My father has three rules:
1. Never trust a man who uses the change purse in his wallet;
2. Never trust a man who doesn’t swear;
and, most importantly for our purposes,
3. Never ever eat in a revolving restaurant.
That final rule has held me in good culinary stead (as have the first two when it comes to making friends). You see, restaurants with spectacular views (particularly ones that rotate 360 degrees every hour) tend to get very excited about their view, and rather forget about their food. And my father’s third rule can be applied to any eatery with a spectacular, quirky or original space. Which is why I was skeptical when I read about La Bodega de los Secretos, a new Madrid restaurant ensconced in the vaulted, subterranean tunnels of a seventeenth century wine cellar. Would it all be about the bodega and its secrets, and not at all about the food?
Last week, my wife and I checked it out for lunch. But before we get to the grub, let me describe the descent. It was 2:30pm on a Madrid Friday in July. Hot enough to fry an egg on your forehead. The restaurant is tucked down a Huertas backstreet, and as we descended the stair, the temperature dropped mercifully and dramatically. The interior is a ring of brick and stone tunnels used by monks centuries ago to age and store wine. Now tables fit snuggly into the lamp-lit alcoves that once housed clay vessels.
We began with a pair of bitter-sweet vermouths on ice (one white, one red, one Spanish, one Italian) and our bouches were amused with a cool, slightly sweet melon cream. The menu is happily short and the wine list happily long. We picked a bottle of Remelluri Rioja Reserva 2008, reasonably priced at €26.
And soon came the food proper. First, luscious, buttery slithers of Carpier smoked salmon and eel paired with two glasses of Rimarts Rosae cava, a pink sparkler shot through with a smokey smack. There’s smoked fish and then there’s smoked fish, and this was the latter (which is the better kind). ‘Twas a fine start.
On its heels came the steak tartare, a dish regularly so disappointing in Madrid that I’ve given up ordering it. But here the meat was rich and flavoursome, yet still light. And it was served in three mounds, one topped with anchovies, one with wasabi, one with truffle. The tang of each topping was perfectly judged, complementing, but not overpowering the excellent beef.
Roll on the mains. We ordered secreto ibérico, a juicy grilled cut from just behind the foreleg of the Iberian pig, served with nicely-balanced honey and sweet potato sauces. But it was the bull tail that had me at hello. A little like steak tartare, any food featuring the words rabo de toro is a risky prospect in Madrid (simply because it’s everywhere, and so, according to the law of restaurant averages, is usually bad). Rabo de toro should be densely flavoured and the meat should collapse at the sight of a fork. But too often it’s a tough, flavourless cock-up. Not here, no sir. This bull was as it should be – powerful, meaty but with a mashmellow-like consistency, and served in a bang-on creamy grenache and truffle mousseline sauce.
The Rioja – elegant and packed with dark fruit – was now starting to kick, and the vaulted ceiling was starting to swim.
I generally heed Giles Coren’s dictum that dessert is for fools, but work is work. So we rounded things off with vanilla ice-cream served in a tart, refreshing strawberry ‘soup’ and a slice of cheesecake that was bloody good (I’ve also given up ordering cheesecake in Madrid, so this was a pleasant surprise).
But what about the secrets? What went on within these walls? As well as a wine cellar, it’s been used variously by Napoleon’s troops when they captured Madrid in the early nineteenth century and as a bolt-hole during the Spanish civil war. Three tunnelled passages run from the bodega to other parts of the city, including one, visible from the dining room, that used to run under Calle Atocha and come up somewhere near the Reina Sofia. During recent excavations a 1920s pistol was discovered in the passageway, an artefact from the civil war when Madrid’s kilometres of underground passageways were chokka with skulduggery and intrigue. The rust-eaten revolver now hangs on the wall.
Long story short? It’s my two thumbs up for La Bodega de los Secretos. And I should add a third thumb up (one of my wife’s I presume) for our two waiters, who were both knowledgable about the food and attentive to our needs. Take your wife, take your lover, go alone with a book (a civil war thriller would pair nicely). Clearly this restaurant is proud of its unique space, but thankfully it’s not simply trading on it.