El Capricho

I spent last weekend in Madrid with some friends from Zurich. Spain is in the same timezone as Western Europe and Switzerland but when returning from a weekend there, it still takes a few days to get over the jet lag. We went for lunch at a recommended restaurant and found the place empty when we arrived at 2pm. We thought that that meant we had chosen an unpopular location. It turns out we had just chosen an unpopular time: by 3pm, the apparent lunch hour, the place was full. Similarly, dinner starts at around 10pm. Bars get active around midnight and night clubs don’t really get busy until around 2:30 or 3 in the morning. After sampling a bit of the nightlife, we were getting to bed at 5am and getting up around noon: just in time for breakfast.

The food schedules were particularly important to us. The driving motivation behind the trip was culinary. Madrid was really the warm-up and a good place to get out taste buds into a Spanish mood.

Our first dinner was a wonderful selection of  tapas. We sampled various sausages, hams, cheeses, meatballs, and tortilla. This was all washed down with a very decent bottle of Rioja. The outdoors restaurant of Lateral in Puerta del Sol lived up to is reputation as some of the best tapas in Madrid and was everything was cheap, cheap compared to Zurich.

Still in the tapas vein, we had an afternoon snack the following day at a small speciality eatery. The menu prominently displayed the 6 items they had on offer. The first was a very pleasant house wine and the other five were Gambons – prawns – prepared in various styles. We placed our order and watched as the prawns were cooked up in front of us. A collection were fried up whole on a grill while another handful were tossed into a small ceramic pot to be fried in a rich garlic sauce. Tasty beyond description!

The breakfast highlight was at San Ginés, a colorful little cafe hidden in a side street near Plaza Mayor. The place is famed as Spain’s most famous chocolateria. They serve over half-a-million cups of hot chocolate a year. The chocolate is served warm in coffee cups and has a syrup-like consistency. The breakfast is completed with churros – pastry deep fried to crispy perfection.

Our ultimate culinary destination, however, lay 300km north of Madrid in the countryside near León. El Capricho is famous for serving the best steak in the world. Working cows are retired at the end of a life of labour and then allowed to live out their latter years being well fed on grass and taken care of. After slaughter, the meat is then well aged and cooked with the greatest care. The result is promised to be the finest beef available.

After a four-hour drive from Madrid we arrived at the restaurant. The entrance of the restaurant overlooked the kitchen, a wonderfully characterful room which clearly showed the owner’s love of food. Capsicum overflowed the baskets in the corner.  Cloves of garlic hung to ribbons trailing down from the ceiling. The main meat-cooking grill was set into to a niche in the wall, with the heat supplied from a wood fire below. On a benchtop by the door, a hoof of an animal leg was held in a vice with the remainder of the leg covered by a cloth. Under the cloth you could see a partially carved leg of ham.

We proudly told the waitress that we had traveled all the way from Zurich to experience this restaurant and had reserved months in advance to ensure getting a place. Somehow, however, our reservation had been misplaced. We waited for a moment as they did some checking. Visions flashed before our minds of traveling halfway across Europe and having to end up eating at a McDonalds roadside diner. Lost reservation or not, the staff were kind us enough to take us in anyway. We were taken into the dining area downstairs.

The restaurant is wonderfully atmospheric as it was converted from a wine cellar. Most of the tables were tucked into alcoves that once housed barrels of wine. Since the restaurant was fully booked, we were taken past these and given the VIP room with statues and ancient wine making equipment on display behind glass walls.

On our way to the restaurant, we had been discussing how willing we would be to push our budgets. We had heard that the most expensive item was a 500€ steak. Would anyone spend that much on a steak? Should we get one to share? When the menus arrived, we had an unexpected shock: the prices were extremely reasonable! Starters and desserts were generally less than 5€ and there was even a four-course-and-wine “Recession Menu” for 20€. The philosophy of the owner became apparent: prepare the best possible quality meat and share it with as many people as possible. After coming such a distance for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, price was not our major constraint. We searched for the most expensive item we could find which was the “Working cow” steak priced at – a still surprisingly reasonable 158€ a kilogram.

Given our confusion over the menu, we were happy when the owner/cook suggested to prepare us a meal based on his recommendations. He presented us a 3kg piece of raw steak that he thought would suit us for the main course. The flesh was a deep red and a thick, thick layer of fat along its side recommended it as a quality piece of meat. The mystery of the 500€-steak was thus solved: rather than being an expensive single dish, this magnificent piece of meat would feed the table. The meat was then taken away to be tempered at room-temperature – an essential step to bringing out the full flavour.

While the main was being prepared, we were given a plate of ham to start. This was delicious. After a few days in Spain, we had already started to become snobby about having great ham. This certainly met our expectations. Dark meat with a rich and pleasantly salty flavour.

The ham was accompanied by a lovely bottle of wine. Since the meal was going to be less expensive than we first imagined, our wine budget grew to compensate. We had an excellent 110€ bottle of 2006  El Bosque Rioja.  As good as it was, I couldn’t definitively say whether it was better that the 30€ bottle of Rioja we had in Madrid. Similarly for the 260€ 2003 La Cueva Del Contador that accompanied the main – a wonderful wine, but not 8-times better than a cheaper bottle.

The main course was our eagerly anticipated piece of beef. The chef brought the cooked steak to the table and proceeded to carve it into thin slices. The meat was cooked rare – the inside raw and the outside seared and salted. The meat was incredibly tender with the crusty surface imparting the flavour from the wood fire and the salt dissolving in the mouth to impart round-out the flavours. The fat was served separately and could be eaten alone (yes, it was that good) or to enhance the flavour of a mouthful of beef. Another combination was to a slice of roasted capsicum/pepper with the beef. Even the hot chips were excellent – cooked to perfection.

The meal was completed by an excellent dessert platter – so good that we shared 3 rounds in the group. Egg custard tart, cheesecake, rice pudding,  and the table’s favourite: the three-chocolate cake.

At the end of the meal, the chef returned once more to ask if we were satisfied with our meal. He received a spontaneous, and well-deserved round of applause from group of very grateful diners.