Madrid Tapas Tour

June 19th, 2012

Casa Toni | La Casa Del Abuelo | Taberna Alhambra

When travelling to a city for the first time, experiencing the local cuisine, whatever it may be, is a must and always rises to the top of our agenda. In Chicago we sampled deep-dish pizza, in London fish and chips and a pint at the pub, and when we found ourselves in Madrid, we could hardly wait to eat and drink our way through the city’s famous tapas bars. More akin to a pub-crawl than a fine dining experience, tapas establishments are best enjoyed in succession; after tasting the house specialty and appropriate beverage pairing at one spot you quickly move on to the next. In fact, many of these restaurants don’t offer sit down seating and instead require patrons to crowd around high-top tables or the bar, which creates a lively environment but is not conducive to lingering. In Madrid, which has the unique distinction of having more restaurants and bars per capita than anywhere else in the world, selecting a place to eat can be a daunting task as it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the seemingly endless options. Here are three of our favourite tapas bars, all located within walking distance of each other in the Puerta Del Sol area.

Casa Toni is an unassuming, small neighbourhood spot that is almost indistinguishable from the host of other tapas joints in the area. We stumbled upon it mostly by accident, but were pleasantly surprised by the quality and flavour of the food. This atmospheric restaurant is teeming with old world Madrid charm and the proprietors are enthusiastic and welcoming. The food at Casa Toni is not fancy or trendy. It is classic tapas fare done right, with minimal deviation from the standard recipes. The house specialty is orejas – pig’s ears – but we were not brave enough to sample this Spanish delicacy and instead opted for the fried eggplant, patatas bravas and champinones. We had no idea that sautéed mushrooms could be so good or taste so exotic; this is definitely the dish to order at Toni’s if you’re not adventurous enough to sample the meat options. The fried eggplant, served in thin slices and drizzled with honey, was also excellent. The portions at Toni’s are larger that what you find at the average tapas bar and two or three dishes between two people should be more than enough to satisfy.

La Casa Del Abuelo initially caught our attention with the “vino generoso” sign prominently displayed on the exterior of the building, but its bustling atmosphere is what convinced us that this was the place to be. A standing-room-only establishment with an energetic atmosphere, Del Abuelo is a traditional tavern that has been in business since 1906 and is well known for its seafood delicacies. The décor is far from minimalist, with wine bottles lining the counter behind the bar and tucked away in practically every nook and cranny in the tiny space – the space hasn’t changed in decades and that’s part of its charm. Unlike many tapas bars that offer a variety of items, the menu at Del Abuelo is simple, limited to shrimp, prawns and crab prepared in a variety of ways. The dishes are accompanied by sweet wine from the Alicante region served in small tumblers for one Euro per glass — our favourite part of the tapas experience. We sampled the house specialties – grilled shrimp and prawns — but beware Del Abuelo is not for the faint of heart. We initially stared in horror as our prawns were served whole and we realized we were expected to rip the heads off ourselves before placing the entire thing in our mouth. Committed to having an authentic Spanish experience, we persevered, and were pleasantly surprised by the delectable seafood smothered in garlic and butter. A basket with enormous slabs of thick, crusty bread is served along with the prawns to soak up the excess sauce. The shrimp are prepared in an oil, butter and garlic sauce, which also proved to be a delicious dip for the bread. Casa Del Abuelo is one of the best spots for seafood in Madrid and is not to be missed.

Taberna Alhambra features classic and simple Spanish tapas where the flavours of the fresh ingredients are the draw. Serving up traditional Iberian dishes, this cozy spot is an excellent place to encounter a large selection of food and drink options and have a real Madrid tapas experience. We sampled a variety of dishes while sipping on an excellent Riojas and were consistently impressed with the expert preparation and high quality of the ingredients. One of the simplest, and most often disappointing, of the standard tapas fare is the patatas bravas — large chunks of fried potatoes accompanied by pimento aoli. It’s a true test of a tapas bar’s merit if they can prepare this dish well and the Taberna Alhambra did not disappoint. It doesn’t get much less complicated than a tomato and onion salad, but the olive oil dressing was divine and well pared with the vegetables to create a more flavourful dish. The tortilla española (potato omelette), another tapas staple, was the highlight and was far superior to variations we sampled around town. Taberna Alhambra is the perfect spot to try a large variety of local delicacies in a more relaxed atmosphere.

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