Patio de Leones, Madrid’s new trending restaurant and bar, is hyper-Spanish and hyper-cool. Designed by artist Sergio Mora, it features modern red tables set against yellow walls and views of famous Spaniards on witty blue — tiled murals. I spot artist Velázquez with his Meninas, singer Lola Flores, Flamenco idol Camaron, film maestro Luis Buñuel, artist Salvador Dali and writer Cervantes under the watchful eye of Mora’s female bull fighter — the Infinita de Cordoba. The DJ’s console is designed like a bullfighting ring. One level below, the bathrooms pay quirky homage to Granada’s Plaza of Lions after which the restaurant has been named, with crazily beautiful tiles covering every inch and marble lions spewing water into the wash basins. An outdoor section gives you a vantage point of Madrid’s famous landmark, Plaza de la Independencia and Calle de Serrano, its luxury shopping mile. The Loewe store, Manolo Blahnik and Alfredo Dominguez are just some of the famous Spanish brands here, besides Chanel and Prada and famous watch and jewellery brands like Nicols, Bulgari, and Chopard right around the corner.
Madrid’s air of calm civility has always appealed to me, but now the city is glamming itself up, repositioning itself as the’ best shop in the world.’ Interestingly, I discover that a large number of highspending Indians looking for culture and shopping are making a beeline for Madrid. At Leones, hosted by the Madrid Chamber of Commerce, we are having a textbook Spanish meal. We begin with chilled gazpacho from Andalucía, lightly fried bacalau or cod fish found on menus all over Spain, croquettes made with Jamón Ibérico, the famed Iberian ham and machengo cheese from La Mancha. Up next is Spanish tortilla, a deep pan omelette made with potatoes, onions and eggs. Spanish tortilla can be had hot or cold, as a meal or a tapas, packed in a snack box or eaten in slices on the go. The secret lies in the potatoes. Up next is seafood paella, an open pan rice dish introduced centuries ago by the Arabs. It originates in Valencia, though the Valencia version may often have rabbit.
We end with the ultimate Spanish breakfast-to-post party comfort fix: crisp soft churros accompanied by steaming hot bowls of thick chocolate to dip into. Churros made from flour are found all over Spain, but the best churros come from Madrid where they have been made since the 10th century. The food is delicious and ‘of the moment’ – a phrase I hear again and again to denote that it has been freshly cooked. The gazpacho haunts my tastebuds. I tell my Spanish companions that this one gets full marks from me. Of course, a spirited conversation ensues about what goes into the perfect gazpacho – bread, vinegar, tomato, cucumber, maybe a little green pepper – everyone has their own favourite way of making it, many linked to their childhood summer memories. This one, we agree, has just the right balance of acid to heat while being chilled to perfection. Instead of a tinto (red), I opt for a crisp, light, dry white Verdejo from the Rueda region of Castile. Spain is the third largest producer of wine in the world with about 70 wine regions (two DOCS’) and the wines rarely disappoint.
A day later, we are in the old city on the other side of Plaza Mayor, riding an elevator up through the Spanish store El Corte Inglés (another good place to shop) to Chef Chicote’s Puertalsol. Chef Alberto Chicote is a much-awarded Spanish progressive chef known for his fusion cuisine as well as his television shows. The restaurant’s terrace location yields spectacular views of the Puerta Del Sol clock tower, the place Madrilènes come for their New Year’s Eve countdown. This quaint and small square has the zero milestone – this is where distances are measured in Spain. We begin with Chicote’s take on the classic Russian salad using cold potato, langoustines and tuna belly in a light mayo. Russian salad, I discover, is as Spanish as you can get, having been adopted way back in the 19th century into Spanish menus. This is followed by chargrilled artichokes on a bed of Ajo Blanco. Ajo Blanco is a cold almond and garlic soup also from Andalucía and is sometimes called white gazpacho. It can be had as a meal on its own or teamed with a salad. Here, it is balanced beautifully as a sauce with olive oil soaked artichoke rosettes. My companions order the charcoal-grilled Iberian pork secrete (marbled pork) with chimichurri sauce. It looks and smells divine.
Madrid is bordered by the famed Iberian pork region, so this is the obvious main course to have. I confess I go rogue and order vegetarian. The medley of organic seasonal vegetables – some braised, others roasted, served with traditional mojo picon – red pepper sauce leaves me with no regrets. I grab a bottle of that sauce later at the airport duty free – it’s a keeper. The sobao pasiego for dessert is a kind of tea cake, but should be renamed butter rush as it makes no bones about the fact that things go better with butter. It has only three ingredients, eggs, butter and sugar, and is incredibly soft and light. The red wine we drink copiously through this meal is a Crianza (young) Tempranillo from the Ribera Del Duero region which is close by. It is full-bodied but light, if that contradiction exists in the red wine world. It opens up delightfully and many glasses are consumed in our two hour meal before we realise we must literally sprint to make it to the Grand Place before closing bell. At least that helps work off the pasiego.
Madrid has 23 Michelin-starred restaurants, but if you don’t find time to book a table or are a big group with different tastes, head to Platea. Once an opulent 50’s era Art Deco cinema, the Carlos III has been converted into Europe’s largest gastro-leisure space. It is huge and has several street entrances and seemingly confusing levels which soon make sense. All the restaurants and bars are on the various levels of the old cinema, while the screen and centre stage have been left intact for shows and performances. I love the fishbowl concept — you can see every level and people-watch at leisure. Platea justifies its grand positioning – there is Michelin-starred Chef Ricard Camarena’s Canalla Bistro with a terrifically tempting menu on level 2. I do spot Russian salad on his menu too, but his take has olive foam (bookings are recommended). El Fos is the level where you can get a range of global cuisines from Japanese to Peruvian and Italian, while El Patio serves all the Spanish favourites, including a Basque-style pintxos bar and a fresh tapas counter.
El Palco is a very impressive cocktail bar. If you are a cocktail fiend, try their marmalade gin and sherry juleps.There is even a private members club tucked away discreetly. If you want to do some gourmet shopping or buy food-related gifts for friends back home, it is a good time to stock up between courses at the Gourmet FoodHall. We are a big group and tastes are divided, so Richard Camarena will have to wait for my next trip. We try bits of everything and eat family style. Someone orders sashimi, someone wants a classic pizza and someone else wants a salad. Spanish tortilla makes it to the table, but this time with fat green peppers followed by grilled octopus and polenta. The local Alhambra beer is a great accompaniment to begin with, but we segue into a carafe of house tinto quite soon. Platea is noisy, crowded and has a fun vibe. The giant screen lights up. The music starts and a live band comes on. We relax into this version of Spanish nightlife, which is likely to last until the wee hours of the morning when, like real locals, we will turn for comfort to our churros and the chocolate cup