Saturday, March 14, 2009

Restaurante Viridiana - Madrid

Restaurante Viridiana is the creation of chef Abraham García, a true Renaissance man. Aside from being a successful chef, he is a film historian ("Viridiana" is also the name of a 1961 movie by Luis Buñuel, and the restaurant is decorated throughout with stills from various Buñuel movies), and a regular blogger on El Mundo. How many menus quote from James Joyce's Ulysses? Given his affinity for one of the original surrealists (a take on Buñuel that might be somewhat overplayed as a a description of his overall body of work), you might expect García's food to be way "out there," but in our couple meals there, a few years apart, I've found his technique and overall approach to be fairly traditional, though happily borrowing flavors and spices from around the globe, Latin America in particular. However, while our first dinner there a few years ago was one of those almost perfect, transcendent experiences (which surely we have come to mythicize over time), our recent visit was more hit-and-miss, though still a fine meal.

Still on American time, we showed up several minutes before 9pm and were the first to arrive at the restaurant (the host looked to still be putting on his tie), but we were graciously received and seated. It's a small, intimate place, no more than a dozen tables total, and a few more groups of diners filtered in shortly after us. Service was very friendly and helpful, though todos en español.* We were started with a couple apertivos before our orders arrived. The first was a soup of curried lentil supplemented with king crab meat - warming and nicely (not overpoweringly) spiced, though the crab was mostly lost. That was followed by an interesting salad of fresh leaves (radicchio, a beautiful and bracingly bitter red-leaf lettuce, several different brightly flavored sprouts), various pickled things (a tid-bit of herring, a pickled onion, a cube of some sort of pickled vegetable), an olive-oil soaked sun-dried tomato, a few slices of very nice chorizo, and a crescent of luscious fresh melon. Very refreshing and a nice wake-up for the appetite.

Dinner took something of a detour from there. For an app, I had a dish described as "arroz meloso con costillas de cerdo, senderuelas, y langostinos del sur," (even though they had English menus, I like using the Spanish because it reads to me like poetry - the English translations usually sound so much more pedestrian). The dish was a nice spin on a mar y montaña (surf-n-turf - interesting how that concept has its Spanish analogue), and the senderuelas - which I believe were translated on an English menu as "fairy ring mushrooms" - gave a nice flavor to the creamy, rich rice. The shrimp (not langoustines - Spanish names for many seafood items differ from here in the U.S. and I'm still sorting out the many different genres) were separately grilled and laid over the top to avoid overcooking. But the pork ribs unfortunately were chipping off little bone shards everywhere, making their way into just about every bite. Now unlike some people, I have no issue whatsoever with eating food from the bone (as my main course will attest) but this was a very unpleasant distraction.

Mrs. F meanwhile started with the dish that had made us go all goggle-eyed from our first visit - "huevos de corral sobre mousse de hongos ("boletas edulis") y trufas negras ("tuber melanosporum") (parentheticals - excluding this one - in the original, not added by me (which I note due to my own personal predeliction for parentheticals)). This is a farm-fresh fried egg, served in an iron skillet with a mushroom (specifically, porcini) mousse, topped with a generous shaving of fresh black truffles. The first time we had this dish at Viridiana, it would have easily made a list of Top 10 Things I've Eaten. Yet somehow this time it didn't quite hold up to the memory. The egg was just as delicious (why are the eggs in Spain so much better than our eggs? And why do the yolks glow with that beautiful sunset orange color?), but the mousse seemed somewhat flat, whereas last time it was light and frothy and simultaneously more redolent with mushroom flavor. And the truffle, despite the generous dusting, did little to share its magical perfume with the dish (perhaps just a result of it being later in the truffle season than our last visit and the truffles not being as fresh). Still good, just not on the same level as our memory of the dish.

For a main, I had the tuétanos de ternera, the most shockingly abundant order of marrow bones I have ever seen. There were at least 8 big fat marrow bones crowded onto the plate, with nothing else other than a pile of toasted slices of pan integral and a small salad of baby arugula and pomegranate seeds (which was unfortunately literally bathing in way too much dressing). For those of us who love marrow, this is all we need for a happy meal. The bones were roasted perfectly, the marrow pulling out of them hot and quivering but still intact, ready to be shmeared onto a toast and quickly steered to the mouth. García is clearly a big fan of the oft-neglected "fifth quarter" or offal, indeed has devoted a whole cookbook to offal recipes, "De Tripas Corazón."

Mrs. F went in another direction for a main, having the "skrei (bacalao fresco) a la parilla con mojo de chile chipotle." Skrei (I learned post-dinner through the magic of Google) is a Norwegian (not Basque, as I'd assumed) word for fresh Arctic cod, and in particular is a designation used only when it is caught in the months from January through March as the fish return to the Norwegian coast for spawning. The fish, supposedly "in its prime, full of energy and fertility" is in perfect condition for eating. Even better, it seems that because of strong Norwegian regulation, the skrei, unlike many other cod populations, is sustainably fished. I'm usually not a big fan of the flaky white fish varieties, but this was quite lushly textured and good eating. In fact, on tasting it Mrs. F and I both assumed it had been oil-poached in some manner, yet the menu's description indicates only a simple grilling. Given Chef García's fondness for offal, I'm surprised, having read how the Norwegians also treasure the liver and roe of the skrei, that these did not make their way into the dish. The sauce which accompanied was an interesting cross-cultural amalgam, somewhere between a Mexican mole and a Catalan romescu. Some soft-cooked raf tomatoes and garlic-laden slices of eggplant accompanied. We saw these sweet raf tomatoes in restaurants and markets throughout our trip, a green-and-red striped, somewhat knobby thing for which the Spaniards apparently happily pay about 3x more than a regular tomato.

We drank a 2001 C.V.N.E. Rioja Imperial Riserva with dinner, a nice elegant Rioja with just a bit of age on it and plenty of life. Really nice to be able to find a wine like that at only €62. Not sure how to appropriately factor in exchange rate, but the original retail release price on this wine was $48 US.

Instead of dessert we opted for cheeses, which brought an interesting assortment - an Idiazabal, a Torta del Casar, a Cabrales, a Marcellin, and an Epoisses. Little bowls of a sweet tomato jam and membrillo accompanied. The Torta del Casar was probably my favorite, the Marcellin still being a little too firm and the Epoisses also not quite fully ripe (though for other diners, perhaps all for the best - Epoisses is a legendarily stinky washed-rind cheese, so stinky that it is supposedly banned from public transport in its native France). Our waiter confessed to us that he hates the stuff, but "the chef loves it."

Though we overall had a fine meal, there were a couple really glaring off-notes (the bony rice, the side salad with the marrow bones swimming in dressing) that surprised me, even aside from the egg and mushroom dish not quite living up to our memory of it. An off-night? Perhaps even literally so. We were there on a Monday night, which is often "chef's night off" here in the U.S. Maybe it was true at Viridiana as well.

Restaurante Viridiana
Calle Juan de Mena 14
Madrid 28014
91 523 44 78

*Which is fine by me - Mrs. F has some conversational Spanish skills and I have a savant-like ability to read menus and recognize most food words. I understand Spanish sort of like dogs understand human speech - I hear the words I need to know. Like a dog hears "blah blah blah BONE blah blah RIDE blah blah BOWL blah blah WALK," I hear "blah blah GAMBAS blah blah JAMON blah blah HUEVOS," and understand enough to know something good is about to happen.


  1. Sounds like a helluva meal. Reading made me wish Sra Martinez wouldve had marrow bones like the ones you described in this meal.

    As for the language, I think the native tongue is all that should be used. That's one thing I can't stand about Miami. Spanish speakers expect you to cater to them when the language in the USA is English. When I backpacker thru Europe, I didn't know a lick of german, Dutch, or Czech. So, when my cousin an I would go out to eat we would literally close our eyes and point at the menu and that was what we would eat. This led to some pretty interesting discoveries and some good laughs but it was our fault for not taking the time to learn the language or at least by a translation guide. When I was in playa del carmen and costa rica earlier this year I spoke Spanish everywhere because that's what they speak in those countries. You won't catch me uttering one word of it in Miami though because do so just contributes to the problem.

  2. I lived in Madrid for ten years, and this is one of my favourite restaurants. And believe me, I tried them all. Your review reminded me of how much I used to enjoy eating there.

    I understand what you mean about the Spanish menu...English menus in Spain leave much to be desired.

    Thanks for the lovely words about such a treasured spot.