I was sitting in a blindingly white restaurant at the wrong end of six butcher’s cleavers, which dangled precariously above my head. Equally distracting was the factory roll of food: tacos made of steak tartare and wrapped in marinated cactus leaves; carpaccio sliced to near transparency and folded around crushed truffles; and a single egg yolk perched above a perfect disc of foie gras.
I had been in Madrid for less than an hour and was on a mission to find out if the vaunted new local restaurants lived up to the hype. Over the past six months, critics, journalists, chefs and food lovers have turned their attention away from Paris, London and Copenhagen to Madrid – which is now being called the most exciting place to eat in Europe.
My first stop was the surgically lit Sala de Despiece, where produce is placed above plushness and diners sit by a row of intensely concentrated, bearded chefs who create oily, salty, pungent odes to Spanish cooking. Bunsen burners are ubiquitous, phones are frowned upon and each course is a mini work of art. It should have been pretentious but it felt endearingly earnest, and all that effort conspired to create one of the most delicious meals I’ve eaten this year.
‘For so long, Madrid was all about nostalgia and recreating the Spain people loved 100 years ago,’ says Javier Bonet, the expansive owner of Sala de Despiece. ‘But we wanted to move away from old-fashioned decor and traditional food, and bring Madrid into the modern age. We had to break the mould, as everyone in the city was following the same path that had been trodden for decades.’
Prior to touching down, my image of Madrid’s culinary scene had been fed by admittedly out-of-date books and films. I pictured women in red dresses sipping coffee at zinc bars and beautiful locals flirting over late-night tapas in the city’s gilt-mirrored cafes. But even Ernest Hemingway himself – who once said, ‘Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night’ – would have lost sight of the city post-financial crisis, when it abandoned its party atmosphere and forced those in search of a good time and a great meal to go east to Barcelona.
Now the roles have been reversed and Spain’s most admired chefs have swapped seaside air for the grand boulevards and ancient palaces of the capital. Madrid has always been a fascinating city to visit, but for the first time, the Prado, the Thyssen, the Reina Sofia and even the Hemingway haunts are not the main attraction.
On my first evening I ate at Celso y Manolo, a nuevo tapas spot, where creativity and tradition clash on the plate and in your mouth. Everything is locally sourced, seasonal and Spanish. I ate empanadillas de mostoles (tuna and tomato dumplings), caracolillos (sea snails cooked in olive oil) and taquitos con salsa de queso (veal with blue cheese). There were reworked classics like grilled organic Cantabrian veal ribs with chimichurri, and the chuletón de tomate, a luscious layering of avocado, olive oil and fresh herbs on half an heirloom tomato with the surprise addition of mango and papaya. The interior is sleek and Instagrammable – there’s the 1950s-era bar and floor tiles, and a couple of wooden bull-shaped statues on the walls, all of which lured me into an hourlong tasting of the treacle-coloured sherries that line the walls.
I’m no stranger to Spain – I spent many a childhood summer in my grandmother’s house in the Andalusian hills – but one of my more abiding memories of Spanish cuisine is how terrible the breakfasts were. In hilltop towns like Gaucin and Ronda, cakes were rock hard, pastries were the opposite of fluffy and the fried eggs always tasted a little too oily.
Gran Meliá Palacio de los Duques, where I stayed for my gastronomic weekend, proved those memories outdated. Apart from wonderfully comfortable beds and a rooftop pool overlooking the russet-coloured roofs of the city, it also had a breakfast buffet of dreams. One waiter’s only job was to slice almost invisibly thin pieces from a leg of ham onto customers’ plates. Someone else grated generous helpings of truffle onto thick tomato toast.
I quickly learned that ham is a citywide obsession; there was even a Museo de Jamón around the corner from my hotel. But for the benefit of our waistlines, our wallets, our planet and of course our palates (this is Europe, after all), a number of Madrid’s chefs have taken the controversial step of swapping meat for marrows and mushrooms.
Floren Domezain is the most celebrated. And one Sunday, he created eight exquisite vegetarian courses for me in his eponymous restaurant on the edge of Retiro Park. Oily artichokes jostled for attention with perfectly cooked leeks wrapped in truffle and emerald green pea stews. We, along with all the other diners, were given two heart-shaped cabbages grown in the Madrid hills to take home as gifts.
‘My family is traditional and far more linked to the hoe than the knife, being agriculturalists from Navarra,’ says Domezain, who arrived at our table dressed, somewhat surprisingly, in a tight gold T-shirt. ‘Working with vegetables was a natural extension of this. Given the health drive we are seeing, it makes sense that people are looking to organic and horticultural produce. Generally, Madrid is a very exciting place to be cooking in right now – the city is finally coming alive to its gastronomic potential.’
But amid all this enthusiastic creativity, there are still whispers of old Madrid. On my final evening I went to Cerveceria Alemana in Plaza Santa Ana, where waiters – lugubrious and dressed in drooping penguin suits – plonked plates of oily salami and fried calamari on our table alongside pots of heavy red wine. Open since 1904, the heavy mahogany walls and gilt mirrors of the restaurant immediately recalled the Madrid of the past.
While Cerveceria Alemana’s decor and dinner menus set it apart from its more modern sisters, all the Madrid restaurants I visited were infused with a similar sense of gravitas and an endearingly earnest approach to food. The result is a dining scene infused with charm – and one that, for all its vegan concoctions and bright lighting, even Hemingway would recognise.
Cathay Pacific flies to Madrid from Hong Kong five times a week