Usually, two dozen or more course tasting menu marathons actually involve that many courses in succession, one after another, until you start imagining your fork to be swirling lemon macarons.
The restaurant Ramon Freixa in Madrid’s ritzy Hotel Unico in the elegant Salamanca shopping and residential neighborhood, in theory, provides you that many miniature bites while experiencing the tasting menu. You’ll have roughly the same number of tastes as at any of the world’s great tasting menu temples that Vanity Fair‘s Corby Kummer earlier this year deemed “totalitarian.” Except, each “course” at Ramon Freixa has close to four components that aren’t merely “tastes.” The entertaining English translations breaks down the tasting menu into “The Beginning” (essentially four amuse-bouches), “The Origins” (crisp wafers covered covered and “salchichón” salami, along with a fried sardine dish), “The Previous” (four more small bites at one time), then the “Courses” (4 sets of courses with 3-4 creations within each course), “Sweet Wait” (a Black Forest themed chocolate mousse and cherry number), “Dessert” (again, one course with four different plates), and then your finishing chocolate bites. This makes football game plans seem elementary.
Looking back at the sheer amount of food set before me over the course of three and a half hours this past summer, it’s startling that I felt merely content afterwards. Perhaps that’s what Madrid’s 95 degree July weather does to you. It’s good for sweating all that jamon Iberico off.
It’s a different tasting menu method than I’m used to. For better or worse organization-wise, and I’d say more for the worse since you’re more likely to let something get cold, Freixa’s kitchen yielded a tomato- centric concept and a goat dish that might hold off stiff competition at the end of December for 2013’s dish of the year. Then again, I’d have to choose between the two. That won’t be trivial.After a series of amuses hitting all the various flavor profiles (salty fried capers, fragrant crackers in thyme sprig oil, creamy gougères called “farmhouse milk bread”, a powerful Mediterranean spoonful of mussel and white garlic soup, and a conversation- stopping “Ferrero de foie” of a foie gras morsel wrapped in edible foil that looks similar to the similarly named Italian chocolate truffle), and the obligatory (don’t even think of ordering a bottle of wine yet) opening glass of Fino or Amontillado Sherry depending on how much sweetness you require in your fortified wine, ceremoniously out comes “Tomato 2013.”
Sounding more like something Heston Blumenthal or Ferran Adria might create accompanied by smells, tomato garden music, and talking robots, this really is just tomato in four different preparations with each one being far more substantial than two bites. Blumenthal might create the edible paper enclosing tomato paste with herbaceous touches held on a clothesline, or the also edible rock sharing a plate with a dozen tomato variations, and a single sardine. Another plate holds a whole tomato slice serving as the “sirloin” and a garnish of duck. All that tomato eating is fine.
It’s the riff on Kansas City barbeque sauce that should return for “Tomato 2014.” Freixa roasts tomatoes over Bourbon barrel coals, leading to something truly profound. It’s that same boozy-sweet-smoky profile behind a Manhattan, except every edge is softened by the tomato. Consider this the most enjoyable barbeque sauce (in solid form) you’ve ever eaten. Ramon Freixa must be a protege of Arthur Bryant.
Freixa’s Mediterranean touch really shows with the a deftly cooked red mullet that could do without its overpowering lemongrass and ginger aioli. Fish doesn’t want mayonnaise based sauces. In a small canoe next to the mullet came the finest “cannelloni” I’ve ever had. The maligned stuffed pasta cylinder is stained with squid ink to become black, then filled with a nutty-sweet mixture of eggplant and quinoa. Somehow, it all almost ends up tasting like dark chocolate. Brilliant, yes. Fitting with the red mullet? Absolutely not.
By now you’ve tasted at least 15 items and you’re either ready for a 10pm siesta, or at least set for dessert. Until the meat arrives. I’ve found that the meat courses tend to be more of the less remarkable when inside the Michelin star temples. Chefs seem to hit their artistic stride when working with fish or coaxing unheard of flavor out of produce. Come on, kale over venison any day, right?
Enter the goat kid. Meat-wise in Madrid, you think of the ubiquitous ham everywhere. Or the famed suckling pig at Botin, the city’s iconic restaurant, and the “oldest restaurant in the world.” You think of bull fights and hearty ox tail stews. But, goat kid?
In the U.S., goat really shines most frequently in the Mexican consommé dish “birria,” with the soft meat tucked into warm corn tortillas. Here in Madrid is a case for goat as the ultimate meat. It boasts a gaminess tamer than lamb, with all the crisp, fat, and saltiness of an exemplary suckling pig. Pardon my scientific background, but imagine if we engineered the combination of suckling pig, lamb, and pork belly. Talk about the ultimate invention for carnivores. Well, we’re talking about goat kid.
Freixa’s goat kid comes as a mini log rolled with Majorcan sausage and honey. A small potato and licorice spiral tartlet, two pea pods, and an elderflower jelly add superb contrast to the kid. Ignore the banal pasta and spicy sausage “minestrone” that is another component of the course. The focus is on this goat kid. A true masterpiece for its gentle texture, its robust character, and sheer glutinous joy.
It’s strange to call a two star Michelin restaurant in a major European capital underrated, but frankly, Ramon Freixa just might be. First of all, here is a major gastronomic restaurant still alive in the midst of Spain’s major financial crisis (simply called “The Crisis” inside the country). There aren’t the Adria brothers pyrotechnics, the glitter of being the “best restaurant in the world” (El Celler de Can Roca in Girona), the shockingly exceptional and simple grilling at Asador Etxebarri, or the complex creations of Andoni Luis Aduriz’s pioneering imagination at Mugaritz, near San Sebastian. Bloggers worldwide don’t go crazy for Freixa’s every move like for the others..
No tourists even consider Ramon Freixa when planning a blowout Spain gastronomic journey. Heck, even food personalities who live in Madrid told me to look elsewhere (DiverXo would be their stop of choice). That’s their choice.
Sometimes you don’t need the high-wire wizardry. This is gastronomic cooking of ten years ago with adaptation of today and even nodding towards tomorrow. This isn’t a science experiment.
And, Freixa’s cooking isn’t really even Spanish.
Freixa actually is Catalan, born in Barcelona. His herb and produce driven philosophy is very Mediterranean in style, much more fitting in Avignon than Madrid. In U.S. terms, this is like a chef coming from a region that fully embraces avant-garde cooking (let’s say Chicago with Alinea and Moto), cooks with a more restrained seasonal and regional focused philosophy (perhaps Portland, Oregon or San Francisco), then conquers the country’s biggest stage (New York).
It’s hard to fully explain the Catalan- Castilian (Madrid’s region) rivalry. Let’s just say, it’s not trivial for a Catalan stud to just waltz into the capital and thrive. The history runs centuries. Barcelona vs Madrid’s cooking rivalry isn’t exactly like FC Barcelona vs Real Madrid, but it stil exists. One goes for the “wow” factor. One goes for the stately, elegant reaction.
The chef left Barcelona for Madrid in 2009 and immediately gained the various local awards and Michelin starry love. Now four years after arriving in Madrid, he’s still one of the top toques in town. And that’s after expanding to Colombia of all places…a restaurant that is, not what I know you were thinking.
The Madrid flagship itself is unique. It’s strange in that it’s ordinary, like dining at Daniel or Jean-Georges in New york. Formality still lives believe it or not. The elegant room is anchored by a massive photo, not a painting. The photo is of…another hotel, the famed Westin Palace near the Prado on the busy Plaza de las Cortes. Not sure what the Hotel Unico thinks of this.
Tables haven’t forgotten about space or white tablecloths. They’re covered in crisp, thick linens. A table for four really could fit eight. Outside is a spectacular courtyard garden where you should certainly open the meal with that glass of Sherry. You’ll never realize this is a hotel restaurant. It’s a comfortable restaurant that knows its limits and doesn’t sacrifice the diners’ experience. Tables turn only once, so reserve well in advance. Diners are relaxed and take their merry time. Conversation abounds instead of screams or hushed awkwardness. One table that in New York’s West Village would squeeze four seats, had a confident women dining solo. Couples enjoyed anniversaries. One table had a young girl no more than 7 years old probably and her parents. If only dining were always this civilized.
The confident service knew what they were doing. There were no lulls, nor any rushed courses. Though there was no single head waiter, the whole team was helpful to the point of even adapting for one diner at my table to go a la carte when everyone else went the tasting menu route. Now THAT is an unheard of concession at our “totalitarian” tasting menu destinations. Wine service is spot on too, with recommendations that won’t actually break the bank. The sommelier took great pride in helping us Spanish wine novices out, without pushing the 1968 Riojas. There’s something to be said for a sommelier not up-selling you. You’ll depart receiving a copy of the day’s menu. the menu even tells you the wines you ordered and the butter’s (from Isigny!), and the olive oil’s (Boella 100% Arbequina!) origins. Now that’s not cutting corners.
What was off? Well, it was a pleasure for the chef himself to take our orders. It was less of one as we saw him in street clothes exiting off for home or the bars, complete with sneakers sporting bright orange shoelaces. When we were receiving our cheese course. Yes, a few bites weren’t stellar like that “minestrone.” The four part Cantagrullas cheese course was excessive. A frozen passion fruit as part of dessert was actually hideous.
That doesn’t speak for the other desserts. The “coffee and chocolate explosive world” really will blow your world. It’s a small raspberry pink ball, filled with a whirlwind of dark roast coffee, dark chocolate, and a fiery red pepper- chili jam. Yeah, no excitement there… A seemingly regular chocolate tartlet really is a soft cocoa biscuit filled with mojito ice. The French stalwart baba au rhum is completely re-invented with pistachio, curry, and fennel elements. No need to pick your favorite since each tasting menu includes all of them.
I left thinking how Freixa should teach bartender how to make mojitos as intensely mint heavy as his ice. And always pair that mojito with chocolate.
Most importantly from Ramon Freixa, here was a meal that got me thinking of how if we age cocktails and Imperial Stouts in Bourbon barrels, why not tomatoes? It’s not sci-fi cooking. It’s forward-thinking personal cooking. That’s the type of dish that makes Madrid embrace the Catalan prodigy and the world should know more about him as well. The man deserves more attention here across the Atlantic since he makes our beloved barbeque sauce better than we do, and it’s with roasted tomato and bourbon barrel coals, too.
Calle Claudio Coello, 67. 28001 Madrid, Spain. In the Hotel Unico
+(34) 91 781 82 62