A short burst out of London has just taken me to Madrid. Celestially speaking it was distinctly bluer than London but it seems Iberian clear skies are deceptive, as pollution levels were actually skyhigh. But fear not, I’m not here to write about the weather, more about how the capital’s much hyped tapas scene is faring.

Vi Cool marinated sardines

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a minor gastro obsession, and that is Spanish tapas, i.e. the real thing, not some kind of ersatz. It’s an interest that goes back 15 years or so to when I first travelled extensively round the backroads of Spain, and in the end resulted in my first food book, New Tapas. Well things have changed again, and now tapas are no longer confined to bars. Over the last few years, the whole concept of small portions and sharing plates has stormed ahead – in fact small dishes (or as an alternative chato glasses, as below) seem to have conquered the world. Another change in Spain itself is the advance of the Basque word pintxo to replace tapa, now regarded as less chic.


So in Madrid you can now settle into a funky restaurant and be served plate after plate of tapas (or pintxos?) like exquisite jewels. At Sergi Arola‘s Vi-Cool for example, right near the Plaza de Santa Ana, a 20€ tapas menu for two brings you six successive courses as well as a basket of toasted pan amb tomat, complete with that requisite garlic clove to rub in extra flavour. Wine is extra, but the decent, varied list starts at 16€ for a bottle of Rioja Crianza. If only those kind of prices were found in London…


45-year old Arola is of course Catalan, a native of Barcelona, who after working at elBulli with Ferran Adria went on to establish his own name in Madrid. Now Arola’s gastro-empire extends to a restaurant in Paris, although business can’t be all that rosy as last June his two-Michelin star flagship in Madrid (Sergi Arola Gastro) was temporarily closed by the tax authorities. Is there a limit to chef’s hubris? In the UK we’ve had it with Gordon Ramsay, and Spain has had it in spades with the eccentrically brilliant Adria. Arola, a rock ‘n roller biker, somehow seemed different. Who knows.


But, back to tapas, I must say I loved Vi Cool’s prolonged taster of what would normally be high end and high priced cuisine – and the setting (above) really encouraged lingering.


Something similar appeared before me at Estado Puro, the hotel bar of NH Paseo del Prado. Slickly (overly?) designed, full of high stools and a ceiling of mantilla combs, this gastrobar turned out to serve some of the most inventive tapas I’ve ever had – and that includes the wondrous pintxos of San Sebastian. Yes, I know I do go on about those clever Basques – read here and here.


Chef Alonso Castellanos is the man responsible here, originally in tandem with Paco Roncero, another of Adria’s disciples. So the “21st century Spanish tortilla” (pic above) turned out to be a Ferran Adria recipe, an immaculate glass of deconstructed tortilla – potato base, foamy egg and caramelised onion, in that order. Yum. At 4.55€ I thought it wasn’t a bad deal, and worked deliciously followed by a vertical sandwich of gingerbread and foie gras. Here at Estado Puro the tapas tasting menus are 18€ and 24€ – but I’d strongly recommend coming late in the evening to really bathe in that nightclub ambiance. At lunchtime it’s distinctly weird.


Cava Baja, that well-trodden tapas bar street in La Latina, still has a few cool places, but for more recent enterprise head a few blocks southeast to Lavapies. Less obsessively gastro, but still innovative in style, a handful of bars in calle Santa Isabel turned up trumps. At no. 40 La Victoria has a wonderfully theatrical bent, literally, as they have converted their vaulted brick cellar into a bijou theatre. Quiz nights are Tuesdays in case you’re interested and there are concerts too. La Victoria had a great vibe, local, friendly and cosy, serving Mexican-oriented tapas and even breakfast – so you can’t really go wrong whatever the time of day. The pic above shows its nocturnal cred at around midnight.


Across the street is the even quirkier La Musa de Espronceda, less cultural, more concentrated on tapas, pintxos and raciones (sharing plates) – as well as respectable wines. The owner, Antonio, keeps a beady eye on tapas quality and maintains fair prices for the local bohemian crowd – the grilled squid is succulent, and the aubergine stuffed with tuna slips down nicely. I loved the interior packed with vintage bits and bobs (pic above) – the kind of easy-going but stylish place Madrid does so well. So, in the end I’d say the world of traditional tapas, given a seductive and imaginative setting, is as enticing as the sharper avant garde versions. Though Arola’s little rolls of marinated sardine (top photo) and his exquisite take on patatas bravas (below) are impossible to forget.