At first glance, Madrid remains stubbornly true to itself—a city where patrician señoras nibble on canapes while gleefully watching a torero being gored by a bull, where wood-paneled tascas and tiled bars spin you back to the 19th century, and where, at certain tavernas, the king might dine within pass-the-salt range of couples in faded blue jeans . . .
. . . but take another look—this time at the city's avant-garde restaurants. Join the new bohemia for handmade Pyrenean cheeses and Navarra Merlots in La Latina's new breed of tapas bars. Follow the Nokia set to the fashion-forward boutiques of Barrio de Salamanca. Could it be that Europe's biggest, and often wildest, village is leaping into the 21st century?
Guided by a handful of savvy insiders, we offer the lowdown on the trustiest traditions and the latest new wave.
"Young Spanish chefs have caught a creative fever!" exclaims food critic José Carlos Capel, whose restaurant column in the country's largest newspaper, El País, flies the banner of nueva cocina. Spain's gastronomic flames are raging in Madrid's kitchens after being ignited in Catalonia and the Basque Country half a decade ago. They're turning a town once known for tapas and tripe into Europe's latest food frontier.
Few would quibble with Capel's declaration that La Broche (31 Calle Miguel àngel; 34-91/399-3437; dinner for two $95) is the city's most thrilling new restaurant. Close your eyes to the garish seventies lobby of Hotel Miguel àngel and step into the white-on-white world of Sergi Arola, the young disciple of visionary Catalan chef Ferran AdriÀ of El Bulli. Relying on AdriÀ's futuristic vocabulary of edible foams, gelatins, and savory ice creams, Arola creates an ephemeral composition of raw seafood and seawater gelée, and pays cheeky homage to the inescapable Spanish fried egg by wrapping it in an improbably light pastry envelope that bursts with runny yolk, scallops, and truffles.
"Food from another galaxy," Capel raves about the New Age menu at the old-world La Terraza in the opulent Casino de Madrid (15 Calle Alcalá; 34-91/521-8700; dinner for two $110). Here Ferran AdriÀ himself—part Einstein, part Dalí, part Philippe Starck—has masterminded an edible Oz that rivals the florid masonry along the Calle Alcalá, visible from the restaurant's terrace. Say "ravioli" and the waiter pours a shocking-green pea purée around a cloud of milk foam, ringed by translucent bundles fashioned from Iberico ham fat and stuffed with sweet peas. Ask for menestra de verduras, normally a vegetable stew, and be treated instead to a tableau of savory mousses, granitas, and ice creams in psychedelic colors, with flavors like beet, basil, and cauliflower. Each spoonful is a variation on weightlessness; each flavor an essence of vegetable.
Want more millennial riffs on tradition?At the modish minimalist El Chaflán (34 Avda. de Pío XII; 34-91/350-6193; dinner for two $85), chef Juan Pablo Felipe Pablado tackles and tickles the palate with a riveting esencia de gazpacho by cleverly deconstructing—then reassembling—the elements of the iconic Andalusian soup into mousses and glaces.
Andrés Madrigal is another young whisk being championed by Capel. His solidly moderne Balzac (7 Calle Moreto; 34-91/420-0177; lunch for two $70) resembles a Danish design showroom. But its food is Mediterranean poetry: a scoop of olive-oil ice cream floats in a martini glass filled with mouth-tingling gazpacho; a timbale of lush scrambled egg, subtly perfumed with sea urchin, arrives garlanded by a sauce blackened with squid ink.
For a classy grown-up meal, Capel recommends El Amparo (8 Callejòn de Puigcerdá; 34-91/431-6456; dinner for two $90), where the guiding spirit is Martín Berasategui, the haute couturier of the Basque food scene. The kitchen here keeps a safe distance from the cutting edge, in contrast with Berasategui's restaurant near San Sebastián. Still, homey isn't the word that comes to mind at the charming, wood-beamed restaurant when you tuck into a napoleon of caramelized apple layered with paper-thin slices of smoked eel and foie gras. Ditto for the ravioli oozing corn cream, paired with sweet shrimp and a hint of vanilla.
Despite his penchant for the unconventional, Capel hasn't abandoned old Madrid. Rather than visit the Museo Taurino, he suggests lunching on the lentil potage at Salvador (12 Calle Barbieri; 34-91/521-4524; lunch for two $28). Every inch of the taverna is crammed with bullfighting memorabilia, and the clients themselves belong in a museum.
"The fate of Spain was decided many times over at Lhardy," Capel says of the legendary political hangout (8 Carrera de San Jerònimo; 34-91/521-3385; lunch for two $55) decorated in blood-red velvets, stamped leather, and ornate silver. Lhardy's masterpiece, the cocido, is an orgy of boiled meats, sausages, and tender chickpeas preceded by a thick, smoky broth.
Incredible fish in landlocked Madrid?"All of Spain's seafood first comes to the capital," explains Capel. "When a chef from Navarra wants Andalusian shrimp, he buys it here."
Whether it's raw clams, grilled langoustines, or a whole turbot a la plancha, the seafood is nothing short of divine at O'Pazo (20 Calle Reina Mercedes; 34-91/534-3748; lunch for two $60). Fit for a king?Indeed: O'Pazo counts the familia real among its regulars, and the owner's fishery in La Coruña supplies the palace. Reportedly, even Queen Sofia, a vegetarian, can't resist the pristine lenguado (sole).
When Daniela Cattaneo, former editor of Italy's Vogue Sposa and Vogue Bambini, arrived in Madrid in 1997 to revitalize Spanish Vogue, she thought she'd landed in another era. "After living in businesslike Milan, I rediscovered the pleasure of personal contact, the cultura humana," she says. "Shopping in Madrid is a treat: the grace and skill with which they initial your shirts, iron your pleats, and wrap your purchases."
Still, in matters of fashion, Cattaneo remains a Milanese style queen at heart. She's more at home in Madrid's couture-rich boutiques of Barrio de Salamanca than amid the bustle of the El Rastro flea market or the street-fashion carnival along Calle Fuencarral.