Culinary Adventures in Spain: Madrid

I finally made it out of the country for the second time--to Spain! I wanted to go to Spain ever since I sat down in my 9th grade Spanish class and called myself "Pilar." I'm not entirely sure why I wanted to go back then. Perhaps the churros? Perhaps it was just some vague theory that it would be cool; like how when I was in elementary and middle school, I just KNEW that I would move to Switzerland someday. Why Switzerland? Nobody knows. The point is that I wanted to go to Spain for almost exactly half of my life--14 years (soon, anyway...somewhat scarily).

As it turns out, Greg wanted to go to Spain for even longer (because he's older than me). Of course, he was motivated to go because of specific things like La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and not just because "it seems cool." When Greg and I travel together, approximately 75% of our goal in having a successful trip revolves around the food we eat. It doesn't matter where we go. Food is of paramount importance to "must see" sites. This is why we are married.

I am fortunate that Greg is a seasoned international traveler. My one resort-based trip to St. Lucia with a bunch of grown-ups hardly counts as being seasoned. He was totally calm in the face of many things that made me freak out. For instance, while I am able to understand a lot of Spanish when heard in America, I was completely unable to understand waiters 90% of the time in Spain. It sounds different, to be sure. But it made me seize up, panic, and consequently, not remember any Spanish. Stupid public speaking anxiety. Anyway, Greg usually didn't understand everything they said, either, but he just rolled with it and guessed at what they probably said--and you know what? It was fine. This is why I married him.

We went to three cities in Spain, and thus, there will be 3 installments written here. The first city was Madrid. I was entirely unprepared for Madrid. I am a "big city, but not metropolis-sized-city"-girl. I do not generally enjoy Chicago, because there are too many people (and thus too much traffic on the streets, on the the trains, on the sidewalks). You can imagine how I feel about NYC. I'm not sure why I didn't realize that Madrid is heavily populated (3.26 million in the city proper alone!), but there you have it. To make matters worse, the streets are laid out in a labyrinthine fashion. Constantly dodging people on narrow sidewalks while trying to find your way around while jet lagged could have stood to be more fun than it was.

This is not to say that Madrid was without its charms. In the Centro area, you can get food nearly 24/7--all sorts, all delicious. After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we headed straight to the nearby Chocolateria San Gines for churros y cafe con leche. This well-known establishment is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. You walk up, grab a table outside, and wait to tell the friendly waiter your order--which will, of course, include churros! We got an order for two, but that's a whole lot of churros (10, I think?). This was a pleasant way to recover a bit from the exhaustion of traveling for 14 hours and finding our hotel.

After taking a 4-5 hour long nap, we headed to Bar La Abuela in search of some hearty raciones (tapas). Actually, we're pretty sure we went to the wrong place, since we were looking for a place recommended in Lonely Planet. Bar La Abuela, however, did not disappoint. Looking very conspicuously like tourists, we made a meal out of tapas rather than ordering one dish and leaving. You should do it regardless of what people may think--tapas as a meal are awesome! We ordered Patatas Bravas, Gambas al Ajillo, and Champinones al Ajillo, as well as a glass of Sangria each.

There were also free olives pretty much every place we went.

The tapas were divine--probably some of the best food we had in Spain (and we had a lot of good food). The Champinones al Ajillo (mushrooms in garlic sauce) were perfectly cooked--tender and bathed in a light garlic sauce with a squeeze of fresh lemon. The Gambas al Ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce) sizzled in a bowl of olive oil, studded with chunks of garlic. The hot oil made the perfect accompaniment to crusty bread. The Patatas Bravas had an abundant and complex spicy sauce that blanketed the potatoes, making the whole thing melt in your mouth. When the whole thing is washed down with refreshing sangria, it makes you forget how long it took you to arrive to this place.

Greg with one of his treasured Gambas al Ajillo.

Immediately following our tapas gorging, we went to Plaza de Santa Ana. Reports vary on just how 'touristy' this area is, but I didn't feel that it was. It seemed like a healthy mix of locals and tourists, and a great place in general to meet up for some drinks. A chill was in the air, but that made it cozy to snuggle into my jacket and enjoy people watching as the sun set. We each had a beer to start, and then moved on to a glass of Fino sherry and Campari. This was accompanied by a complimentary plate of the mildest green olives known to man (I liked them, and I don't like green olives!), which also included tiny gherkins. Being here reminded me of being at the Union Terrace in Madison, WI. I loved it.

I am pretty sure all this alcohol did not help my jet lag situation. The next morning, I was so nauseous that we spent half the day in the hotel room. We made up for a profound lack of eating during the morning and afternoon that evening when we went to La Gloria de Montera. Gloria de Montera is highly recommended by a lot of people, and it's not hard to see why. They offer wonderful, upscale Mediterranean food in large portions at rock bottom prices. Additionally, the decor is beautiful and modern, the service prompt and polite.

Since everything was unbelievably inexpensive, we started out with salads. Greg ordered a "garden salad," which was enormous and lovely, but sadly, absolutely covered in oil. There was no flavor--just oil. He was actually given a cruet of more oil, just in case. Poor guy. I had much better luck with my salad, which included a baked round of goat cheese and honey-balsamic vinaigrette.

Greg fared better with his entree--Solomillo de Ternera con Salsa Roquefort (a filet of veal with roquefort sauce). It came with a mound of thin potato shavings. He was enamored of the Roquefort sauce (as was I).

I cannot speak highly enough of my entree--Duck Confit with Apple Compote. Oh, my god. Somehow they made duck taste like corned beef. It looked like corned beef, even. If it didn't come on a leg bone, I seriously would've thought that they accidentally gave me corned beef. It was AMAZING. I am drooling thinking about it. When combined with the apple compote, it gave me tingles.

Of course, where would we be without a dessert to top off our gluttony? I don't remember the exact name, but I think it included the words "Triple Chocolate." It was warm and thick and ridiculously comforting.

We also had a bottle of wine, because we weren't sure if the prices listed were per glass or per bottle. We ordered "x wine," and got a bottle. How much was this bottle? UNDER 8 EUROS. I know. I almost peed myself with delight. All told, this entire feast cost under 50 euros. That's insanity. Sweet, tasty insanity.

Something you will see signs for all over Spain are "Bocadillos." I assumed that bocadillos were little sandwiches, like the name (and price) implies. Greg and I were itching for a snack one day, and decided to get two Bocadillos de Calamares. For 5 euros total, we were expecting it to be a snack. Instead, we were handed two large hoagie rolls filled with fried squid rings. Like the glutton I am, I tucked right in....only managing to finish half of the roll, but eating all of the squid. I recommend this highly.

One of the very touristy culinary things that we did was visit Sobrino de Botin. Botin was established as a restaurant in 1725, thus making it the oldest restaurant in the world. Obviously, this is why it's a tourist attraction. But why wouldn't you go?? C'mon! Oldest restaurant in the world! Plus, they're known for their suckling pig which is roasted in a 200 year old Roman tile oven. That is just awesome. And you know my little foodie self was all over that.

This is the aftermath of my suckling pig. Unfortunately, it was a large hunk of meat that was nearly impossible to dissect. It would've been easier to use my hands, but it's kind of a nice restaurant, and I didn't want to go there. The sad part is that the hunk was 70% bone, gristle, and skin (with hair bristles on it...*shudder*). The meat itself was quite good. Greg got garlic shrimp, which cost an astounding 2 euro per shrimp (for 12 shrimp in a bowl of garlic oil). Unbelievable. But that's the kind of thing you get when you go to a touristy place.

We sat in the basement, next to this staircase leading to some other basement. Scary and awesome!

Since we flew out of Madrid, we returned for one last night after visiting Barcelona and Alicante. We stayed in the Malasana neighborhood, which was not our cup of tea. All we wanted to do was grab some tapas early-ish and head to bed at the hotel. Even though bars that served tapas were open, they wouldn't serve tapas until 8:30 or 9pm. This is very unlike the Centro area that happily served tapas at all hours (probably due to tourists). The few places that did open early were very expensive, with tapas in the neighborhood of 15-18 euros each. We killed some time at La Musa with mojitos. To La Musa's credit, the mojitos were fresh, delicious, and strong on the alcohol.

We finally did get to eat at Taberna de San Bernardo. There was much confusion with the ordering system (you had to order drinks at the bar and dinner at the kitchen window, then they called your name to get the food), but once we were settled, it was quite good. We had Albondigas de Ternera (veal meatballs), chickpeas and spinach, and an asparagus omlette. All of their food was perfectly on point taste-wise. Unfortunately, I was so hungry and cranky by the time we got to eat that I didn't take picture.

As I've been writing this, I've come up with some tips that I learned from my tenure in Spain:
1) They will bring you a basket of bread 99% of the time. Bread is not free. There is a nominal charge...usually about 1.50 euros per person. It's worth it. Don't be angry about unexpected charges, just eat it! Or, if you don't want it, refuse it outright.
2) Water is also an added cost. Unlike in the US, water glasses are not automatically filled. If you want water, you have to ask for it, and you will pay for it. You can get your water sin gas (flat) or con gas (bubbly). They tend to be about the same price.
3) 10% is a considered a good tip for restaurants. Apparently, though, taxi drivers don't expect tips. I gave our driver to the airport approximately 12% and he thought I did my math wrong.
4) In most cases, you can get food at any time you want. You don't need to worry about the "all restaurants open after 8pm"-thing. While it's true that some do, you can always get food somewhere (even if it is expensive), usually a taberna.
5) Unless you are fluent in Spanish and Catalan, it is helpful to look up the words for food you will not eat, write them down, and carry them with you. Of course, it may also be helpful for you to write down your favorite foods. Plus, then you'll know some words in another language. Hooray!

I am sure I will come up with other tips as I write the other entries, but for now, I have spent far too much time writing this entry. To sum it up: Madrid is not a city I particularly loved, but it sure does food and booze well!


Simply Life said...

Ah, I LOVE Spain and the food there! So jealous!

Katie said...

WOW! Looks like you had a fabulous time!

Ruth said...

Great post! I'll be in Spain in about a month's time! Bring on the food!

Veronica Gantley said...

I have never been to spain, but my neighbor is spanish. She has taught me how to make pinchetos, sangria and flan. I love your post.

Reeni said...

Everything looks so delicious! It sounds you like you had a wonderful time eating your way through your vacation even if you didn't like the city! I'm not much of a big city girl myself but Spain? Total envy!

Margie said...

Really enjoyed hearing about your trip. The duck sounds amazing. Though I gotta say I'm most excited about the squid sandwich... and the mojito!

Jennylie said...

That looks so great. The churros are just amazing and the chocolate cake looks great too. I hope that you enjoyed your trip!

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