Just back from my first ever trip to Spain and before heading over, I scoured this board for some recs. Wanted to pass along some of my finds that may help somone out down the road - particularly since Ribera del Duero and Logrono (understandably) don't get that much love/attention as they're pretty far off the beaten path.
I preface this report by stating I work for a wine importer and was over for business meetings with our Spanish producer. Hence, we had some serious "insider" help with the restaurants they took us too -- in the same way we take our foreign suppliers to some killer NYC places, these guys led us to a great mix of both high end and regional specialty type spots. Needless to say, the one common thread among all 18 meals of our six day trip involved some type of jamon product being served :)
After arriving in Madrid, we drove down to La Mancha to visit one of our properties and after a brief tour, had lunch in a small town called Quintanar de la Orden at a place called "El Almirez" at Calle San Juan 9. Believe it's a relatively new establishment -- very modern design and feel with polished service, a young chef who looked to be in his late 20's/early 30's and overall cool vibe. When we walked in, directly next to the non-smoking sign in the dining room was a table of four businessmen smoking...comical (and although France just banned smoking inside bars and restaurants, Spain appears in no hurry to do so).
Menu was a combination of regional specialties with modern techniques - a shooter of marzipan-esque liquid with a grilled prawn, braised partridge over a soup finely ground chickpeas and grilled merluza (hake) were all very good to outstanding We made it through 5 of 6 courses and collectively waived the white flag at the chef. Worth seeking out if one is travelling in the La Mancha region.
Dinner that night back in Madrid was at El Cenador del Prado near the Plaza Santa Ana - Calle Prado 4. In reading about this place, it sounded like a Madrid mainstay establishment -- what we found was a very whimsical/fun design with excellent service and very good cuisine. Standouts were the jamon/manchego to start, some small balls of fried bechamel sauce (can you think of anything richer than deep fried bechamel sauce?) and an outstanding entree of merluza a la plancha with green sauce.
Day 2 began with a two hour drive to Ribera del Duero, one of Spain's most exciting wine regions to again visit a winery. Amid freezing wind, plummeting temperatures and driving rain (and eventually snow), we trudged around the area and finally settled into the main town in the wine region called Aranda de Duero. And as if on cue to mollify the cold and rain, we were led to a tavern-like restaurant with a large subterranean dining room called "El Lagar de Isilla" (Calle Isilla 18) which specializes in the regional specialty of Lechazo Asado (baby lamb). The smell of garlic soup and roasting lamb from the open brick oven was absolutely divine.
Lechazo Asado is the type of dish that I could imagine Calvin Trillin happliy going on a pilgrimage throughout Central Spain in order to find the best rendition. The meal started out with a garlic and bread soup (and with what I swear although denied by our hosts was braised tripe). Next came simple green salads and finally the specialty of the house -- a platter of slow roasted baby lamb in a simple broth of olive oil, salt and lamb juices. Outrageously good. A platter of desserts appeared and the most interesting of the three served was a strawberry type flan with of all things, pop rocks (the candy that explodes in your mouth) sprinkled on top! Overall it was the absolute perfect meal for a cold winter day...
Dinner back in Madrid that night was at Zalacain (Calle Alvarez de Baena 4). Read up a bit about it before hand and knew we were in for our most formal dining experience of the trip. The artwork and setting of the restaurant are beautiful and service was very formal. Definitely an older, wealthy type clientele with an air of elegance. While all of the appetizers and entrees were very good, the two highlights of the meal to me were the jamon iberico bellota to start (this was the REALLY good stuff - when you eat enough jamon at every meal, you get a feel for the sublime, good, eh or simply bad jamon and this was off the charts good) and the raspberries for dessert. These raspberries were what most ordinary raspberries dream of becoming...huge and plump with gorgeous red color. Served with a touch of cream and light sugar dusting. Wow. Really good...
After a day of walking around Madrid including a stop at the Mercado de la Paz (Calle Ayala 28) in the Retiro neighborhood (WELL worth checking out to see numerous vendors of fish, meat, bread, produce, dried goods and of course jamon -- of which the good stuff cost 186 euros/kg!!!), it was off to Logrono for a visit to our winery in Rioja.
Logrono reminded me a lot of what the city of Napa is to wine country in CA - a base of businesses, restaurants, shops etc -- all centered around the wine industry of Rioja. It's a beautiful town dating back to the 14th century with a gothic cathedral in the middle of the town square and also the location of what proved to be the culinary highlight of the trip - tapas on Calle del Laurel and Calle San Juan (which hold what I subsequently learned may be the best tapas bars in Northern Spain).
I was led by a local Logrono native who sheparded me through the small, cobblestone, pedestrian alley that make up Calle Laurel & Calle San Juan, on a tapas circuit hopping from bar to bar. They are basically one on top of the other and the deal is, you go from place to place ordering the specialty of the house along with vino blanco or crianza (or beer). The patatas bravas at Juberna were the perfect combination of fried potato, white sauce and hot red sauce. The "moranus" or pork kebob grilled over charcoal with honey was absolutely killer. And the other stops were great too - a blur of grilled calamari, scallops and breadcrumbs in a scallop shell, fried padrone peppers (1 in 10 are SPICY hot, a culinary russian roulette if you will...) were all worthwhile stops. But there was one absolute showstopper.
If you ever make it to Logrono, you must and I mean MUST make a visit to the Bar Soriano (Calle Laurel 2) which serves "Setas" or grilled button mushrooms. The place is the size of a small walk in closet in Manhattan -- there is simply a long wood bar with a metal plancha in the back corner and a few counterman taking money and doling out what may be the best mushrooms on the planet. They are grilled amid a special sauce of what tasted like oil/garlic/butter, skewered with three mushrooms to an order, a tiny grilled shrimp at the top of the skewer and a warm piece of bread at bottom. The result is simply spectacular and what you wind up with after finishing your trio of mushrooms is a piece of warm, garlic/butter/oil soaked piece of bread. The best 1.55 euros I've ever spent on anything ever.
Bar Soriano is what I'll refer to as an "Instant Classic" - kind of like Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS (the Dave Roberts steal), watching Jordan drain a game winning jumper over Craig Ehlo, seeing Shawshank Redemption etc. - basically one of those experiences in life that you won't ever forget.
And not to overanalyze (but I will) -- but in the same way that the brothers who run the Swan Oyster Depot in SF seem to take great pleasure in the fact that they are doling out some of SF's best, freshest seafood and sourdough bread, these mushroom guys had a look on their faces like they knew they were doing something really special and delicious. Apparently, they've been around for about 30 years and I take a small amount of comfort in knowing that when you or I next make it back to Logrono, these guys will still be grilling the mushrooms of dreams.
There were a few other meals consumed during the rest of the trip but the aforementioned were the highlights and well worth checking out. And after a few trips to the gym to sweat out some jamon, I can't wait to get back to Spain as soon as possible!