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Where to Eat in Madrid

David Nicolas The restaurant's diminutive gift shop, stocked with Spanish goods.

Photo: David Nicolas

During my first visit to the transcendentally trendy Sula, in Barrio de Salamanca, I was too distracted by the slim, smiling presence of David Beckham to even notice the food. All cool brushed steel, slatted wood, and black slate, Sula is such a white-hot celebrity hangout one can forget that the joint is actually owned by Joselito (the brand behind the world’s greatest ibérico ham) and Quique Dacosta, the young molecular-gastronomy genius of Michelin two-starred El Poblet, in Alicante. At the ground-floor tapas bar, regulars chase chorizo croquettes with expensive champagne; the adjacent shop sells Joselito charcuterie and boutique conserves from label La Catedral (another investor); the menu at the main restaurant mingles lightly tweaked traditional stews with Dacosta’s high-minded creations. For a perfect meal, start with a marinated bacalao salad with turrón (nougat) vinaigrette, progress to cuba libre de foie—airy duck-liver foam under a rum-and-Coke gelée—and move on to one of Dacosta’s neo-paellas. Then again, you could just order a bottle of Vega Sicilia and a ración of Gran Reserva Joselito jamón and wait for Penélope Cruz to show up.

Madrid Goes Global

Madrileños have become as sushi-crazed as Angelenos and Muscovites, and right now they are all clamoring for a table at a starkly handsome gray-stone–and–dark-wood shrine to raw fish at the plush Hotel Wellington. Kabuki Wellington’s chef-owner Ricardo Sanz has come a long way since the days when his wife berated him for closing his thriving beer bar and slaving for minimal wages at a local Japanese restaurant to learn the tricks of the trade. But Sanz just couldn’t beat his sushi addiction. Working mainly with a Spanish catch—tender calamari from the Strait of Gibraltar; sweet Galician scallops—Sanz puts a modern-Iberian spin on his sashimi and sushi, pairing raw pez limón (yellowtail) with a tiny Canarian potato and truffles; or devising ingenious maki rolls and nigiri around huitlacoche (corn fungus) and Galician Arzúa cheese. Desserts from El Bulli–trained star confectioner Oriol Balaguer complete what would be a perfect experience were it not for the sticker shock: at a recent meal one raw cigala (a small spiny lobster) set me back $130. Order carefully.

Judging from the hoopla surrounding last summer’s opening of Astrid y Gastón Madrid, a posh Peruvian import, ceviche may be the new sushi. Lima-based celebrity kitchen warrior Gastón Acurio, who already presides over a formidable Latin American restaurant empire, is clearly aiming for maximum exposure. Why else would he choose for his Madrid debut a Paseo de la Castellana location far too exclusive and ritzy for any local chef to afford?The gambit paid off: Madrileños love the widely spaced tables in the clean-lined, cream-colored dining room; they adore the potent, properly frothed pisco sours; and they go loco for Acurio’s energetic nuevo andino (nouvelle Andean) ways with raw fish, ajíes (chiles), potatoes, and yuca. Corn crêpes are topped with suckling-pig skin and a rocoto chile–and–honey marmalade. Ceviches and tiraditos come in a rainbow of flavors (try the clásico sea bass with lime juice, sweet potato, and corn). Clams and hake cheeks are simmered in an arresting slurry of cilantro, curry, lime, and aromatic ají amarillo. Too bad the desserts are a clunky, sugary miss.

Taste of Spain

Even die-hard Real Madrid haters admit, fists clenched, that the soccer team’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium is becoming the city’s premier restaurant row. One of the newest places flanking the fútbol field is Asador de la Esquina, a smart urban grill house with a sweeping view of the pitch. In the turbocharged dining room with blond-wood floors and carnation-red tablecloths, two-Mercedes couples reconnect with their Castilian roots over addictive fried eggs broken up atop french-fried potatoes; caramelized Lodosa piquillo peppers; and a two-inch-thick, dripping-rare chuletón (T-bone steak) grilled over live oak. End with a plate of Madrileño sweet fritters and cookies served with a complimentary shot of Chinchón anisette.

Last time I saw the brilliant chef Paco Ron he was cooking in the middle of nowhere in a windswept fishing village in the northern Asturias region. Forced to close despite critical raves and a Michelin star, Ron has recently resurfaced in Madrid with Viavélez, which combines a lively tapas bar with a handsome basement dining room in various shades of gray. Critics are once again smitten with the elegant simplicity of his menu, full of such standouts as shards of house-cured duck confit enlivened by a tangy jolt of herb mayonnaise, and a wonderful salpicón of lobster and microscopic pepper confetti in a puddle of fragrant olive oil. Why bother with hydrocolloids and other fancy emulsifiers when a brothy potato-and-clam stew can taste like the best thing in the world?

A Star is Reborn

Madrid’s gastronomic god Sergi Arola has become a little ubiquitous lately—talking about sex on TV, designing a menu for Iberia Airlines, opening trendy panini places while manning the stoves at the two-starred La Broche. Who knew that all he secretly wanted was a low-key place of his own?His wish came true last winter when he left La Broche to open Sergi Arola Gastro, a long, earth-toned space that seems oddly sedate for a rocker turned chef. The tasting menu is a high-wire act between pan con tomate deconstructed into toasted-bread ice cream with an olive-oil powder, which feels like vintage El Bulli, and luxurious squab in a dark, rich reduction that suggests the return of French haute cuisine. Despite the eclecticism, every dish is a pleasure, while the city’s most professional service and most attractive sommelier ease the pain of the tab.

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