Three-hour lunch at El Club Allard, Madrid
It was a fabulous trip: a week in Madrid, renting an apartment off Plaza del Sol; day trips to Cordoba and Valencia; a weekend in Barcelona.
We didn't do too much planning, with two exceptions: We made lunch reservations at two Madrid two-Michelin-star restaurants.
This is the story of one of those lunches.
El Club Allard sits almost halfway between a park with a statue of Don Quixote and a park with an ancient Egyptian temple. The location may not have been deliberate, but it is somehow appropriate for a restaurant that manages to combine notes of mystery, fantasy, humor, imagination and creativity.
We had a 1:30 reservation, which for Madrid is early; for a while, we were the only people in the place.
Here's the lobby:
The dining room is modern-elegant and neutral, with just enough gold to provide warmth and richness.
At our table was a simple message:
And then one of the servers came over with a bowl of light, fluffy peanut cream, and instructions to use the card — made from rice paper — as a scoop.
So we did.
And that's when we realized that this was going to be an unusual experience.
Chef Diego Guerrero came out to talk to us. He was exactly how I want a chef to look: tousled hair, butcher's apron, Chuck Taylors, and an expression that combines enthusiasm, honesty, and fueled-on-espresso energy.
He asked which menu we'd like (there are three options: Encuentro, Seducción, and Revolución, with increasing numbers of dishes), checked for allergies, and scooted back into the kitchen. He did this with every table.
Then the sommelier came over, and we asked him to choose wines that would go with our food. Not knowing what lay ahead, this seemed a smarter strategy than guessing. The fact that he started us with a cava from the Costa Brava — and that it was really good — made us realize this was a wise idea.
And then it began. I hope you're sitting down. And not currently hungry.
First, what was described as "game truffle with foie and mushroom." Which doesn't go halfway to capturing the awesomeness. The truffle had the texture of a good chocolate version, slightly chewy and dense, but with a dark, meaty quality. The foie was chilled and shaved, so that it literally melted on the tongue.
Oh, and it looked like this:
And was served like this:
The bottom section of the bowl was filled with tomatillo smoke; lifting the bowl released the vapors and added another sensory level to the dish.
Oh, not enough for you? How about the mini Babybell, actually filled with creamy Gorgonzola?
Or the dish set up like an aromatherapy-oil candle, except that a sukiyaki broth provided the essential fragrance, and the lid was made of seaweed and topped with a perfect mouthful of halibut?
You either eat the tapa, fish, and soup separately, or allow the lid to slide into the broth.
Next was the scallop empanadilla with black garlic sauce, another lovely Asian-Spanish combination (and so freaking pretty).
At this point, we switched to wine #2, a Viognier from Toledo. No, I'd never heard of such a thing either. It was lighter than the Viogniers I'm used to, and nicer for it.
Next course: boil-in-the-bag veggies. Sort of.
These were English peas, white asparagus, and smoked salmon, all in a light, fresh broth. Were it actually possible to capture spring and serve it up boil-in-the-bag style, this is how it would be done.
Next up: bacon and egg sandwich.
Okay, not exactly.
This was huevo con pan y pancetca sobra crema ligera de patata. Which still just means "egg with bread and pancetta over a light potato cream sauce," but that still isn't in the neighborhood of describing it.
The pancetta was so thin, it was transparent. The bread was rich but light. And the egg ...
Then we moved on to the fish course. Roasted sea bass with stock made from the fish itself; the traditional white garlic soup ajo blanco, but made with black garlic; a pu-her tea broth of cinnamon and lime; and a garnish of citrus caviar, aka finger lime, an Australian rainforest fruit that's just starting to see cultivation in the US.
The combination of citrus and earthy broth and flawless fish was balanced perfectly.
And then to our meat entree: hare taco, the meat cooked so slowly, and so full of flavor; three drops of fabulous guacamole; and a "false" jalapeño, which was actually a red-dyed carrot, turned into a pepper shape.
While I'm more of a small-plate-eater in general, and I'm happy to eat a few small mouthfuls of something incredible than a full-size serving of anything, this was one dish I'd love to have had super-sized. Or at least just a heaping helping of hare.
And then to dessert. First, following our Mexican dish, a tequila shot.
The shot glass was iced fruit, the sorbet was lemon, the base was macerated strawberries. To be honest, I don't remember whether the tequila was attached to the first, second, or third of these, but it really doesn't matter.
Have I mentioned the silverware? For most of the meal, it was silver, but with dessert we switched to gold.
The next dish made me burst into, if not tears, at least soft sniffles.
The mousse was a tangy yogurt. The seaweed was bread and butter, dyed green and toasted. The mussel shell was white chocolate, delicately painted with silver powder. The coral was white chocolate with (I assume) freeze-dried strawberry.
All that was missing was a teeny tiny pineapple house.
And then we came — sadly — to the final dessert.
But of course it wouldn't really be an egg, would it?
Of course not. Chocolate shell, painstakingly painted with metal powders; a coconut custard (tembleque) "white"; and a mango "yolk."
It was a lovely example of taking something simple and making it over in a new image, playing with sensory expectations but making sure the new result had its own internal logic.
And a lovely way to end a three-hour lunch.
When we were finished, chef Guerrero came out again to ask whether we'd enjoyed it. I got a little overwhelmed, and told him, in my broken Spanish, that I was probably going to start cancer treatment again soon (what, I didn't mention?), that I would lose my tastebuds, and that the memory of this meal would support me in the darkest hours. I may have sobbed a little.
(I know, way more demonstrative than usual, but I couldn't help myself.)
Anyway, he smiled, and took both my hands in his, and I think he understood.
There are a million good places to eat in Madrid, and more than a few Michelin-starred restaurants. But if you have three hours to spare for lunch, you really, really should go to El Club Allard.
And I almost forgot to mention the final mini-fryer of olive oil and white chocolate snackettes: