Madrid Redux Part II – Casa Lucio
Tucked in a small entry along the famous Cava Baja in old Madrid, is Casa Lucio, a legendary haunt of the rich and powerful of Madrid as well as visiting dignitaries. Add this to the list of places that former President Bill Clinton graced whilst traveling abroad attending to his stately duties. I first had the pleasure of visiting this fine establishment last year at Madrid Fusion when Gerry Dawes
, the American wine, food and travel writer, who it seems is well known to anyone who is anyone in the Spanish food and wine worlds, brought me here to indulge in some late night tapas.
Upon entering, the place appears to be a small, atmospheric and somewhat crowded tapas bar not unlike many others in this part of town. However, when one stands at the bar for a few moments and observes the practiced choreography of the men working behind the bar and then begins to sample some of the boquerones and olives, realizing that they are amongst the best examples one has ever tasted of either, it starts to become apparent that this place is not simply just another tapas bar and restaurant. A nice glass of fino doesn't hurt either.
Our party of four now all together, we are escorted into another world, through a warren of dining rooms, up the stairs to our table. A Sunday evening, the place is hopping. I am there at the invitation of my good friend Gerry Dawes, who also happens to be good friends with Lucio, his family and the staff of the restaurant. As I said, Gerry knows or is known to everyone in Spanish culinary circles. This is not a trivial point, as the likelihood of getting into this restaurant on my own on the Sunday before Madrid Fusion would likely have been slim to none.
The wait staff at Lucio have generally been there for quite some time and have experience that shows as they control the atmospheric old Madrid room with a deft and pleasant touch.
We quickly ordered and a short while later our food began to arrive. Though a bit pricey, we ordered some fresh Galician oysters on the half shell. These were massive beasts with boat like shells, each containing the essence of ocean brine along with the mineral rich bivalves. A squeeze of lemon to add a touch of acid and I slurped down the wonderful flesh, following it with the last of my sherry, which proved a good match. I normally prefer smaller oysters at home, but these were so fresh and tasty, they justified the price even in these financially questionable times.
The next dish is a Casa Lucio classic. Seemingly banal, its sheer pleasure belies its simple description and appearance. Huevos Rotos
or "broken eggs" consists of fried potatoes ("French fries" to most Americans) bathed in fried (in olive oil) and broken eggs. With runny egg yolks providing the rich and decadent sauce and the fried whites adding additional texture and flavor, it really should come as no surprise that the dish is wonderful. It is amusing though that such a homey dish should reach such a status as being a signature dish in a restaurant like this. The funny thing is, that while simple to prepare, I doubt that the full effect of this dish at this restaurant would be simple to replicate.
Earlier in the day at Los Asturianos I ate morcilla
, or pig's blood pudding, a delicious dish. This night I ate morcillo
, a boneless osso bucco or veal shank. The flavors were rich and robust, satisfying as winter fare. Interestingly, it came with a side of fried potatoes. Clearly this is
not nor should it be a modern restaurant. Though the potatoes on their
own are good, I find it amusing that they are served with so many
dishes here, much like many restaurants used to (and some still) do in the U.S. This little anachronistic touch is cute, albeit somewhat surprising to me.
Callos means tripe, The next dish, which was called callos had that as well as all sorts of other fine offal including pigs' ears and trotters. Prepared as a stew, the dish had great flavor as well as textural contrast.
It was interesting to observe the area around us as we were eating. Three Spaniards sitting at the table next to us had ordered angulas, or baby eels, and were each delivered a steaming bowl of these expensive, coveted and unfortunately endangered morsels. Often, substitutions are made like is done with surimi or imitation crab for which pollock and other fish are substituted for the real thing. In Spain, people have gone so far as to paint eyes on the fake product with squid ink to give an air of greater authenticity. If what these people ate was fake, the people who prepared them did a great job of making them look like the real thing. While Spain has wonderful artisans, I don't think that was the case here.
Lucio himself made his way up to our table as he made his rounds through the restaurant greeting his guests and embracing old friends. Of course he knew and embraced Gerry and they spoke as old friends, but he treated everyone else just as warmly, even displaying a special medal that he had received. There is something to be said about the personality of a restaurant and that personality emanating from an individual or individuals. That is often what makes a restaurant special. There is no doubt that the personality of Lucio casts a glow on his place, giving it the warmth to make people feel at home and comfortable. Make no mistake, the food is very good, but it is Lucio himself that elevates the restaurant and makes it special.
It was fitting that my first day back in Madrid, i would return to some traditional places from a year ago. It was a comfortable way to settle back into this lovely, vibrant city. I toyed with the idea of returning to Casa Botin on this trip to re-taste their cochinillo or suckling pig. Not having been there since 1974 and having a special memory from that visit, I ultimately decided not to return. I preferred, in this case, to leave that memory alone. I have heard that it is still good and their cochinillo still fine, but the restaurant could not possibly live up to the memory nor should it have to. It has simply been too long and too much is now different with both myself and Madrid.
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