Watch out, Barcelona! Anya Von Bremzen uncovers the best new places to dine in the Spanish capital.
David Nicolas The restaurant's diminutive gift shop, stocked with Spanish goods.
| Credit: David Nicolas

Having made Madrid a virtual home away from home for the last 15 years, I’m still figuring out how I feel about the Spanish capital’s recent transformation—from the endearingly dowdy rival of cosmopolitan Barcelona to a sleek, worldly quasi-metropolis. While I might be mourning the closing of a favorite tattered old bakery or button shop, the upside of the city’s thrust into the limelight has been the dramatic makeover of its restaurant scene. Even as culinary innovations swept through Catalonia and the Basque country, Madrileños continued to eat soufflé potatoes at comically old-fashioned places and gulp down jamón at folkloric tapas bars. Suddenly, all that has changed. The local beau monde still adores Casa Lucio, a blue-chip taberna where members of the royal family order french fries with fried eggs. But these days the scramble is on for a taste of Nuevo Latino cuisine at Astrid y Gastón Madrid, or for Iberian-Japanese maki rolls at Kabuki Wellington. In the last couple of years more restaurants seem to have opened in town than in the entire decade before. Young molecular-gastronomers are flash-freezing and foaming at small intimate places; global celebrity designers and chefs are landing in the city to open outposts; and classic cuisine is being updated in stylish surroundings. Here, T+L’s list of 10 notable newcomers worth a visit.

New Guard

David Muñoz—Madrid’s answer to New York’s cult chef David Chang—had to sell his apartment and move in with his parents to open Diverxo, and just weeks after the launch, adventurous epicures were flocking to the drab Tetuán neighborhood to eat at his 20-seat spot, where pink runners on tables are the only visible stab at “décor.” Influenced both by his apprenticeship at London’s Hakkasan and by Ferran Adrià’s deconstructive cuisine, Muñoz juggles Iberian, Asian, and Latin American flavors, throwing improbable curveballs that beguile the palate despite the odds. What would happen if a tapa were cross-pollinated with dim sum?A potato tortilla recast as a mini potato filled with a quail egg and onion confit, then given an Asian twist with chile-and–red-bean emulsion and a chaser of Chinese white tea?Giddy diners can’t wait for what the 28-year-old wunderkind will come up with next. Scoring a reservation?Suerte! (Good luck!)

The current insider favorite among Madrid’s food and wine elite, Senzone, at the new Hospes hotel in Barrio de Salamanca, brings together the unique talents of 27-year-old chef Francisco Morales—a protégé of avant-garde guru Andoni Aduriz, of San Sebastián’s Mugaritz—and his wife, Rut Cotroneo, the country’s brightest young sommelier. The restaurant’s muted minimalism—taupe hues; metallic scrims on windows—is in perfect sync with the understatement of Morales’s short menu. Each dish is a meditation on nature. A thin layer of sea urchin broth dotted with black charcoal oil veils a silken kohlrabi custard. A dusting of macadamias lends nuttiness to the squid, which is shaved into pearlescent, pastalike strands atop a pile of the world’s sweetest green beans. Cotroneo’s connections assure rare sherries and big-ticket, small-release Priorats.

Fernando P. Arellano and Itziar Rodríguez—he cooks, she does the rest—have been anointed by the press as Madrid’s other young “it” restaurant couple. At Zaranda, an intimate, Michelin-starred nook with wood columns and big murals on the walls, Arellano applies the refinement he learned at the Amalfi Coast’s two-starred Don Alfonso to his voluptuous modern-Mediterranean menu: an al dente rice studded with morels and nuggets of cockscomb might precede a neat little slab of crispy-skinned suckling pig served over a caramelized Chinese-cabbage choucroute. The cloudlike goat-cheese mousse dessert with red berry and Rioja sorbet has earned such a following, Arellano had to swear that it would grace his menu forever.

Buzz Central

Madrid’s bona fides as a glitzy international capital were confirmed by the recent opening of Ramses Life & Food right next door to Senzone. A multilevel, multifunctional Philippe Starck–designed fun house—it’s really two restaurants, a basement dance club, and a throbbing scene around the black etched-glass bar. If you’ve seen any of the latest Starck oeuvre, you know what to expect: walls scrawled with apocalyptic graffiti, a design museum’s worth of mix ’n’ match chairs, cryptic unisex bathrooms, and a general sense of dislocation produced by one too many cultural references. More successful than the upstairs dining room is the casual neo-Gothic Petit café. Here, the jeunesse dorée share bowls of mussels in skillfully spiced Thai coconut curry; one of the creamiest pumpkin risottos this side of Mantua; and hamburguesas featuring a succulent chicken patty in a saffrony almond sauce—the chef’s sly take on a folksy Castilian chicken dish called gallina en pepitoria.

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.

Asador de la Esquina 1 Avda. de Concha Espina; 34/91-443-0675; dinner for two $140.

Astrid y Gastón Madrid 13 Paseo de la Castellana; 34/91-702-6262; lunch for two $218.

Diverxo 5 Calle Francisco Medrano; 34/91-570-0766; dinner for two $180.

Kabuki Wellington 6 Calle Velázquez; 34/91-577-7877; dinner for two $275.

Ramses Life & Food 4 Plaza de la Independencia; 34/91-435-1666; lunch for two downstairs $99.

Senzone 3 Plaza de la Independencia; 34/91-432-2911; lunch for two $249.

Sergi Arola Gastro 31 Calle Zurbano; 34/91-310-2169; dinner for two $375.

Sula 33 Calle Jorge Juan; 34/91-781-6197; lunch for two $187.

Viavélez 10 Avda. General Perón; 34/91-579-9539; dinner for two $135.

Zaranda 5 Paseo Eduardo Dato; 34/91-446-4548; dinner for two $185.