Tapa Thursdays: Yakitoro, a Chicote-run Dining Concept in Madrid

Faced with a lunchtime dilemma in Madrid, I was thrilled to get a message at the very moment my stomach rumbled from my friend Lauren, a self- and media-professed foodie and an insider in the Spanish capital chow scene (jo, she’s one of the co-founders of Madrid Food tour. When I say expert, I mean it!).

Though we were trying to find a time for a drink, I had to ask: We’re in Chueca. Where do we eat?

Lauren offered up a few choices, but we were closest to Yakitoro, Alberto Chicote’s newest restaurant. Much like Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsey, this madrileño chef is riding a wave of immense popularity after appearances on Spain’s version of Top Chef and Nightmare in the Kitchen, called Pesadilla en la Cocina.

Welp, our minds were made up on that rainy Saturday afternoon – we’d be wannabe foodies and celebrity stalkers. I came into Yakitoro with high expectations and left slightly let down, to be honest.

Let me start with the good stuff:

Concept

Yakitoro is a Japanese-Spanish fusion restaurant (with food reminiscent of Nazca in Seville). The kitchen prep area is behind a large glass wall, and you can imagine my surprise when I saw Chicote himself making the food. The first question we were asked upon sitting down was Chopsticks or a fork?

I’ve been mildly obsessed with concept restaurants since a sixth grade project where we were asked to plan a restaurant, from decor to menu to price to sustainability. Ours? OJ’s Cyber Cafe, where the 1995 trial took center stage in our menu and chalk outlines were the hallmarks. Morbid.

The tapas – an eclectic mix of vegetarian, fish and meat dishes – are then cooked over a fogón, or a large stove, in the middle of the restaurant in plain view. Polished wooden tables spiral out from the central stove, meaning patrons are grouped together, sharing a cooler in the middle with bottles of beer and chilled wine.

We were sat at a low, steel bar next to the window and filled with succulent plants. The servers wear flight suits that reminded me of the Communist theatre I went to in Harbin, China.

Food

There were easily 50 dishes on the menu, glued to wooden boards, and a small but thoughtful wine list. We chose an entire bottle of rosé to detox from copious amounts of tinto during the week and I ordered for Laura.

The sardines in tempura with a sweet chile sauce were up first. Laura was put off by having to peel them, so I dug in. Those that were cooked were exquisite, and the sweet ñora sauce was an excellent touch, though a few of the fish came undercooked.

I’m not a mushroom fan, though Laura raved about the cooked-to-perfection shiitake mushrooms with dried mackerel shavings and a garlic sauce. The smoky taste of the dried mackerel added depth and distracted me from the texture of the mushroom. The portion was rather generous, as well.

The grilled shallots – a signature dish in Catalonia – were browned on the fogón and crowned with tangy romescu sauce, were a nice break between our heavier dishes. They came speared on a brochette, thus the basis of Yakitoro’s menu.

We chose two meat dishes to finish off. The chicken in tempura was delicious, particularly with the thick and sweet Pedro Ximinez reduction for dipping.

The braised short ribs were cooked to order, glazed with a sweet sauce and a perfect ending to the meal. 

The tapas, while small, were an excellent price – from 2,50€ and up – and we ordered an entire bottle of wine and five tapas for well under 40€.

Service

I mistakenly thought that the less-than-desirable service at Yakitoro was due to it being a brand-new venue – pues no, Yakitoro has been open for business since June. When we arrived just after 3pm, the place was packed, so we got our names on a list for an hour later. 

The kitchen didn’t close midday, which is more common in Madrid than in Seville, but the restaurant wasn’t nearly as buzzing when we arrived at 4:30. We were sat right away, though it took nearly ten minutes to get a menu and another ten for our bottle of wine to be opened. Thankfully, we weren’t in a hurry and enjoyed the sobremesa on Laura’s last day in Spain.

As we left nearly 90 minutes later after a long lunch, Chicote was standing at the door and said goodbye. I fibbed a little and told him the sardines were exquisite – they would have been, had they been cooked for a minute longer. Every restaurant has its kinks to work out (haven’t you seen his show?!), so I’d be willing to try Yakitoro in the future.

Yakitoro is located on Calle Reina, 41, just steps off of Gran Vía in the Chueca neighborhood. The kitchen is open daily from 1pm until midnight, and reservation are accepted. You can check out their website for more.

Tapa Thursdays: The Bar that Never Fails to Impress, La Azotea

I had snagged Lindsay for a rare night out. She strolled into the locale she’d suggested, bright as always and pronounced something to the effect of, “This is the best place I’ve tried lately, and this place is going to be huge.”

And true it was. La Azotea – a venture owned by a Spanish-American couple – has quickly grown from a small place in the Macarena to a four-venue favorite, with a few more concepts in the pipeline.

La Azotea has yet to let me down – not in food, not in service, not in wine list, not in the fact that a few of their waiters at the Mateos Gago location now call me by name, despite only going a few times a year.

Let’s start with the food.

On my first visit, Lindsay and I went a bit crazy, ordering several raciones as if we hadn’t eaten for days. But it all sounded so good and so fresh. The bar boasts ‘alta cocina’ and it delivers, changing the menu seasonly to reflect what’s in season or what showed up at the market that morning. My picks are the cod flanks with almond sauce served on a bed of pesto or the boiled octopus over mashed potatoes.

Like many bars in the city, you’ll find the traditional dishes, though they hint international or sometimes feature a different ingredient – think mackerel lasagna. 

I’m not one to order dessert while dining out, though I’ve made a few exceptions at La Azotea. While they’re famous for their homemade orange blossom ice cream with mint and raspberry, I’ve also had mini french toasts with spiced honey ice cream.

And now that they’ve opened for breakfast at Mateos Gago, no one will judge you for eating eggs for breakfast.

Then there’s the great wine pairings.

The staff is knowledgable about grapes, seasons and how well they’ll go with whatever you’ve picked out to eat. I’d venture to guess that there are 10-15 wines available on any given day, which include rosés and cavas. 

La Azotea also stocks  more of the hard-to-find wines. Garum and Matsu, my current favorites, can always be found behind the bar.

Above all, the personalized service, to me, sets La Azotea apart. The staff takes it time to explain dishes and suggest wines or desserts, they’re attentive to top off your glass or swipe you a few extra olives. I wouldn’t consider myself a local by any means, but I am usually greeted by name.

I sometimes feel that dining out in Seville can be a bit redundant, that even places that have been staples of the food scene have taken a nosedive in service and quality. But if we measure by sevillano standards, each bar in the La Azotea restaurant group is always buzzing and full – a sign that you’ve made it in a city renowned for its multitude of tapas eateries.

If you go: La Azotea boasts three full service restaurants and one abacería. Only their Mateos Gago location is open daily, open all day and even offers breakfast. Rumor has it this could change, so check their website for details.

Are you disappointed in the tapas scene in Spain, or feel like it fails to impress you? Or is there a bar you absolutely love, every single time?

Behind Every Plate: A Day with Insiders Madrid

The more immersed I become in the Spanish gastronomic world, the more interest I have in where food comes from, who makes it (or butchers it or cures it or raises it) and the stories behind everything I consume.

I recently spent the day with Joanna, the founders of Insiders Madrid. I was jet lagged, emotionally fraught from my grandfather’s death and not really sure what day it actually was.

Given the choice between many different types of tours, I chose the follow my nose and stomach on the Gourmet Food Shop Tour on a bright June morning. We met right on Gran Vía, the juxtaposition of old Madrid and shiny new Madrid. Apart from snacking at four stops along the way, I was able to meet the owners and operators of some of the most renowned food shops in Spain’s capital. 

Joanna has traveled extensively and worked in television for years before deciding to follow her passion: to provide luxury and off-beat tours to people from around the world. Between samples of Spanish foods like ham and olive oil, we shared stories about dining and drinking in Spain. 

Our first stop in Malasaña was at Madrid’s oldest charcuterie. A photo of owner Antonio’s grandfather – the shop’s founder – hung above the door.

I had mentioned to Joanna that the Novio’s family raises livestock and produces ham, and she quipped, “What could I possibly tell you about ham that I don’t already know?”

The truth is, plenty.

Antonio explained the way that feed and climate can affect the taste of the ham, mixing in family anecdotes from nearly a century of holding down the shop in an area of town that has seen major gentrification in the last few years. Antonio’s shop sidles up to hip boutiques and art galleries that double as watering holes.

We snacked on freshly cut ham and picos and artisanal beers brewed just around the corner.

At the nearby church of San Antonio de los Alemanes, a priest gave us permission to look around in the oval-shaped chapel that has been dubbed Spain’s very own Sistene Chapel. He excused himself to tend to business down a spiral staircase as Joanna paid a small donation. After the financial crisis hit Spain, the priests at San Antonio opened a soup kitchen, called a comedor social, downstairs to serve those affected by unemployment and wage freezes. The money we paid for an entrance went right to feeding the needy.

My jet lag must have been noticeable, as Joanna suggested we go for a coffee at one of Madrid’s most prolific cafeterías, Café Comercial. The age-old, mirrored cafe was calm in the break between breakfast and lunch, but I chose a vermouth over a coffee, convinced I’d crash after so many coffees.

The establishment is run by Fernando, a young restaurateur who has been in the food service industry for two decades, and who invited me to breakfast the next morning. Joanna says the café doubles as her office – she meets clients and food providers here over a coffee or vermouth.

As we chatted over fresh orange juice and enormous toasts, Fernando pointed out the bar staff. Most had been working for Comercial for well over ten years and could speak of the evolution of a well-known establishment whose clientele de toda la vida had come and gone. Fernando told me about clients who had been around forever, eating the same dish and sitting in the same chair for ages.

Fernando is working to breathe new life into an old place by adding vermouth tastings, language exchanges and theatre performances.

Racing the clock, we sampled olive oils from beyond Andalucía before ending on a sweet note: a chocolate tasting at a renowned chocolate bar. Joanna chose six or eight different flavors, each of which had been blended with cocoa beans to form outages flavors with hints of spice, cheese and fruit. 

As we closed the tour with a quick caña after the sugar rush, we got to talking like old friends about our shared passions: food, drink and Spain.

Joanna and Seth of Insider’s Madrid graciously invited me on their Gourmet Food Shop tour, but all opinions are my own. The tour lasts approximately three hours at the cost of 65€ per head, which includes all tastings. Purchases at the stop are at your own cost.

Love Spanish food? Check out my biweekly food feature, Tapa Thursdays!

Tapa Thursdays: Nazca

We stumbled on Nazca one afternoon when our friend Scott was visiting from Madrid. I’d heard talk of the place – a Japanese and Peruvian fusion restaurant – for ages, and we quite literally stumbled there after spending a sweltering afternoon at the river catching up. Named after the Peruvian Nazca lines, the restaurant is just one of Seville’s gastro pub hotspots these days.

We arrived early enough (around 9pm) to snag a high table with bar stools in a bar that mixes industrial with international with a dash of Spanish (in the tiled floor of course). They were a bit unsteady, which made it difficult to share food once we’d ordered, but the food made up for it.  The menu is a mix of the nigiri and maki you’d expect to find at a Japanese restaurant, along with South American inspired meat dishes.

We settled on niguri topped with presa ibérica, a fresh chopped salad with chicken fingers (my life in Spain is complete!) and potato towers topped with a cherry tomato and some sort of cream sauce. Along with olives and picos, Nazca sets the table with chopsticks and Kikoman’s soy sauce.

Still hungry, we saw a waiter rush by with a hunk of meet. Hayley simply pointed and we soon had the dish at our table, which came with a deep-fried sort of croqueta, a slew of grilled and seasoned vegetables and a creamy, peppery sauce with rock salt.

Hayley says she went back the following week with her visiting parents and literally ordered everything on the menu. Don’t blame her – the food was really good and the presentation was incredible. I probably wouldn’t order the presa nigiri again, but stick to a ceviche or maki. From all accounts, the fish dishes stand out at Nazca.

Los detalles: Nazca is located on Calle Baños at number 32, just west of Plaza de la Gavidia. Open about 1:40 to 5 and 8:30 to midnight or so. They’re closed all day Tuesday and for lunch on Wednesdays. Expect to pay 12€ or more a head, particularly if you order wine.

Tapa Thursdays: Eating at a Guachinche on Tenerife

Julie’s plan had only three itinerary stops on my only full-day on Tenerife: Rental car. Teide. Guachinche :)

Eager not to ruin my own surprise, I refused to give into sneaking a peek at what this oh-so-tenerifeño dining experience was. I actually didn’t know it had anything to do with food until after we’d climbed to the peak of Teide on empty stomachs and was promised a mountain of raciones.

Zigzagging down the face of the active volcano through rollercoast roads, I actually think I heard my tripa gurgle. But the excitement in which Julie told me about these temporary, family-run restuarants blew my expectations (sorry, done on the volcano expressions and puns).

“Si esto se llama La Salú para mi madre, que descanse en paz!” 

The small restaurant’s owner, David, was showing us around the various dining rooms, all set around a humble kitchen where family members were peeling Canarian wrinkly potatoes (papas arrugás) and preparing meat at a grill. His mother, a sevillana by birth, married a Venezuelan before moving to the island. When she passed away, her family, who had always loved wine, planted a small vineyard and the guanchinche was born. The name, La Salud, is a homenage to the family matriarch.

We chose seats on the covered patio, watching the clouds roll in over Puerto Cruz. 

Guachinches began to spring up on Tenerife as humble restaurants from which small producers could sell their product. The island’s volcanic landscape lends well to producing young, fruity reds, so we ordered a half liter to begin with. The restaurants operate so long as there is wine to sell – it’s common to find guachinches closed late in the season. 

There were just five dishes on the menu, guaranteeing that everything we tried was fresh – eggs, sobresada and fries (huevos estampidos); garbanzos with a spicy tomato sofrito; chistorra sausage with fries, steak and cheese produced on the island. We ordered all but the steak and an extra half litre of the family’s fruity, fresh wine.

What I loved about the experience (aside from the price – 25€ for everything!), was the personal service we received. Everything was served hot and tasty, and we left satisfied.

Guachinches have started to pop up on nearby Gran Canaria, but the real thing is as tenerifeño as Teide itself.

If you go: La Salud is located in the town of La Orotava on the western side of the island, just east of tourist town Puerto Cruz. The address is Camino de Los Gomez, S/N. They’re typically open from 1pm until 11pm, though may be closed if the wine is depleted. You’ll need a rental car to reach many of them, or a reliable taxi service, as the guachinches tend to be set away from major cities in the north.

Have you ever been to a guachinche, or something similar? Would you eat with locals?

Tapa Thursdays: Room Art Cuisine

With the hiring of MaCuro’s head chef, ROOM Art Cuisine went from an American food bar to one of the center’s newest gastrobars only steps away from Plaza Salvador. When my friends and I used to meet in the city’s famous botellón plazas, we’d be stuck for a decent restaurant that catered to many international tastes.

I was invited in November to the Room’s soft opening, along with several other American friends and Tapas Queen Shawn Hennessey. We got a sneak peek at the revised menu, wine list and comfortable yet modern interior while waiters passed around small samples of dishes straight off the menu.

A month later, we were celebrating Mickey’s engagement and wanted to try out a new place. Most of my friends are vegetarians, so the Room has enough to keep their bellies full and Puja and I still got our meat fix with a delicately cooked presa ibérica.

It’s hard to categorize the Room’s food, as the gambit of Spanish wines can be paired with food from around the world – from Ireland to Lebanon. We tried fried cheeseballs in marinera sauce, guacamole with fried plantains, perfectly seasoned humus, a crisp salad with goat cheese and spicy papas bravas.

The service was exceptional – our waiter was quick to fill our glasses and served us two slices of cake to share to celebrate the occasion. The food was artfully prepared both times I went, and prices and portion sizes vary, depending on what you’ve ordered. We paid about 22€ a head, which included wine.

the Room is open for all meals and located at Cuesta del Rosario, 15, just across from Cuesta Sport gym on the Plaza de la Pescadería. They’re also open for happy hour and coffee. I was not compensated in any way for eating at the Room Art Cuisine, nor for this article. All opinions are my own.

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