Madrid, Spain / July 23, 2009 / dinner
Winederlust Rating (details below): 8 out of 10 / Winederlust Worthy: Yes
Jay had done a lot of research before our trip to find a table for our last night, in Madrid. He settled on Gastro for two reasons: one, the chef, Sergi Arola, had trained at El Bulli and apparently was one of his most promising disciples, and two, he was also a rocker.
As our taxi pulled up at Gastro, we thought the location was rather odd and out of the way – very residential, across from a hotel, but not a whole lot else around it. The restaurant itself was also very unassuming, with a discretely marked door out front and stairs leading up to the small restaurant, with only about 12 tables. It was also mainly empty at 10:30pm on a Thursday night, with just a few other tables filled. (One other couple arrived while we eating, but that was it. However, it turned out the cocktail lounge downstairs, where the same kitchen serves tapas, was hopping.)
One cool thing was that the chef greeted us when we walked in – and then proceeded to serve us and explain the menu at different points during the meal, which was all very casual compared to the other places that we’d been (and slightly odd – we wondered if this was something he did every night, or if it was because the restaurant was so quiet, which hopefully was not a regular occurrence). In any case, he was very personable and friendly, and it turned out that he visits NYC six or seven times a year, and knows Mario Batali.
There were three menus to choose from: the basic, the feast, and the cheese-lovers’ menu, which apparently was a selection of dishes made with cheese and vegetables. We opted for the basic, which sounded like it would be plenty of food (and was).
First, our server brought over an amuse-bouche of powdered olive oil with garlic and dill, which was light and refreshing.
Next a selection of “snacks” were set on the table: cherries that seemed to be soaked in sherry; potato chips with an aioli dip; little toasts with a paté spread; and shrimp croquetas. All were ok, nothing spectacular. (As Jay remarked, they were the most “lowbrow” starters we’d had on the trip, more like pub food than a gastronomic restaurant’s offerings.)
Next came the best version of gazpacho I’d had on the trip (I’d just had a very mediocre version for lunch that day in Girona): a “crouton” cone filled with vegetables and topped with a tomato ice cream.
Then more amuse-bouches: Smoked eel (yum) with crispy apple, fennel jelly, and dill. Very tasty, with the smoky flavor balanced by the bright apple.
A modified version of the classic Spanish dish of patatas bravas – mini rectangles of potato already topped with aioli, finger foods to pop into our mouths. Good, though Jay thought they could use more kick.
Next came three types of bread with two different olive oils plus corn salt and cocoa salt.
As at Arzak (but nowhere else), Jay and I were able to order different dishes for the remainder of the meal. I started with the sardines in olive oil with almond ice cream, served with ecologically farmed caviar. This was a great dish – full of flavor and nicely balanced as well as beautifully presented (despite the blurry pic below).
Jay had the razor clams with Iberico ham and cream sauce, which he thought was just ok. The sauce seemed a little too heavy for the clams and buried their flavor.
My next course was rooster combs with vegetables and baby squid. The rooster combs had a flavor unlike any we’d had before – very mild, with a bit of the taste and texture of tofu. (In fact, we had convinced ourselves that they WERE made of tofu until we asked – and no, they were real rooster combs, apparently a long-time Spanish delicacy. I’m not sure how I feel about eating rooster combs, but we did.)
Jay had the black grouper on top of potatoes and onions with a vinegary curry and coconut sauce poured over top. This dish was simple and delicious.
I had thought that after France my foie gras days were over for a while, but my next dish was foie gras layered with vegetables (onion and red and green peppers) on top of a cracker that tasted like tomato. Though a nice combination of flavors, it was also very heavy on my post-midnight stomach and I had to have Jay help me finish it (which he happily agreed to).
Jay’s dish was the veal, prepared medium-rare with pear, cherry, and apricot, in what tasted like a port reduction. Jay loved the freshness of the fruit contrasted with the heaviness of the meat.
I finished off with the apricot in a bird’s nest served with butter and green tea soup – a combination that I can only describe as very odd, and not completely enjoyable.
Jay’s dessert was much more successful: a passion fruit soufflé served with mint ice cream inserted by our server into the middle and chocolate poured over top. Delicious.
Overall, we thought the quality of this meal was nearly equal to Can Roca the night before. (Both have two Michelin stars, for whatever that’s worth, and the price somehow ended up being almost exactly the same, even though we had the wine pairings at Can Roca.) Though Can Roca seemed a little more experimental with their flavor combos, Arola also put some interesting twists on more traditional dishes. The service (especially from the chef himself) was very good, but there wasn’t a whole lot of atmosphere to speak of (though the restaurant being so empty probably didn’t help, either). All in all, though, an enjoyable and tasty way to end our two-week European culinary adventure.
- by Liz Humphreys, Winederlust Eater in Chief
Winederlust Rating Details (out of 10):
Food: 8.5 (preparation, presentation & taste)
Wine: 8.0 (selection, recommendations, pairings & taste)
Service: 8.0 (helpfulness, attentiveness, knowledge & pacing)
Place: 8.0 (location, view, decor & vibe)
Price Range: $$$$ (Incredibly Expensive)
Sergi Arola Gastro / C/ Zurbano 31 28010 Madrid, Spain
Direct Line: (34) 91 310 21 69 / 91 310 03 94
Website: http://www.sergiarola.es/ (make a reservation directly through the website or email)
Open Monday-Friday 2-3:30pm and 9-11:30pm. Open Saturday 9-11:30pm. Closed Sunday; Reservations Suggested.