Monday November 19, 2012
We had spent all weekend in Madrid and yet we hadn’t seen the city. Monday would change that, we had a full day of sights and the usual 4,000 calories. We started out at the Puerta América Hotel, a place that has been on my radar for years. Each floor conceived by a different architect, it’s quite the sensory overload and one of the more unique hotels in the world. I initially pushed to stay here, but it’s a good 20 minutes from the city center. Instead, we visited for a half hour. The guest floors are key restricted, so we were only allowed in the lobby and the business floor.
Later in the morning, we stopped for a quick photo-op in front of the Gate of Europe, headed to the Plaza de Oriente with the intent of seeing the Royal Palace (the king was visiting, so we rescheduled for Wednesday), went inside the Almudena Cathedral, then headed to lunch.
Market of San Miguel
Plaza de San Miguel, s/n
28005, Madrid, Sapin
The one stop shop for all things Spanish and up there as the most over-rated experience of the trip. All the food options are fairly generic, bland and of sub-par quality. If you’re a tourist and want mediocre food while the workers mock you with “mira, mira”, then this is your spot. They have everything from jamon, cheese, olives, tapas, paella, meat, pastries, fruit, fresh seafood, cooked seafood, wine, sangria, sherry, nuts, and soups. And it all tasted and looked equaling uninspiring.
As we walked around, Jen and I opted for a couple glasses of Spanish wines and if you visit, I would recommend you do the same. We got some tapas, a seafood stew that tasted weathered, scallop au gratin, a couple more tapas of shrimp and imitation baby eels (there’s a market for that?) and gave up after a plate of creative, yet below average tasting olives. We thought the worst was over, but later that night Jen mentioned the food may have got her sick. I’m not sure what it was, but she destroyed the bathroom when we got back to the hotel.
Antigua Taberna Arzabal
2 Calle del Doctor Castelo
28009, Madrid, Sapin
We originally had Arzabal planned for our first night after La Gabinoteca, but the kitchen was closed when we stopped by. They have two locations on the same block and both were overwhelmingly busy, so we wanted to find a time to return. Our full day in Madrid made perfect sense as we were only having two lunches that day, so a third was only one more if my math is correct.
We took a cab from Arzabel right to Poncelet, this gave us 15 or so minutes to work off the calories.
Poncelet Cheese Bar
Calle de José Abascal, 61
28003 Madrid, Spain
Poncelet cheese bar is a new restaurant with a growing reputation due to its extensive cheese selection. It also has prepared dishes, most of which incorporate cheese. It’s considered to have one the most comprehensive selection of cheeses in Europe. It was a lot emptier than Arzabal and perhaps that was a sign of things to come. Maybe I was difficult when ordering, or maybe our server was just a pendajo. Nothing on the prepared dishes looked appetizing, we settled and ordered our first plate of jamon and gnocchi that would make a lunch school cafeteria worker proud. When I inquired about the cheese plates, I was told they could prepare one for me or I could create my own. As we wanted the stronger cheeses, I told our server we would choose. He swiftly place a notepad and pen on the table and just walked away. I later tracked him down and gave him our order. We selected 10 cheese that included three blues, manchego, mahon, casar, pasiego, tronchon, and a couple others. As they prepared the cheese plate, Jen could see the server making fun of us with another server. I don’t care if you’re Mexican or not, this is just plain rude and their country should be embarrassed. Perhaps our moods were affected when the cheese plate arrived as we were not impressed, most of the ten cheeses were subtle and nothing different from what we can get at any good cheese store in LA.
Now it was time to really walk off some of the calories. Madrid is considered one of the top European destinations when it comes to art museums. Best known is the Golden Triangle of Art, located along the Paseo del Prado and comprising three museums. The most famous one is the Prado Museum, known for such highlights as Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Francisco de Goya’s La majavestida and La majadesnuda. The other two museums are the ThyssenBornemisza Museum, established from a mixed private collection, and the Reina Sofia Museum, where Pablo Picasso’s Guernica hangs, returning to Spain from New York after more than two decades.
We stopped for some photos outside the CaixaForum’s vertical garden, but didn’t actually go in the museum. We decided on the Prado, of course, and the Sophia. Jen’s uncle Vinnie enjoyed the Sophia better between the two. I can see why, if you’re into contemporary art. The collection was impressive and the only thing I didn’t like was I was prohibited from photographing Picasso’s Guernica. My favorite piece was Cenotaphs by Antoni Miralda. A full room dedicated to the artist that included some sculptures with toy animals, a movie and dark music that reeked of the apocalypse. I like this guy’s style.
It’s hard to say how much time to devote to the Prado. Depending on your art interest, it could be anywhere between three hours to a week. The museum is just that massive and the collection that significant to the history of art. If for some reason you just want to see the a few of the highlights, you can pop in for free between 7 and 8 PM. They have a map of the masterpieces and they are fairly concentrated in one area. Keep in mind you must check your camera in a locker before entering.
I enjoyed the Prado a little better than the Sophia. Putting the art aside for a second, the structure of the Prado is fairly impressive itself. Waltzing from room to room, I felt like I was somewhere fancy, like the The Bellagio or something. It houses masterpieces by well-known artists such as Bartolomé Bermejo, Pedro Berruguete, Sánchez Coello, El Greco, Ribera, Zurbarán, Murillo, Alonzo Cano, Velázquez, and Goya. Alright, I’ve never heard of any of these guys, but I could appreciate Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Don’t forget the audio guide.
We headed back to hotel to freshen up and we were off to dinner. Prior our trip, I associated Spanish food with molecular gastronomy and tapas. I wouldn’t have thought Spain was known for seafood, but tonight we really got our first glimpse at what all the hype was about.
C / de la Reina Mercedes, 20
28020 Madrid, Spain
O’pazo was mentioned in a couple articles and pictured in some blogs, so it managed to squeeze itself onto the agenda. It’s more of a formal restaurant that caters to a business and special occasion crowd with some of the night’s offering hanging in a window adjacent to the entrance. Another display is sprawled out separating the dining room and kitchen. The evening began with a complimentary plate of cured salmon and sea snails. We’re very fond of Santa Barbara sea urchin, so we were anxious to compare Spain’s offering. It come with a lot of sea water and that overwhelmed the meat. Once drained, I’d have to say Santa Barbara still reigned supreme. Next up were the percebes one of the most sought after delicacies in Spain. We saw pictures of these “dinosaur boogers” and knew we had to try them. They are served warm, you have to peel them in an odd way and once revealed they tasted of the sea with a chewy bite. They were light and quite refreshing and I would definitely recommend trying them on your trip. Apparently, these things are quite dangerous to retrieve from the water. Fisherman must painstakingly harvest them by climbing down the the wave pounded rocky cliff shores of Galicia in Spain’s north west.
On to the next creature that was new to us, cigalas. Simply grilled and it had a wonderful fresh flavor and was very tender, another must for visitors.
Now we go from a double to two home runs back-to-back. First, was the best shrimp we had to date. To do so little and taste so good, that’s one sign of a truly great dish. It was juicy beyond belief and bursting with flavor. I wish Vegas buffets could get them this good, it would put them out of business. Second, was the whole turbot. It’s rumored to be cooked in olive oil, but with the rich taste of the dish it could have passed for butter. Albeit, turbot is known for its high fat content. I can only be left to assume something was lost in translating. Jen mentioned that this turbot would put to shame the one she had in Paris at L’Arpege. It was also better than the frozen one I get at Trader Joe’s.
I wish we had more room to order because two or three more species of shrimp were eyeing me all night. Plus Jen mentioned the food from the San Miguel Market was calling and she had to go back to hotel to take a dump. As I reflect back on the trip, I would love to have another seat at O’pazo or Sacha, the other seafood restaurant we originally planned to visit. Our other favorite comparable restaurants on the west coast of the U.S. are Providence and Walrus & Carpenter. O’pazo was simpler than the other two, yet better. It was that good.
After dinner we wanted to take some night shots of the city and the area surrounding Plaza de Cibeles was the perfect spot. By the looks of the picture, I still need to understand the aperture or focal points a little better. I guess that’s what the off-season is for.