The Night Before: Madrid
Start at La Venencia, obviously. “Institution” isn’t quite the right word, although it has been around for years: really, it’s foundational. People wank on about terroir, but if you don’t get what happens when a cold glass of fino meets an anchovy, or a piece of jamón, or a slice of Manchego, then you will never get the bracing, almost Puritan simplicity that runs down the spine of Spanish cuisine. So, yes, La Venencia is a sherry bar – actually, it is the best sherry bar – but it is also a rubicon: if this isn’t your speed, stick to the paella-slingers near the Plaza Mayor. If you’re game, though, you’ll want an anchovy per person – these are butterflied whole fish, not the miserly fillets you’re used to – and some of that Manchego. The potato chips are perfect – oily and salty and probably straight out of a plastic bag. Then settle up – unless you’ve bought everyone in the bar a drink, you’re talking about a fiver a head – and head on out.
Actually, can we just poke a head back round the door and acknowledge that the “Sherry – it’s not just the stuff your maiden aunt kept in dusty cupboard!” narrative is done now? We’re all adults: we’ve accepted the verb “spiralize” in under 12 months. We’re ready for vermouth, or arak, or baiju. So if Jay Rayner tries to lay that shit on you in another turgid review, you can tell him to can it (point of fact: canning is very 2016). Through the accolades lavished upon the brothers Adria and Roca, Spain has done a great job of rehabilitating its image as a vibrant, vital culinary powerhouse. Refusing to let sherry out of the prison of fuzzy 1970s nostalgia you have created for it is as fundamentally boorish as claiming all you’ll find in Iberia is paella and sangria. OK? OK! Now you can leave.
The grilled lamb’s sweetbreads at Casa Toni are probably a little overdone, and definitely a little oversalted. The oil in which the patatas were fried probably wasn’t quite hot enough, and the bravas sauce is probably a little thin. But the beer is cold and the alioli is like a punch in the throat and everyone around you is having a great time scarfing down crispy slices of aubergine and immodestly thick-cut, loamy slices of morcilla. If a bar like this existed in London, offal would be its USP: men in beards would ferry you artisanal haggis to go with your loathsome natural wine or over-hopped IPA; the name above the door would be the sort of shit pun hipsters go nuts for (Greedy Guts?), or the sort of weirdly literal, post-ironic mission statement that hipsters also go nuts for (Nose to Tail and Company). Here, though, offal is like aubergine is like olive is like steak: it is food. There are callos – tripe – on the menu; there are scrambled eggs with more of that morcilla. So sure: stay a bit longer, if you want – but don’t you have a dinner reservation?
One more to keep you going on the way. Bocaito is another place that’s been around forever – so long that the false dichotomy between “authentic” and “touristy” is about as relevant as the dichotomy between the framed photo commemorating Brad Pitt’s visit on the wall and the zero-frills food slung your way by stiff-backed white-jacketed waiters. A Larios and tonic big enough to drown in, some padron peppers, some more cheese, a Pedro Jimenez to finish. And now, dinner.
At Las Tortillas de Gabino, there’s no surprise at what you’re ordering. But what is surprising is just how good everything else is: the crisply fried croquetas, the little tangle of macerated apple that sits on top of the bombones de foie, the unadorned jar of house-made yoghurt with which you finish the meal. The omelette itself arrives in a terracotta dish with a small loaf of bread on the side. It is Spain on a plate. Has everything you have eaten this evening been Spain on a plate? Is “Spain on a plate” a meaningless description? Have you said “Spain on a plate” enough times in your head by now to render it meaningless anyway? Quizás, quizás, quizás.
You’re winding down now – or at least I am – but Madrid is only just getting started. I’ll leave you at Macera, a terrifyingly hip place where they make their own booze and which will still be heaving at three in the morning. If your resaca the next day permits, I’ll meet you for churros and a chocolate of Stygian intensity at Chocolateria San Gines – it’s a locals’ and tourists’ favourite for a reason, dummy – and maybe a quick constitutional around the remodelled, sanitised, but still-kinda-adorable Mercado de San Miguel. If not, I guess we’ll meet in Duty Free: mine’s a bottle of Carlos Primero – indescribably better value than any brandy at the same price point in France – or (if I’m lucky and they stock it) some Yzaguirre vermouth. Maybe some sherry, if they have something interesting, but it’s a bit like Guinness and Ireland – it’s never quite as good; there’s something you can’t export. For me, it’s the Madrileñan voices bouncing off the wood panels at La Venencia; a moment when someone shuts the door out into the street and the world imperceptibly slows and, for a few precious seconds, stops moving altogether.