Review: Taperia de Malasana, Madrid Spain

For those who feel threatened by the idea of ordering multiple small tapas dishes at a Spanish tapas bar in Spanish, there are other options available! I’m not going to lie, for the first few days we spent in Spain, I felt a little bit overwhelmed by the idea of trying to order food in Spanish, in a way that I hadn’t felt in France or Italy where I’m a lot more familiar with the language and the type of words that you might find on a menu.

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Luckily there are a number of restaurants around that still cater to locals who want a meal rather than multiple tapas dishes. The Taperia de Malasana located to the north of Madrid’s main shopping street Gran Via, is one example of this. They’re busy throughout the day with locals popping in for a cheeky morning drink, others staying on for lunch, yet others coming in for afternoon drinks and snacks, and those who stay well into the night with more drinks and tapas. The bar area at the front of the restaurant is definitely where all the cool kids sit, but K and I took refuge in the quieter seated restaurant space in the back, away from the smokers.

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With a lunch set menu (three options for entree, three options for mains, and dessert or coffee) that changes daily for only $10 Euro per person, it was an easy choice. The menu doesn’t come translated into English (it’s scrawled in Spanish on a blackboard), but the elderly waiter that we had knew a little bit of English and was happy to translate the different options for us.

I started with the Stuffed Tomato as my entree, which came out cold. I’m starting to learn that in many cheaper restaurants in Europe, the entree is always served cold as it allows the kitchen to manage output much easier. It’s a dish that worked surprisingly well when cold, with the sweet, almost caramel, tomato stuffed with a rice and savoury mince mix that really hit the spot.

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K had the simple Garden Salad for his entree, which comes topped with some tuna in olive oil. It was a simple salad of the most basic ingredients – lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, onions, corn and olives. What I did like about it was the fresh burst of sweetness that the few sweet corn kernels scattered through the salad offered – a nice contrast to the vinaigrette-dressed salad leaves.

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K’s main course was the Boiled Ham with Potatoes, which was liberally dressed with olive oil and paprika. While the broiled potatoes were very nice and tasty, the boiled ham really didn’t appeal to me as it had lost most of its meatiness and was relying heavily on the paprika to give it some flavour.

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My Fried Chicken Stuffed With Ham and Cheese was overly breaded, but still particularly tasty with its gooey and more-ish filling. It was on the oily side though, and would have been better paired with some roast potatoes rather than oily chips on the side.  Still, for the price we paid for the whole meal, it was quite good.

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The dessert that we each had was by far the highlight of the meal though – a little Flan with a dark caramel sauce. In fact, this meal kick-started a flan taste-testing trip that we did across Spain and Portugal – we tried the house-made flan in almost every restaurant we visited.

Overall, Taperia de Malasana is a decent little local restaurant that offers an incredibly reasonably priced set lunch menu. While the menu is not in English, those who aren’t confident in their Spanish language skills will find a lot of help in the waiters who are more than happy to help translate for you. It’s not amazing food that I would rush back for, but this type of restaurant isn’t a bad choice for travellers who want reasonably priced food in a comfortable environment.

Taperia de Malasana is located at 8 Calle Corredera Alta de San Pablo, Madrid.

Chanoy Honeymoon: Basque Country, Spain, October 2015

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

What I found particularly interesting in the two short days we spent in the Basque country was the way that the political climate contributes to the way that locals choose to interact with tourists. Where service staff at most other cities and towns we had visited were very patient with our rudimentary attempts to speak Dutch, French or Italian, the opposite was true in Bilbao. Our attempt to order in Spanish at a bakery was met with derision and impatience, with the salesperson becoming increasingly frustrated with our attempts to communicate.

This I think, is a particular reflection of the Basque pride in their cultural identity. People from Basque country are proudly Basque – they are not Spanish, Catalan or Galician. While Spanish is officially used as one of the languages in the region, the clear preference for locals is for Basque. The one bit of advice I would give other travellers planning on visiting the Basque country is to ensure that you get better service, try and learn a few basic phrases in Basque to use in shops and restaurants, rather than relying on your knowledge of Spanish.

We stopped off briefly in San Sebastien on the drive from Toulouse to Bilbao. The famous beaches of San Sebastien weren’t appealing as it was much too cold to even sit on the beach (hats off to those actually braving the surf), but it made for a particularly picturesque short break from driving. The buildings of the city itself seems to lack a bit of local character, as it feels a bit sterile in the same way as Geneva. Still, for those who are more nature-focused than ourselves, I can see why San Sebastien would appeal as a holiday destination.

The main goal for our visit to the Basque country wasn’t beaches, but a visit to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. While we’re both art and museum lovers, I have to say that I prefer the Romanticism movement of the 1800s over modern art which I can find challenging and confusing. Still, given the status of the Guggenheim as one of the premier modern art museums in the world, it would be a shame to not visit the museum given that we were sojourning in the Basque country on the drive from Toulouse to Madrid.

Disappointingly, our timing for visiting the Guggenheim was spectacularly off. Jeff Koon’s famous Puppy sculpture was undergoing its annual replanting, meaning that we couldn’t see one of the signature items of the collection. At the same time, the entire second level of the building and half of the first floor were closed to visitors as they were in-between exhibitions, preparing for a new African-themed exhibition. This meant that only half of the museum was available to us, though visitors were still charged the full admission rate, which was particularly disappointing.

What I did like was Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time work. I had seen a piece by Serra outside the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and become quite interested in his work. And needless to say, the building of the Guggenheim Bilbao itself is a drawcard, with a spectacular innovative design by Frank Gehry. The audioguide is fantastic in providing some insight from Gehry himself on the principles he used when designing the building.

I think it would be well worthwhile to spend a few extra days in the Basque country in the future – for the food alone if nothing else. While we only had the one meal out at Amarena, I think that the surprisingly satisfying meal that we had at our choice of a random restaurant is truly representative of the importance of cuisine in this particular corner of the world. No matter what café or restaurant you walk into, you’re probably guaranteed a great local meal. The fact that we didn’t get to try the traditional Basque bar dining method of pintxos (bar tapas/appetisers) is worth a second visit in itself!

Just make sure that you time your visit well so that you’re not disappointed by closed museum exhibits!

Review: Restaurant Amarena, Bilbao, Spain

Arriving late in the afternoon in Bilbao, Basque Country, K and I were stuck for ideas for dinner. Having been fully engrossed in our travels at that point through the Netherlands, Belgium and France, we hadn’t really done any research into what Spain, and more specifically the Basque Autonomous Region, offered in terms of regional dining specialities.

Walking through the Old Town, we saw groups of people out drinking at bars and eating little bar snacks, but nowhere did we actually see anyone having a full meal. It wasn’t until later after doing some research that we realised it was normal to have drinks and pintxos (like tapas) at bars until about 9pm – 10pm, at which point you move onto a restaurant to have dinner.

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My stomach doesn’t agree with those dining hours though, as it demands satisfaction from an evening meal no later than 8pm! So with some difficulty, we found a proper sit-down restaurant serving up early dinners to tourists like ourselves – Restaurant Amarena.

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We steeled ourselves for the very worst in tourist dining experiences – high prices, generic menus, bland food. The lack of locals in the restaurant all seemed to indicate that we had a less than ideal foodie evening ahead. Luckily, it proved to be the exact opposite as you’ll see later on!

Warm seasonal vegetable salad, $7.50 Euro
Warm seasonal vegetable salad, $7.50 Euro

We started by sharing the Warm Seasonal Vegetable Salad as an entree. The whole salad was lightly dressed with a tasty tangy vinaigrette and a little cucumber and tomato salsa, but the highlight was definitely the charring on the winter vegetables in the salad. Nothing quite beats smoky chargrilled eggplant and capsicum, and sweet caramelised pumpkin.

Braised veal cheeks, $9.90 Euro
Braised veal cheeks, $9.90 Euro

K ordered the Braised Veal Cheeks – and didn’t expect too much from the description on the menu given it was listed with a sub-$10 price point. He was very pleasantly surprised when this dish was set in front of him – soft, tender veal that fell apart with a single touch. Served with some roast potatoes and a strong savoury gravy, this dish was a hearty meal that really hit the spot.

Basque hake with prawns and clams, $13.50 Euro
Basque hake with prawns and clams, $13.50 Euro

I chose to have a local seafood specialty – the Basque Hake with Prawns and Clams. The most disappointing thing about this dish is that it was only served with two clams and two prawns on top, as I would have expected a little more for the price. Still, the fish was cooked beautifully, and the herbed buttery sauce was absolutely delicious, especially when sopped up with the complimentary bread.

Pantxineta, traditional Basque dessert, $5.90 Euro
Pantxineta, traditional Basque dessert, $5.90 Euro

We shared a dessert to finish our meal – Pantxineta, a traditional Basque dessert. I had no idea what it was when we ordered it, as the waiter who didn’t speak English very well simply said, “It’s a traditional cake”. What it actually is is a puff pastry tart filled with custard, topped with nuts and icing sugar. This was served on a bed of thick and rich dark chocolate sauce, and a less impressive scoop of vanilla ice-cream on the side. It was absolutely delicious in its simplicity, definitely a dessert that I’d like to try and replicate when we return to Australia!

Overall, our meal at Restaurant Amarena was an amazing start to our time in Spain/Basque Country. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of each dish presented, especially as we had walked in expecting to be gouged in a tourist trap. Further research after we left the area advised us that this level of quality is consistently maintained throughout all restaurants in the Basque Country, where food plays an integral part in local culture. A good reason to return to Bilbao?

Restaurant Amarena is located at 18 Calle Santa Maria, Bilbao, Spain.