Madrid's Best New Tapas Restaurants
In 2009, two friends, Álvaro Castellanos and Iván Morales, opened a six-table spot in the Retiro Park neighborhood (which has since evolved into Madrid’s new tapas central). With its dark, cozy looks—and details inspired by the French bistronomy movement—their neo-tasca felt both utterly familiar and totally new. Diners were greeted with huge tubs of French butter with great, crusty sourdough bread (then still a novelty in Madrid), and there were international wines and Champagnes by the glass, whereas most traditional tapas bars served generic reds and whites. Classic recipes were full of little surprises: The now-famous croquetas were supremely airy and filled with a superflavorful sheep-milk béchamel. The huevos rotos (a Madrid stalwart of fried eggs broken up over French fries) came in adorable individual skillets under shavings of black truffle.
These days, Morales and Castellanos are Madrid’s most successful restaurateurs, with a mini empire that includes the larger Arzábal in the Retiro Park area and Kirikata, a clever mash-up of Japanese izakaya and tapas bar. Their latest venture is a mod version of Arzábal inside the Reina Sofía Museum, home to Picasso’s Guernica. Their croquetas and truffled eggs with fries are still on the menu, along with dishes like warm escabeche of partridge, and monkfish with a thyme-infused vinaigrette of tomatoes with aged sherry vinegar. “We’ve shown Madrid that you can have a serious restaurant,” Morales says. “And with all that fusion around us, we’re proud to remain totally Spanish.”
Av. de Menéndez Pelayo 13; 011-34-9140-95661; arzabal.com.
The sprawling bi-level space on Jorge Juan Street in the upmarket Barrio de Salamanca was once home to Sula, a restaurant by star chef Quique Dacosta where I recall being too distracted by the smiling presence of David Beckham and the entire Real Madrid soccer team to even notice the avant-garde food. Four years ago, the space was transformed into white-hot Álbora, with an ambitious restaurant upstairs and Madrid’s most happening tapas bar on the ground floor. The restaurant is a combined venture from the owners of Joselito (famed for its Ibérico ham) and La Catedral de Navarra (producer of Spain’s most sought-after vegetable conserves), which means you can enjoy silky piquillo peppers and pickled white asparagus alongside an indulgent jamón degustation: three vintages of glistening, musky-sweet Ibérico, aged for five, six and seven years.
It also means 38-year-old chef Raúl Prior has stellar ingredients to work with for his inspired yet unfussy takes on tapas. Prior trained under Francis Paniego, the vegetable savant and pioneer of New Riojan cuisine, and spent time cooking in Italy. Those influences are apparent in tapas like eggplant, roasted to creaminess and interspersed with little clouds of burrata and sharp aioli made with fermented Chinese black garlic. I tried poached eggs in a Mason jar full of foamy potato emulsion punctuated with fava beans, and fat Galician scallops on an elegant orange-and-ginger-scented pumpkin puree with Savoy cabbage—a combination I can’t wait to steal for my next dinner party.
Calle de Jorge Juan 33; 011-34-9178-16197; restaurantealbora.com.
In 2007, David Muñoz, then 27, had to sell his apartment and move in with his parents to finance DiverXO, his 20-seat restaurant in the up-and-coming Tetuán neighborhood. The opening catapulted Muñoz—who’d worked at London’s Hakkasan and such Madrid favorites as Balzac and Viridiana—to fame for his smart juggling of Iberian, Asian and Latin American flavors. One early hit was the tortilla española, that tapas-bar staple, recast as a baby potato with a quail egg and a chile-and-red-bean emulsion, served with a chaser of Chinese white tea. Now the manic perfectionist, with his signature spike earrings and mohawk, is the only chef in Madrid with three Michelin stars. He has a futuristic new space for DiverXO and opened StreetXO inside El Corte Inglés department store. Obsessed with his Asian travels, Muñoz describes StreetXO as “my own crazy dreamscape of Asian street food.” Indeed, the place practically screams with exuberant energy, with its shiny red counter framing the kitchen and chefs wearing white uniforms resembling straitjackets. Peking dumplings and grilled pig’s ear are served on butcher paper painted with psychedelic swirls of housemade strawberry-flavored hoisin sauce, and bao buns cheekily called “club sandwiches” are topped with ricotta and Sriracha mayo. After your meal, you can raid the shelves of the food hall for provisions such as jamón, anchovies and turrones (nougats) created by Albert Adrià, Ferran’s pastry-chef brother. StreetXO has been so popular in Madrid, an outpost just opened in the heart of London’s Mayfair this past fall.
El Corte Inglés, Calle Serrano 52.
Spanish food critics agree on one thing: Paco Morales is among the most exciting young chefs in Spain right now. At 21, the Andalusian-born wunderkind was chef de cuisine at Mugaritz near San Sebastián. In 2007, after a stint at El Bulli, he launched Madrid’s much-lauded Senzone (now closed), where his cerebral meditations on nature—like the thin layer of sea urchin broth dotted with black charcoal oil atop kohlrabi custard—won him a cult following. But Morales has since come down from the lofty clouds of avant-garde cooking. This past March he opened Noor, a restaurant in his native city of Córdoba with modern takes on scrupulously researched medieval Andalusian recipes. And for the menu at the airy Al Trapo at Madrid’s hipster hotel Iberostar Las Letras Gran Vía, he’s revisiting traditional dishes—but with a twist. Of course tortilla española is on the menu, but it’s deconstructed into a potato-onion puree that’s ingeniously stuffed into mini pitas after they puff up in a superhot oven. “As an Andalusian, I’m wild for our classic pescaíto frito [little fried fish],” he says. But as a globally minded chef, he turns it into a light-as-air tempura served with a complex Thai red curry sauce, scattered with a flurry of mint and cilantro leaves. Why does a deceptively simple dish of Ibérico pork steak, red and rare like beef, on a bed of green pea hummus and green couscous taste so special? “We hand-peel each pea for absolute smoothness and cook the couscous in fresh spinach juice for that blast of chlorophyll greenness,” adds Rafael Cordón, Al Trapo’s chef de cuisine. Cordón moved home to Madrid after working at Momofuku in Manhattan. “I used to miss New York’s excitement and multicultural flavors,” he says. “But not anymore, because eating in Madrid has become such an adventure.”
Calle Caballero de Gracia 11; 011-34-9152-42305; altraporestaurante.com.
“Madrid has a truly open mind for new flavors,” insists Mexican chef Roberto Ruiz, who arrived here from Mexico City in 2005 for a three-month eating adventure—and never left. In 2011, he and partner Martin Eccius (a former industrial engineer also from Mexico City) operated Madrid’s first pop-up out of Ruiz’s home and around town, serving a Mexican chilpachole (spicy seafood soup) with scallops that madrileños are still buzzing about. When their pop-up clients begged them to open a permanent spot, Ruiz and Eccius launched the handsome Punto MX in Barrio de Salamanca. Before long it had a Michelin star and a weeks-long waiting list for reservations.
It’s not that much easier to score a seat at their Mezcal Lab, above Punto MX, where you can order über-creative antojitos (Mexico’s answer to tapas) and sample 120 different mezcals, some rarely seen outside Oaxaca. “Spanish colonists created a Mexican-Iberian fusion when they settled in Mexico in the 1500s,” Ruiz says. “Now we’re doing the opposite: marrying Spanish modern techniques and ingredients with authentic Mexican flavors.” Whatever Mexican produce he and Eccius can’t find, they grow on their own organic farm in the nearby Segovia province, including chiles, epazote and 14 kinds of Mexican corn from ancient species of seeds. The results are addictive small plates like their palomitas de langostinos, bite-size prawn fritters with a tangy tamarind sauce, and tacos al pastor made with secreto Ibérico, a full-flavored marbled cut of pork. Even the basic chipotle sauce here is special: It’s made with the farm’s organic chiles and prized Spanish Raf tomatoes, and Ruiz ages it in French wood barrels like a fine wine.
Calle del General Pardiñas 40B; 011-34-9140-22226; puntomx.es.
This three-year-old neo-taberna is where Madrid’s hottest young chefs hang out on their nights off. The eclectic space, a series of cozy rooms wrapped in reclaimed wood, is part tapas bar and part gastro-bistro, with the assured creative cooking of a serious restaurant and dishes you can order in full, half or tapas-scaled portions. Between them, the young trio of chef-owners have worked in many of Spain’s greatest kitchens, including Zuberoa, La Broche and DiverXO. Their own cooking is hard to pigeonhole but easy to love, capturing Madrid’s new multicultural spirit with dishes like a meaty cheek of Ibérico pork skewered in the manner of Peruvian anticucho with a side of Peruvian-Chinese fried rice. Even a seemingly straightforward ragù of wild mushrooms is truly original, with chestnuts, apples, shavings of Idiazabal cheese and a deep sauce made from the mushroom stems. But the dish anointed as the new Madrid classic is TriCiclo’s take on the local Christmas Eve favorite besugo (sea bream), traditionally served on a bed of roasted potatoes. Here it’s reborn as sea bream carpaccio, topped with a tangy vinaigrette of fried garlic. The dish pushes boundaries but remains so true to its roots that an elderly señora at the next table turned to me and said, “I can taste the Christmas Eves of my childhood.”
Calle Santa María 28; 011-34-9102-44798; eltriciclo.es.