Wear your flats and skip the jacket. Madrid’s famed chefs and rising stars are opening more-casual restaurants, where you can relax and dine royally without the fuss of haute cuisine. The culinary inspiration at these spots is all over the map, literally, with Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and southern Spain influencing what turns out to be some of the best cooking in the city.
You must book months ahead to dine at David Muñoz’s DiverXo, Madrid’s only three-star Michelin restaurant. But his energy-charged, informal spot in the gourmet market on the top floor of the El Corte Inglés men’s store in Salamanca takes no reservations. To avoid a wait, go early or on a relatively quiet Sunday evening for a vibrant taste of the chef’s Spain-meets-Asia genius. (Or fly to London, where another branch of StreetXO does allow booking.)
Start with a cocktail, but don’t expect a drinks menu. Instead, a waiter divines your desires: Gin? How about a jasmine-and-violet spin on the gin mule, served in a Gulliver-sized goblet? Something sweet? Cachaça, tropical fruits, spicy chutney and white chocolate over crushed ice comes poured into a see-through bag. You can enjoy it on the balcony, but the real action is inside at the crimson countertop where chefs clad in modified straightjackets whip up Muñoz’s madcap creations, walking you through the dishes in Spanish and English.
King prawns get dunked in a Singaporean laksa, the coconut-milk broth intense with salt, sweet and spice. Squeeze the flavorful insides of the crustaceans’ heads into your soup, as the chef advises. Smoked scallops are served on the half shell atop coconut cream and funky housemade XO sauce abetted by garlic, bright yuzu and bitter kaffir lime leaves. Muñoz’s “lasagna” is like no other. Its spicy Galician beef filling has been marinated for 45 days, the sauce is a purée of kimchi, and the béchamel is made with cardamom and goat’s milk. A chef delivers it with a fried wonton wrapper teetering on top, which he snatches and crumbles back onto the dish, a shocking and intimate gesture signaling that, here, they play with your food. US$75.
Calle de Serrano 52, Salamanca 28001; Tel. (34) 91-531-9884
A hot air balloon hovers above a dining room lined in white scrim and twinkle lights at this dreamy place by chef Dani García, whose namesake in Marbella holds two Michelin-stars. The buoyant mood begins with a drink from the illustrated, accordion-style wine list or the oversized playing cards that double as the cocktail menu. The “Fleurie,” a flower-strewn pisco and ground cherry libation served in a white, free-form bowl, deals a fruity, floral opening hand for a lively meal amid elegant Madrileños.
Start with oysters from the raw bar or go for, sliced-to-order Ibérico ham. Follow with García’s brioche filled with pulled oxtail or the popular guacamole, with peas and mint mashed into the avocado, burrata dolloped on top. The chef is also known for his gazpacho, a tangy purée of tomatoes and cherries punctuated by briny anchovy, Parmesan, pistachios and a swirl of basil oil, the riot of flavors melding beautifully.
The room’s other focal point is a life-size statue of a bluefin tuna, and a section of the menu pays homage to the fish. A tartare of fat-rich belly comes from a tuna caught in almadraba, a traditional (and relatively sustainable) method in which the fish is corralled inside a wooden fence. The dish is served in a smoke-filled cloche. Your waiter lifts the glass cover and the smoke dissipates, a genie escaped from the bottle, but not before it has worked its magic, ever so slightly cooking the cubes of otoro and the yolk atop them. Bathed in a puddle of soy sauce and sweet-bright yuzu juice, it’s a light yet decadent dish. So, too, is the lobster salpicon salad, a garden’s worth of herbs and vegetables tucked into the crustacean’s shell.
Guests can eat family-style here: grilled wild turbot filleted at the table, whole roasted short ribs, a kilo of Black Angus steak. But no one should leave without dessert. An ode to the chef’s native Marbella features a gilded sphere of white orange blossom mousse with a “yolk” of orange mousse that spills out when you crack it. Like the goose’s golden egg, it’s a treasure. Reservations recommended. US$75.
Paseo de la Castellana 52, Salamanca 28046; Tel. (34) 91-805- 2556
When the queue at StreetXO is serpentine, no worries: Grab a seat instead at its neighbor, this vibrant Mexican eatery by chef Roberto Ruiz of Madrid’s Michelin-starred PuntoMX. Pumping music fills the tiny indoor dining room, which is wrapped in bare, woven branches. The balcony, though, is quieter with fabulous Salamanca views.
Most of the plates are small and come quickly. Prep your palate with a well-shaken take on a classic Mexican cocktail. The Mezcaliña — muddled fresh ginger and lime with the smoky mezcal — is topped with a dried chile de arbol. Crush it into the glass for an extra kick. Then start your meal with a quesadilla of chorizo, or queso fundido and Ibérico ham. Better yet, order ceviche. Tender shrimp come swimming in sweet-tart tomatillo sauce dotted with spicy chipotle cream and topped with cooling ribbons of marinaded cucumber.
There are half a dozen excellent tacos to choose from, too. The filling for the smoked brisket tacos is so tender, the meat seems braised, with fresh salsa abetting a tangy barbecue sauce. Still hungry? The machete, a massive, charcoal-grilled beef chop smothered in crispy onions, cilantro and a three-chile sauce, feeds a small army. No reservations. US$50.
Paseo de la Castellana 52, Salamanca 28046; no phone.
With its brick-box interior and simple wooden tables, this restaurant on a quiet street at the northeast corner of the Parque de El Retiro looks like a traditional taberna. But the chefs here are young and inventive. Veterans of kitchens like DiverXO and the Michelin-starred Refectorio at Abadía Retuerta LeDomaine in northwest Spain, Recreo’s young chefs bring haute brilliance and far-ranging flavors to this humble room.
This is the place in Madrid to eat your vegetables. An amuse-bouche of black sesame-coated zucchini marinated in rice wine vinegar and chile oil looks toward the East. So, too, does the signature roast broccoli, the florets charred until meaty consistency, a kimchi purée and a dusting of smoked cumin augmenting their umami depth. A bowl of baby artichokes on the stem, braised in pork stock with peas, mint and silky egg yolk brings the meal back to the Mediterranean.
Even in the meat dishes, it’s the veggies that stand out. Sweetbreads — all too often overcooked and dry — here are perfectly tender and mild, set on smoked eggplant purée of such charisma that it steals the show. Pine nuts, mint and bright pops of pomegranate finish the dish, an ode to the Levant. A chilled and earthy Granacha; a muscular, young Tempranillo — the servers will help you select from the collection of artisan wines to pair with your dishes.
To finish, go for something light and fruity. Poached medlar, an apricotlike fruit, sits atop thick, honeyed yogurt spread onto a torta de aciete, a classic Iberian wafer fried in olive oil and flavored with anise. The dessert proves that, though their interests might roam, these talented, young Spanish chefs respect their roots. Reservations recommended; closed Sunday and Monday. US$50.
Calle de Espartinas 5, Salamanca 28001; Tel. (34) 91-033-4379
Scion of a Madrid restaurant family (the owners of the octogenarian La Ancha restaurants), the young, telegenic Nino Redruello broke out on his own with Tortillas de Gabino and the newfangled tapas bar La Gabinoteca. His latest venture, in a converted basement illuminated by skylights and street-level windows, looks like a chic rabbit warren. Hideouts and hallways snake off larger spaces, and tables — some communal — are snuck in everywhere. A wall of jarred elixirs and infusions greets you as you enter. Many are for sipping, but if you’re in the mood for something light to combat the Madrid heat, a floral, cava-based sangria with muddled raspberry refreshes throughout the meal.
Green tomato soup, chilled and creamy, primes the palate for the earthy cooking of a kitchen that appeals to our animal pleasures. An amuse of paper-thin beef is touched so lightly with sweet smoke that its interior is like carpaccio. Beef tartare is blanketed in black radish. Deep-fried nuggets of bone-in quail and hard-cooked quail eggs perch on an ocean of lettuce slicked with oyster sauce and strewn with juicy, dark-green sea beans that taste of the tides.
Much of the gutsy menu here is pulled from the surf. An anemone omelette wears a cloak of fresh spirulina. Meaty octopus tentacles are cooked in the creature’s own inky juices. Clóchina — Mediterranean mussels — steam in a rich and creamy, fennel-infused sauce enriched with chives and bits of pumpkin. You’ll want to pick the bowl up and slurp straight from it. A slice of custardy, tangy cheesecake is all you’ll want after such bold flavors. It comes unadorned, and it’s perfect that way. Reservations recommended, except for communal tables; closed Sunday. US$50.
Calle Sagasta 29, Chueca 28004; Tel. (34) 91-827-7581