Madrid reigns in Spain’s dining scene

From creamy Catalonian croquetas to gutsy Galician-style octopus, two Madrid restaurants – one refined, the other rustic – offer a gastronomic tour of the country

Cebo restaurant is located in the arty, elegant Urban hotel in Madrid’s museum district
Cebo restaurant is located in the arty, elegant Urban hotel in Madrid’s museum district

There are many great gourmet cities in Spain – Barcelona, San Sebastián, Seville and Santiago de Compostela spring to mind – but only one truly embraces culinary traditions from all over the country: Madrid.

As if to prove the point, chef Aurelio Morales’ tasting menu at Cebo, in the arty, elegant Urban hotel in the museum district, interprets classic but disparate dishes – pil-pil, migas, calçots, callos – in a modern, playful manner.

Calçots – the robust spring onions from Catalonia, usually blackened, grilled and trawled through a bowl of salsa romesco – are fashioned into a creamy croqueta, a blob of romesco on top, scattered with calçot ash; slices of razor clam sit in a “shell” of blackened chicken skin; a prawn head rises dramatically from a billow of lemon foam, shrouding a fine tataki of raw, chopped prawn; sweet lágrimas (tear peas) bathe in a wobbly bowl of hake pil-pil.

Morales plays with texture as much as flavour: a lacy, crunchy chickpea cracker partners a very polite callos (beef tripe) croqueta, the merest whiff of farmyard in its gloopy interior, while an umami-rich wafer of migas (crumbs) has both sticky, sweet trotter and crisp, pickle-topped ear for company. I have chewed many ears over the years, both literally and metaphorically, but none has been so rewarding.

While his offal dishes are distinctly polished affairs, Morales’ beef – from a 180-day-aged Galician cow – is anything but: served with a “mature soup” made from its bones, it has more punch than Roberto Durán. The smartly dressed, well‑spaced tables in Cebo are the perfect venue for Morales’ gastronomic tour of Spain, a journey full of wit and invention.

Belesar, a short walk west of the Prado, offers a more rustic welcome. Decorated like a Galician farmhouse, it offers great tapas: pimientos de Padrón; Galician-style octopus; baby squid and razor clams from the plancha; or caldo gallego, the traditional broth packed with leafy greens and piggy morsels.

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I had Galician cow again. Served for two, a mound of thick, quickly seared slices of a venerable old milker arrive at the table with a scorching stone on which to finish their cooking.

Chips, salad and roasted peppers arrive, too, as well as a bottle of suitably muscular red (Palacio de Canedo Reserva, made from Mencía grapes) and a bowl of fat with which to lubricate the stone. So transfixed was I by the rusty, herbal flavour of the excellent beef that the chips went cold: a little more fat on the stone, however, a deft bit of work with the tongs, and they sizzled back to perfection.

The next day, I grazed happily on Galician percebes (goose barnacles) and Extremaduran jamón Ibérico in the lively Mercado San Miguel, then strolled to Alimentación Quiroga, a splendid deli and wine bar, for Andalucian mojama (wind-dried tuna) topped with almonds. Thanks to Madrid’s eager espousal of regional gastronomy, I had completed a gourmet’s tour of Spain entirely on foot.

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