I must confess, when I first got to Madrid I was not entirely impressed. We were staying at the north end of the city, very close to the office of our dealer. It is a little newer section of town with a few high rises going up and various flats for housing in most directions. Nothing wrong with the place, just fairly un-interesting. It seemed more Mexico than Europe. Nothing that I haven’t seen before. As a matter of fact, one thing that stood out to me was not Madrid itself but the drive from Madrid to Zaragoza that we made Monday afternoon. It was eerily similar to the drive I had made just a few months earlier from San Diego to 29 Palms in California. We left the city, drove through a winding mountain pass, and as we exited the mountain range… a windmill farm! I mean, seriously, the drive was almost identical.
But that is neither here nor there. The point is although I didn’t realize it I really hadn’t seen Madrid until the last few nights. It really is a beautiful and very old city. On Wednesday evening I took my first trip to a historic section of town when Antonio took us to a restaurant that he designed using the ground floor of 2 adjacent 1800’s era buildings. When he started it was 3 separate shops and a vacant space, and is now an upscale Mediterranean restaurant doing very well for the owners. He was obviously beaming with pride earlier in the day when he told us where we would be going that evening. The staff treated him (and by extension, us) as family upon arrival. As we were walked back to our table he pointed out a few architectural challenges that he faced during the renovation. Joining the two building seemed to not be a major issue other than permitting. He seemed irritated that he was required to install sprinkler heads on the 200 year old beam that was running along the ceiling, but did admit that it was a structural beam that held the weight of the five floors of apartment space directly above. The beam is running along the right hand side of the picture below, supported by the iron columns (the columns are not original). We were sitting at the second table from the back on the left.He also told how he was delighted to find, upon removing layer upon layer of wood plaster and paint, the enormous slabs of granite and very old brick work that can be seen in the second picture. Apologies, as I did not bring my camera and these were the best pics that I could find on the web.
I would not call this a traditional restaurant. The dishes were quite imaginative. Hiro had some sort of duck in (no joke) sea urchin sauce. I tried a bite and if there was duck in there you would never know it. The urchin was that overpowering. I told Wendy later that I may as well have taken a sip of seawater from the docks where I used to clean fish as a boy. I had ostrich, prepared medium, with some sort of steamed squash. It was much better than you would think. Surprisingly enough it tasted very much like beef. I would definitely have it again. Traveler tip: The customary waiter tip in Spain is apparently much less than in the US. At the end of the meal Antonio, quite embarrassed, asked if we would mind supplying the tip. He was completely out of cash. Hero and I were both short, but were able to pool our resources for what would have been about 18%. “No, that is too much.” We were told by Antonio. We asked how much was appropriate, and he said about 5%. So Hero put his cash back and I put in the appropriate amount. We continued to talk a bit and as I looked at my measly few euros in the tray I began to feel more and more guilty. Our waiter for the evening had been one of the best I have had in quite some time. I asked Antonio if it would be insulting or bad form if I tipped more than the customary amount. Believe it or not in some cultures it is. “No, not at all. It just isn’t necessary.” As I put the rest of my cash in with the tip I told him that I had been observing local customs the entire week, so I didn’t feel guilty about being true to my own just for tonight. I mean, really, he suggested the proper way to order my ostrich for crying out loud!
It really was a great experience to eat dinner with the architect of a restaurant in one of his favorite creations. As I walked down the street to the car, looking up at the history in mortar and stone around me, I couldn’t help but think that I was one of the luckiest men on the planet.
Next up, my last night in Madrid.