Sunday, January 11, 2004
You can go to Madrid for the flamenco dancers and museums, but it's the food that will lure you back: Plump olives, fist-size rolls stuffed with meat, cheese or eggs, and long, chewy churros beckon everywhere.
The city's neighborhood markets are incomparable, with heads of cauliflower the size of NFL helmets, oranges bigger than a softball, tantalizing prawns and whole fish. You'll wish you had a kitchen to cook in. Meanwhile, the Museo de Jamon restaurants are a vegetarian's nightmare, celebrating all things ham by hanging hundreds of dried haunches from the ceiling -- and, of course, glorifying it on the menu.
Food even mixes with culture: After viewing masterpieces by Goya and Valasquez , you can order a heaping portion of paella for about $6.40 and rice pudding for about $1.50 at the Prado Museum cafeteria.
Although you can eat around the clock in Madrid, the main meal of the day is lunch, consumed from about 1 to 4 p.m. Dinner is late, with most restaurants opening their doors around 9 p.m. -- but if you can't wait that late, tapas places abound and are usually open by 7 p.m. No matter the time, just about every meal is memorable.
I'm not new to European dining, having spent 15 years eating my way across the continent, but trips to Madrid are always rewarding. Here are a few spots that I'd recommend.
(Note: Not all places take credit cards. Most close one day a week, and many shut between lunch and dinner hours.)
Take a seat at one of the heavy, dark-wood tables that bear grooves from years of elbows and order the house specialty, jamon Iberico, which is ham from acorn-fed pigs that has been cured at least six months. The grilled shrimp served on baguette-type bread with olive oil is also good. Simpler choices include a plate of fried potatoes, grilled wild mushrooms, and olives with onions. I ate here with a large group and it didn't dent the wallet: Tapas and alcoholic drinks for 10 came to about $55.
Open since 1827, the Taberna features period light fixtures and a still-used antique pump. Crowd around tiny tables or use a wall shelf to hold your plate. The tapas menu, with nearly three-dozen choices (most $2-$6), includes veal meatballs, fried squid, octopus, cooked mussels and grilled lamb chops. I loved the chorizos a la sidra, red sausage cooked in cider (under $4.50); use bread wedges to lap up the juice from the bottom of the earthenware casserole. Pickles and olives are gratis, and draft beers are about a buck.
The restaurant specializes in Andalusian dishes like fried fish, and its bustling open kitchen is a sight to behold. Service is swift. There's a stand-up area plus tables upstairs and downstairs, with full meals available. For tapas, which start at about $2 for a generous portion, try fish that's marinated, fried, boiled, etc. Artichokes doused in vinegar and olive oil may win over some who insist they aren't artichoke fans.