Over the past few years, Spain has been having a restaurant revolution. Its worldwide reputation is now for award winning, avant-garde cooking from places like El Cellar Can Rocca, Arzak and Mugaritz. I’m not one to slavishly follow restaurant trends, but if I’d been in Girona or San Sebastian for the last bank holiday weekend, I’m sure I would have tried to get a table.
Instead, our destination was Madrid. Smart, sophisticated and far more beautiful than I had imagined with one of the greatest art collections in the world and some of the best old-fashioned restaurants. When our Madrillenos friends weren’t entertaining us, we took their recommendations for places to go and eat, but these were old Madrid, not the pioneering new places.
We spent our first morning marveling at the collection in the Prado Museum to build up a sufficient appetite for lunch. The pictures that remain imprinted in my mind were Velasquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas, a triumph of illusion, the last paintings by Goya of almost hallucinogenic darkness and portraits of exquisite detail by Moro – I could almost touch the texture of the fur and silk of the sitter’s clothing.
All this art excitement was excellent for the appetite and fortunately our lunch was a stone’s throw from the museum door. Café Murillo was packed with locals, a couple of rooms inside the restaurant had filled up, so we happily took some tables on the pavement outside. The menu was simple, with plenty of tapas. Since there was a fairly large group of us, we didn’t hold back with ordering – to the point that our table groaned with plates of perfectly cooked tortilla, spicy, soft sobresada to spread on crunchy toast, bowls of finely chopped tomato, seasoned with vinegar and oregano to spoon onto the toast under slices of warm, nutty jamon. The salmarejo (a smooth, thick soup of tomatoes and bread, doused with oil) was served with the finely chopped egg and jamon beside for us to sprinkle all over it. Smoked anchovies, a delicacy which the menu warned were not always available – came with more pan tostada and tomato on which to lay the fat, oily fillets, forked straight from the tin.
Murillo Café – Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 27. Madrid 28014
Teléfono: +34 91 369 36 89 – Reservas: firstname.lastname@example.org
Our appetites expanded with our enthusiasm – classic dishes, all beautifully executed, were shared between us as we chatted: what informal eating should be all about. After the tapas plates had been cleared, a few slow roasted chickens were placed on the table. Succulent, small birds served spatchcocked with only a garnish of crisp, salty chips. Thankfully the botanical gardens were just across the street for a digestive stroll and a chance to stand underneath the great lime trees, their boughs heavy with the powdery yellow blossom, often picked and dried to make tea – known as Linden or Tilleul.
The hotel where we stayed was full of the same old world charm as Café Murillo. An apartment on the first floor of an 18th Century building close to the Royal Palace, it was more like staying with an old aristocratic Spanish aunt than in a hotel. The rooms were large and flamboyantly decorated with trompe l’oeil painted walls and marble pillars topped with urns. We arrived to find a bottle of good Tempranillo and a packet of excellent sliced jamon laid out for us on a table, with a little pair of nail scissors to cut the plastic – practical and charming.
Maria, the elderly Spanish housekeeper who wore a perfectly neat outfit of black trousers, white cardigan with black bows, which matched her hair, served breakfast in a smallish sitting room. There was no menu, just coffee and hot milk on the table, which was immaculately laid with pretty plates, silver cutlery and tiny linen napkins, like handkerchiefs.
Maria, who spoke only in Spanish, offered us eggs, which she scuttled to the kitchen to prepare. The apartment was full of books, art and curiosities and a sophisticated scent of Santa Maria Novella products.
Had we chosen to eat Sunday lunch in the hotel, all they requested was a few hours warning, so they could prepare something. Given the quality of the simple but perfectly prepared breakfast, this was tempting, but there was another restaurant we couldn’t resist trying instead.
El Paraguas is elegant, old fashioned Madrid at its best. We arrived at 1:30 to be led through a warren of empty rooms, all full of beautifully laid tables. We were astonished at how capacious yet empty the place could be and doubtful of our choice, yet within the next hour, every one of the seats in the restaurant was full.
There was plenty of meat on the menu – beef and lots of suckling pig, but we were here for the fish. We started with creamy sea urchin croquettas, delicately saline, compellingly rich, the octopus salad was tender and succulent and the tuna tartar cool and refreshing.
The cod, John Dory and hake which came as a sort of mid-course, were all sparklingly fresh and perfectly cooked. As though they had swum straight into the frying pan for a few minutes before arriving in front of us.
Finally, a hot black clay dish was brought to the table, full of the inky richness of arroz negro, studded with pieces of the freshest, sweetest scallop and fat, juicy clams. Little room was left for pudding, but we managed a few scoops of turron ice-cream with our coffees. As we departed through the now packed restaurant, full of families, groups of friends, children and grandparents all absorbed in conversation and Sunday feasting, I saw the value of Madrid’s food traditions. Sometimes, old is best.
Prado Museum http://www.museodelprado.es/en
El Paraguas restaurant http://www.elparaguas.com