Madrid Chefs Rethink the City’s Classic Cuisine

Triciclo is among a fresh crop of restaurants in the Spanish capital.

It’s Friday night at Fismuler, one of Madrid’s trendiest restaurants, and the din of conversation and laughter nearly drowns out our server’s rapid-fire descriptions of the various dishes that arrive for the table, forcing some of us to crane forward in our seats. Fismuler’s food is simply presented, but there’s quite a bit of narrative behind its preparation.

When it comes to food, Madrid has always been more conservative than Barcelona or San Sebastián. But in recent years, a crop of new restaurants in the Spanish capital began offering updated versions of local classics, and some going further by completely rewriting the Madrilenian cookbook and adding a needed dose of personality to Madrid’s contemporary dining scene.

Leading the pack is Fismuler, where we tried a meltingly tender brisket that had been brined for 10 days and then dry-rubbed with a mix powdered coffee, cumin and brown sugar before going on the grill, and a truly outstanding tortilla that oozed a creamy egg-yolk foam (it had been emulsified with Iberian pork fat) mixed with fried sea nettles from Andalusia, which taste like crunchy algae.

“I like to reflect on the variety of natural products that are available here in Spain, and on different ways to combine them,” said Nino Redruello, the restaurant’s chef and co-owner. “My goal is to come up with recipes that are both creative and familiar.”

Compared to Barcelona, a place that’s inextricably linked to the renowned Catalan chef Ferran Adrià and his scientific approach to modern cuisine, or the Basque city of San Sebastián, with its constellation of Michelin stars, Madrid has seemed amateurish, stuck somewhere between a staunch loyalty to classic recipes and a breathless attempt to replicate buzzed-about global cuisines.

As Spain began to recover from the financial crisis of 2008, dozens of new restaurants started cropping up all over Madrid. Yet many seemed to follow a similar formula, hiring fashion-forward designers to create photogenic interiors and sprinkling their menus with international crowd pleasers like fish tacos or beef carpaccio.

There have been a few standouts, such as Triciclo, known for its high-quality market ingredients and expertly cooked game meats, or Dstage, whose chef, Diego Guerrero, accrued two Michelin stars in spite of his aversion to formality (the restaurant features exposed bricks and steel pipes), but the emergence of a strong contingent of talented young chefs who have developed a distinct style is quite recent.

Unlike some of their more rigorous counterparts in northern Spain, Madrid’s rising culinary stars tend to have an informal attitude, seen in casual dining rooms and relatively unfussy plating. Their emerging style tends to balance innovation and tradition.

“We have a food lab where we create new concepts, but we also like to keep an eye on simplicity and not get bogged down by technique,” Mr. Redruello said.

Simplicity also drives the kitchen at La Tasquería, where the chef Javi Estévez has earned widespread acclaim with a locally sourced menu that reads like an ode to offal. His dining room in Salamanca is contemporary and youthful, decorated with black farmhouse chairs and industrial-style pendants, and his food often arrives atop flat stones or inside glass jars. Mr. Estévez’s signature dish doesn’t really need plating: it’s a suckling pig’s head, served whole, after being poached overnight in olive oil and deep fried. Patrons typically eat it with their hands.

“Our focus is on the ingredients and the flavors,” said Mr. Estévez, a former contestant on the Spanish version of“Top Chef.” “We kept the rest simple.”

A few blocks south, just steps from Retiro Park, is KultO, a restaurant that experiments with a fusion of Spanish, Latin American and Asian flavors, while keeping a small roster of faithfully executed classics like callos a la madrileña (tripe stew). Its cheerful décor of turquoise tiles shaped like fish scales and matching light pendants was inspired by the most prized ingredient on the menu: almadraba tuna from Southern Spain, which is caught using traditional methods dating back 3,000 years.

KultO’s chefs, Laura López and José Fuentes, are particularly imaginative when it comes to tuna, offering it skewered as a Thai-style satay, raw as a spicy tartar interspersed with creamy guacamole and crunchy fried corn, and stewed with mushrooms in a fricandó, a Catalonian specialty traditionally made with veal.

“Madrid can certainly become one of the world’s food capitals, if it isn’t already,” said Alejandro de la Rosa, a writer who chronicles the city’s latest openings in a popular blog and Instagram account called Que No Me La Den Con Queso. “There’s a restaurant boom that began a few years ago, and, especially lately, I’m seeing some really surprising places.”

Mr. Redruello, the Fismuler chef whose family has been in the restaurant business since 1930, shares that view. “There are some very cool things happening in Madrid right now,” he said. “Our traditional cuisine is being reformulated, and there’s a real commitment to quality.”

In March, Mr. Redruello and a partner opened a second Fismuler in Barcelona, a rare occurrence for a chef from Madrid and a testament to the city’s growing stature in the culinary world.

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