Well, first impressions after a night and a day or two. Madrid is amazing—seems more lively than Rome, Paris, or London, more restaurants per acre, more potential foodie experiences than any place we’ve been! “Living in the streets” is their motto and it shows. They say “an army travels on its stomach”. Well, so do we. Maybe jet lagged fogged impressions but seems this is a city we are going to love.
We arrived at 10:30 pm at our beautiful very IKEA Nordic apartment in the Malasana district just north of the city center, unpacked, and went out to get a bite to eat not expecting much. Yes, we know Spaniards eat late….but 11:30 pm? Young people (and a very few older ones) everywhere. Malasana turns out to be a very hip twenty something mecca where we probably increased the average age ten years district wide.
Decided to eat at the first place we found — the funky La Pasa Gin Bar (the real name). Yes, a gin bar, and run by Dominicans (no, not the monks). The place was packed but our host found us a table—we were clearly from another planet and exotic to them. Ordered “gin tonicas.” In Madrid, this prompts a floor show. Did we like citrusy, dry, aromatic, spicy? We settled on one citrusy and one dry drink. Our server returned with two large goblets filled with ice and four gin bottles for us to smell and select. With a flourish he poured the selected gins (we opted for two different Spanish gins—we are in Spain after all) into the goblets each with different garnishes or aromatics — juniper berries in the citrus version and sour orange slice in dry. Each tasted totally different from the other. Gin and tonics back home pale in comparison.
Yes, there was food—an eclectic mixture of Caribbean, Italian, Spanish and a small measure of Thai. Jamon croquettes, burrata cheese salad and chicken skewers on Thai rice noodles. Generous portions for sure. Food was good, gin tonicas great, people watching superb. Best of all, the Dominicans were great hosts.
So far have yet to meet any local who hasn’t squeezed out us of our very limited Spanish and added their slightly better English to engage us in conversation. Everybody is ready to drop everything and schmoze. Clearly they are charming us!
Next morning we had arranged a food and market tour. Always our preference to get to know a city first by its markets and food stores, and with an apartment kitchen we were ready to do some cooking. The historic sites can wait. Our guide turned out to be German—a charming young woman fluent in Spanish who had given up a career in finance in London to do this. It really is helpful in some ways to have a foreign perspective—she had gone through the learning experiences and was well aware of the cultural shocks you would find in Madrid.
We started the tour with Churros in a restaurant that had been in operation over 100 years, a plaque on the sidewalk outside announced — the city of Madrid’s tribute to the older establishments. Not normally a fan of churros, these were delicious! Ate every bit! And then wandered to a cheese shop that only sells small batch cheeses in Spain, even if the style of the cheese is French or Italian. The owner also makes his own butter and ricotta in-house. And then it was off to the market.
The highlight was Los Mostenes market near our apartment—a local covered market well off the tourist path. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but inside it was two floors of food stalls and small cafes with a stool or two offering specialties from around the Spanish speaking world. The prices were less than half of those at the famous San Miguel market. It was bustling with locals.
After chatting with the local jamon merchant (who was critical of the high prices of jamon in the tourist stores) and several other vendors she knew well, we stopped at the local fishmonger, bought some shrimp, calamari, and took them over to small counter restaurant in the corner of the market, where the owner pan fried them with a squeeze of lemon for lunch for us.
We were sitting next to a butcher still in his bloody apron who was on his lunch break. Local charm. We loved it and our three course meal — tortilla (a Spanish omelette), paella (the owner was not from Madrid so he was “allowed” to make paella) and our seafood which could not have been better prepared. We were also introduced to summer red wine — a fruity red mixed with sparking lemon soda — more commonly consumed than sangria. Again delicious.
We ended our first day armed with a list of restaurants to try, routes to walk and tips on how to navigate dining customs in Madrid. Obviously four full days and five nights in the city will be insufficient to do it all. Traveling on your stomach takes time.
We will simply be forced to return.