Casa-Style Cooking

Madrid 522 brings tourist Spain to Belltown.

THE 30 YEARS since the death of Francisco Franco have been heady days for Spain. After 35 years of right-wing repression and censorship, the whole country seemed to boil over with creativity in the arts, politics, fashion, and, not least of all, cooking. Last year, voices dared to say that the torch of European culinary creativity had passed from France to Spain, and from Paris to Madrid, where young chefs from Spain's vastly varying provinces set up shop to display the wonders of Basque, of Catalan, of Sevillan cuisine. All right, this is Seattle, not sunny Spain, but naming your restaurant Madrid 522 still suggests high ambition, doesn't it? And there's no reason to cut such a place slack just because it's hard for a chef to equal Spanish results with American ingredients: "Joseba" de Jimènez does just fine at his Harvest Vine. Madrid 522 Tapas Bar & Restaurant—"the food-the drinks-the Passion of Spain"—is not even trying to emulate the New Spanish Cuisine in the space where Fernando's Hideaway briefly flourished. That's not to say it fails to offer an authentic Spanish experience, one that might evoke more happy memories of that Iberian vacation. Forget Madrid—think of that place on the Costa Brava where you whiled away a whole day over plate after plate of tasty tapas, washed down with gallons of sangría, soaking yourself in seductive Spanish atmosphere. The dining room, with its royal blue, gold, orange, and red walls, feels bold and grand despite its modest scale: large fixtures, big furniture, tables and windows covered in heavy linens. The Experience begins when your host greets you like a valued old customer and kicks into high gear as your waiter arrives, a one-man charm offensive, black mane tossing, black eyes flashing. At first glance, the menu is daunting; over 25 tapas plates, in price categories from $4.50 (patatas bravas, for instance: fried spuds in spicy tomato salsa) to $10.50 (paper-thin sliced serrano ham). One dining party tried the housemade sausage baked in hard apple cider ($6.50), which proved warmly spicy. Manchego croquettes (also $6.50) were equally homey: gooey and delicious, like something to curl up with on the couch to watch one's favorite telenovela. Another party wasn't so lucky with its appetizers: the albóndigas sorpresa ("meatball surprise?"—$6.50) were wholesome but stodgy, and their supposed almond-parsley sauce didn't taste much of either. Fried calamari were tasty, but their milky dipping sauce wasn't half garlicky enough to rate as an aïoli. All the tapas we tried were fairly substantial, but left us unprepared for the size of the main dishes, served on big rustic earthenware plates filled to the max. Simply prepared fresh whole trout ($16.50), boned and stuffed with serrano ham, was fabulously fatty and meaty without being aggressively oily and was baked to moist perfection. Rabbit, hunter-style ($18.50) was a big hit, tender and delicate in a ragout of mushroom, tomatoes, and shallots. Both dishes were served with delicious grilled vegetables and creamy potato-fennel cake. The price tag—$28—should have warned us not to order the grilled seafood parrillada—an enormous platter of succulent shellfish and crispy fried filets that could have fed two with ease (or three, after a round of appetizers). The rack of lamb (also $28) was more manageable, lightly flanked with roast red peppers and garlic potatoes, and cooked to the just-barely-warm-in-the-middle doneness lamb-lovers love. After all that, was it wise to order manchego ice cream ($6)? To hell with wisdom—served in a fresh-fruit compote, it demanded to be eaten down to the dry dish. We can already hear the purists pointing out that no restaurant in Spain would serve such a diverse range of regional dishes. All we can say is, "Pooh." Not many people have the leisure to eat their way around the Peninsula; in its homey, unassuming fashion, Madrid 522 provides the next best experience.

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