Where to lunch in Madrid

I don’t know about you, but when I’m traveling I like to eat delicious, authentic food, and I’m usually on a bit of a budget. I also don’t necessarily want to have a “fancy” dining out experience more than once or twice. The rest of the time, I just want solid, casual food that the local people might enjoy. In Madrid, La Sanabresa, in the Cortes neighborhood, is just that. It ended up being our very favorite restaurant in Madrid, and we ate there no less than three times, but we have no record of ever having visited. We took no photos. This was partly because we were just hungry and the food was so good, and partly because, I’m going to be honest, it didn’t look like much. These are not your carefully plated, elegantly sauced plates. These are everyday, basic, traditional, and affordable foods, very well done.

In Madrid we often ended up having our large meal at lunch, because Guillaume was often very hungry after being in the archives all morning, and a satisfying meal was the perfect way to start an afternoon of sightseeing. Plus, we couldn’t quite adjust to eating dinner at (or after) 9 PM. (I am so, so old.) In the evening we would head back to the apartment, weary and foot-sore, and put together a quick salad, some delicious Spanish cheese and bread. Perfect. This particular restaurant we found doing a little internet search for a good lunch restaurant. And that is exactly what this is, although they are open for dinner as well. We, being hungry Americans, would turn up at 1:30 and there would be maybe one or two tables taken. By 2 it was packed and when we left, satisfied, there was a line of people waiting for a table. The first time we walked in the door and asked for a table for two. The very old-school, slightly harried waiter (who got only more harried as the lunch service went on) spread his arms and nodded his head indicating the lay of the dining room, and went about his business. We chose a nice table near the door, but cozy in a corner. There is one medium-sized dining room, slightly tackily decorated in pastels, with tablecloths and paper covers. The tables are quite close together, but nothing unusual for a big city. The large menu is separated into an à la carte section, and a large section of prix fixe menus, or menú del día, which didn’t really seem to change by the day. These five or so menus, with prices from about 10 euros to just over 20,  come with a starter, main course and dessert, as well as bread and water, juice or wine. The choices are plentiful for a prix fixe, with at least 10 or more in each price category, so there was no problem finding choices that hit the spot. It seemed maybe a bit gimmicky, and I didn’t do the math to see if it actually was a savings, but all the locals were ordering menus, and people seemed to keep coming back.

The first time we went I had a simple grilled asparagus which was heavily drizzled with amazing olive oil, sprinkled with crunchy sea salt and so, so good. For my main course I ordered roasted pork ribs with potatoes and fruit salad for dessert, which was good, but I should have gone with the crescents of fresh cantaloupe, watermelon and pineapple that the regulars were getting, as the fruit salad was sitting in a bit too much juice. Guillaume had paella, which was good, but we definitely went in search of better paella elsewhere, and, garnering the instant admiration of the waiter, stewed tripe. He finished with an excellent, lightly sweet cheesecake with blueberry sauce. For our second meal I had the special salad (spoiler alert, not special, and really the only dud of our three meals), a nice, fresh grilled whole white fish and that great cheesecake that I was so jealous about. Guillaume had Russian salad, which is essentially potato salad, the pork ribs that HE was so jealous about, and cheesecake. The third time I got that asparagus again, escalope de jambon (cordon bleu, essentially), and an almond cake that was lovely. Guillaume got paella again, tripe again and you guessed it, cheesecake, again. The man likes what he likes. Simple, filling, authentic, and affordable, made traditionally and with, if not care, then at least love. We left happy, our pockets still full along with our stomachs, ready to explore Madrid.



Sólo un poco

I’ve always liked the theory behind tapas, in that you get to try several things, the tastebuds just whetted but never quite satiated. Tapas began as a little savory snack, hot or cold, that would accompany a caña, (a small glass of draft beer) or a glass of wine for free, filling the stomach a bit with the pre-meal drink. Usually a slice of ham, a plate of olives, a scoop of potato salad, or a small fried fish. Gradually, these became more complex and some places eventually started to charge for them, allowing you to choose from a selection that may be laid out on or under a glass bar. They are generally eaten while standing up, although there may be a few token tables. Some establishments though, are more like restaurants, with menus that allow you to choose a few small plates, and some larger plates of more traditional meals like stewed oxtail, and the tapas become more like a meal. If you want to really get crazy, you go out for the evening and eat and drink your way from bar to bar, this is called to tapear. Because Spaniards lunch around 2 and then don’t sit down to dinner until 10, 11 or later, a tapa or two can be a welcome filler.

There are several stories about the origin of tapas, both concerning King Alfonso X. In one, he insisted that tavern owners serve a bit of food with drinks so as to dissuade drunkenness. The other is that he ordered a sherry and, it being a windy day, the tavern owner lay a piece of ham on the glass to prevent dust from getting in. The King liked this “tapa”, or cover, so much that he asked for another. Others say that it simply developed as a way to keep fruit flies out of sweet sherry.

Our first tastes of tapas were these four that we found at the Mercado de San Miguel. A really cool concept, this is an old indoor market that fell into disuse that has been completely renovated into something like a Columbus Circle for food. Centrally located, we discovered it on our first day in Madrid, and had some of the best café con leche I have had in a long time at a stand called Café del Arte (a must after a 6 am flight from Paris). You can wander around the single-level market and purchase typical Spanish delicacies to enjoy right there, including coffee, desserts, wine, sherry and cocktails, sangria, and plenty of tapas. There is also a grocer, I guess for verisimilitude. This is an excellent idea in theory, and indeed the place was packed with tourists, and apparently some locals, enjoying local cuisine. I love the idea of grazing from place to place, picking a few things here, a few things there that entice and then grabbing a glass of something, finding a perch, and digging in and finding favorites. Unfortunately, the food was just not there, quality-wise. IMG_0717 Hello? This is a pickle sandwich. What is not to love? With a pickle filled with marinated tuna and red pepper, and olives and onions and two toothpicks holding it all together, I expected it to be salty, but delicious salty, flavorful salty. And it was just salty. Very disappointing. And hard to eat.IMG_0719When we sidled up to a stand with croquettes, little fried balls filled with cheese (also meat, fish or other things) I thought “What could go wrong?” We even added some little pig-in-blanket type guys. But then the lady put them, on their little plastic plate, in the microwave. Not long enough for them to even get melty in the middle, just long enough to get sad.IMG_0720These are pintxos, a Basque variation on tapas which usually involves things eaten on bread, like a canapé, with a toothpick (pincho) stuck through it. They looked super interesting; little pieces of brown bread with slices of octopus or cheese, pepper and chorizo. They were oh-so bad. They even look like they’ve been sitting around a bit.

DSC03070 This is just for you to see, I was not brave enough to try them. They are angulas, tiny baby eels, a super popular treat in Spain. Apparently they are endangered. Also apparently, these (and the many other versions we saw) may be fake, made out of the same substance as fake crab, since real angulas can be 50 euros a serving. DSC02907 After that fairly terrible experience, we decided to go somewhere they might put a bit more thought into the food. Well hello, dark, Spanish looking tapas bar with bullfighting parephernalia on the walls! You will do!

DSC02900There we enjoyed a traditional tortilla, (delicious) and chorizo on bread (simple and yummy, not pictured).


The special house tapas, which presumably changes daily, was some kind of mustardy fish paste on bread and smothered with potato sticks. It was very good.


And then we tried one of their less tapa-y and more small plate-y dishes, braised “bull tile”, which came highly recommended by the waiter, and we assumed was bull tail.

DSC02967This tapa we had at another restaurant where we went to eat octopus. I had been wanting to try baccalao (cod) croquettes, since they are quite traditional, and we had that very bad experience with croquettes. These were great, freshly fried, soft and slightly sweet inside, even with the slightly hipster presentation (a wire “frying” basket lined with faux “New England” newsprint).