AFTER Madrid’s Dabiz Munoz maintained his position as the World’s Best Chef for a third year running, the globe’s keenest gourmet travellers immediately started reading up on the Spanish capital.
Not famed for its cuisine, Madrid is best known for its hearty stews, roast suckling pig and, eh, chocolate and churros, while most culinary writers rave instead over San Sebastian in the north or the other end of the Pyrenees in Catalunya.
Tapas is not even its thing (it’s far better in the north) and, when I lived in Madrid for two years in the 1990s, there was literally only one vegetarian restaurant and I lived off mostly pinchos of tortilla.
But things really started to change when mohican haired Munoz, a total maverick in more ways than one, gained his third Michelin star at restaurant Diverxo a decade ago. For the record there are now 28 restaurants with a star or more in the city.
A huge fan of Muñoz, I managed to meet the man for an interview the day after that incredible achievement – the first three star joint for Madrid – in 2013.
Enthusiastic and only too happy to pose with a stuffed piglet, the main takeaway I took from him was that to really understand his award I needed to understand the various suburbs of the city, where he loved heading off to find interesting dishes.
He recommended the working class barrios of Embajadores, Lavapies and even Vallecas, where he promised I would find some ‘incredible’ dishes.
And it’s perhaps no surprise that two of those districts have since made Time Out’s ‘40 coolest neighbourhoods in the world’ list in recent years, with Carabanchel, most famous for its prison, making it into the Top 10 this year.
Take a stroll into any of the above and, what I guarantee, is a series of dishes you’ll try almost nowhere else. Tripe, innards, gizzards, broths and stews, yes, there is so much going on.
It is down in Lavapies that you’ll find one of my favourites, La Burlona Bar, in Calle de Santa Isabel.
NO BALONEY: La Burlona
This truly hip, buzzing joint epitomises how good the local food culture in Spain is today.
Given there are only a dozen tables you’ll need to book, (https://www.laburlona.com/) but be prepared for one of the most creative and fresh meals around.
It’s an interesting walk down into the edgy working class barrio, behind the Reina Sofia Museum and near the southern tip of the Retiro park.
This is the culinary stage of Jorge Reina Monreal, who trained at among the best restaurants in Spain, including Valencia’s Quique Dacosta, DStage and Zalacain.
He very much dominates the pass, a real perfectionist who sends out some of the best-looking dishes I’ve witnessed in years.
Having trained locally at the highly-rated DSTAgE and Zalacain and then travelled the world, even cutting the mustard in London (Cambio de Tercio) he’s picked up plenty of tricks.
His cannelloni of game was as rich as could be while his Cantonese-style ribs in aniseed and plum rocked.
And if you want a true taste of Madrid go for the tripe and mussels, a stunning delicious working class number.
ON SHOW: NuBel at the Reina Sofia
For something a little different and those with an architectural need, the restaurant on one side of the city’s important Reina Sofia museum is a great find.
Called NuBel, (https://www.nubel.es/) it is extremely convenient for Atocha train station and is the perfect spot to take a loved one or for a business meeting and you can have breakfast, brunch, or lunch, if you so desire. Many also just come for a drink or cocktail.
Style personified, its deep red shiny walls play off against the green and yellow Nest furniture, creating a huge range of different places to sit.
The vibrant colours and compositions somehow make the large open-plan space cosy and intimate.
Food-wise there is everything from a great guacamole sharing plate and an interesting brioche with squid.
I also had a fantastic tuna tartare and grilled leek dish and was extremely impressed with the salmon Poke bowl.
TAKE A TRIKE: Triciclo
Another consistently good place that I always love seeking out is Triciclo (www.eltriciclo.es), based in the central historic suburb Barrio de las Letras.
The menu changes daily and it rests heavily on good seasonal produce, such as mushrooms, seafood and vegetables.
I really recommend leeks in a red pesto sauce, if in season, coming with Raf tomatoes from Almeria, while the classic Madrid-style ‘Besuga’ fish dish is beautifully braised.
There is a good wine list and loads by the glass, while a major selling point, particularly if you are a foodie and want to try a larger number of dishes is that you can have a half portion and even a third on many.
COME HOME TO ROOST: Roostiq
On the edge of the hip Chueca barrio, best known for its pink pound, you’ll find so many new places opening up these days.
But for something really comforting and incredibly tasty Roostiq (https://roostiq.com/en/) takes some beating.
So successful, they have even just opened in Marbella, I love the fact the menu is really geared towards simplicity and top quality free-range chicken and pizzas.
The chicken is an absolute winner, as are the spectacular artichokes, while the pork-scratch starter called ‘torreznos’ was super delicious.
One of the best wine lists in the capital, there are loads of champagnes and burgundies, and of course loads of interesting Spanish wines.
TRAWLING FOR FISH
It’s a little known fact that Madrid has the best fish in Spain.
Despite being hundreds of kilometres from the coast in all directions (the city is actually the dead centre of the geographical landmass), it is highly-praised for its excellent fish restaurants.
It’s due to the fact that the ports on all four coastlines send their best fish to the capital first, as that is where the highest prices are always paid.
One of the very best places to try it out is La Trainera, (https://latrainera.es/) which means appropriately trawler in Spanish.
Based in the most upmarket part of the city, Barrio Salamanca, it may not be good value, but the turbot is possibly the best I have ever eaten (maybe with the exception of Elkano, in Getaria, in the Basque Region).
This is where all the key power brokers, politicians and business moguls do lunch and there are always clams, crabs, prawns of all types, and hake cooked in about half a dozen different ways to keep them happy.
If you are really looking for some glamour and somewhere to push out the boat, you need to head for Deessa (https://www.mandarinoriental.com/es-es/madrid/hotel-ritz/dine/deessa).
This beautiful space in the Ritz hotel is the domain of Valencia’s three Michelin star genius Quique Dacosta in Madrid.
One of the country’s top rated chefs, this grand open-plan dining room with Romanesque pillars, gold capitals and crystal chandeliers guarantees an exquisite and special meal, heavy on the romance.
It now has two Michelin stars (won over consecutive years) and the menus certainly warrant them, with Dacosta’s trusted sous chef Ricardo Vega in charge.
Expect to eat wonderful red shrimp from Dacosta’s home town of Denia, while his well honed Valencian pumpkin seed soup with black truffle is a delight.
A Shiso saam with red tuna and ‘starry moss’ is reminiscent of an Andalucian tortillita de cameron, but far subtler.
THE STAGE IS SET: DSTAgE
Look out for DSTAgE, (https://dstageconcept.com/) easily the hippest place to eat in Madrid.
Its eccentric chef Diego Guerrero – recently voted 42nd best chef in the world – is one of Spain’s best-loved culinary stars with two Michelin stars to boot.
Try and get one of the four or five tables facing the line up of chefs, like bank tellers, in crisp blue tunics and caps, where you won’t find better theatrics in the capital.
I loved watching the team at work in this theatre of dreams that wouldn’t be out of place in the Meatpacking District of New York, with its exposed bricks and industrial lights.
An acronym for ‘Days to Smell Taste Amaze Grow & Enjoy’, the mission of DSTAgE is to make fine food less pretentious and more accessible.
It’s an honourable – and often necessary – plan, given the number of top chefs who go off on their own personal missions, leaving the majority of their clients behind in a fog of inventiveness.
This was quite the opposite, an extremely inclusive evening, where dishes were not just well explained but conceived with real passion, but not pretension.
There was creation (take the ‘potato with honey’ which was actually a type of cheese) but equally there were as many good solid dishes that bring you down to earth.
The pigeon, which is served with pear, has been tenderised over an incredible two weeks we are told, while the ‘tears’ of green peas, triple podded and served in squid ink are stunningly good. See full review on the Olive Press website
TASTE OF CADIZ: KultO
Looking something with a true taste of the south, head for KultO (www.kulto.es).
This is a real journey to Cadiz and particularly Zahara, on the Costa del la Luz, and its head chefs Laura Lopez and Jose Fuentes only provide the very best on offer.
So you will definitely eat amazing bluefin tuna, as well as amazing beef albondigas.
Jose started cooking in Madrid at just 20 years old, but loved travelling and picked up recipes in Bali, Peru and Mexico among a huge list of countries he’s worked in.
But the place he ended up cooking at for nine years was Zahara de los Atunes and he opened various restaurants there before finally heading home to Madrid.
You can really tell from the menu with its gambas, pigs ears and croquettes, not to mention a great tuna tartare, one of the best, as you would expect.
The hip, urban Fismuler (https://fismuler.com/home/madrid/) is set up in a stripped down factory with all most of its original features including floors and pillars, as well as great upcycled tables and chairs.
There is also a larger dining room, which is stylishly lit and there is always a big mix of people.
Part of a group of 10 restaurants (named after Madrid’s historic La Ancha) food-wise it is a very seasonal place with lots of vegetables from their own huertas.
Its bosses Nino Redruello and his cousin Patxi Zumarraga met at Catalunya’s legendary El Bulli restaurant, so they all know a lot about cooking.
Nino also did his time in the north at Arzak and he is a big believer in authentic, no nonsense cooking.
You’ll always eat well here and the menu changes regularly, but you might eat roasted cabbage in a miso soup or a white tuna belly with a pad thai of tuber vegetables. Delish.
BEELINE FOR BONO: Casa Julio
Croquettes and meatballs may sound a bit dull, but try them at Casa Julio (https://m.facebook.com/Casa-Julio-450441564997837/) and your whole perception of these basic Madrid staples will take on a new meaning.
They are delicious and having them for lunch (or supper) at Casa Julio has been a pastime for local Madrilenos in the know for nearly 100 years.
For some strange reason the band U2 came and posed in the restaurant for a photo shoot back in 2003 and their global fans still make a beeline to see the pictures on the wall every day.
Founded in 1921, Casa Julio is the very definition of a spit and sawdust joint in a grotty backstreet in the heart of the working class, but rapidly gentrifying, barrio of Malasana.
Recommended to me by a journalist pal, whose been a correspondent in Madrid for a decade, I particularly liked the prices, which are among the best in the city.
There is wine, but most punters sink a few canas or a vermouth with the food.
And of course I couldn’t leave out Diverxo (https://diverxo.com/)itself. This really is the most amazing place – and meal – you will ever eat.
Dabiz Muñoz really is the world’s best chef and IF you can get a table (and it will be six to eight months wait) then take it with both hands and find out what the fuss is about.