed, we planned in advance and made a reservation at the Westin Palace Hotel’s Asia Gallery restaurant, going for Chinese food. This was a perfect call! It turned out the restaurant was EXTREMELY busy due to the holiday and with a prix fixe menu. We decided on the duck menu, 5-course tasting including delicious Peking Duck Pancakes and Moo Shu Duck with Asian vegetables.
I can’t say enough about Madrid and the trip to Spain. Every time I think about a restaurant, one of the museums or even the city, it makes me want to go back and further explore. I hope I get the opportunity to return soon and keep enjoying what the country has to offer. In the mean time, I will continue to enjoy the Spanish wine we can find here in the states, cheer on Real and pine away for the Cuisine of the Sun…