I have been acquainted and know Rogelio Enriquez since my earliest days on eGullet. He was a leader of the then-thriving Spain and Portugal Forums, who has always been a clear source of worthwhile information on Spanish food and restaurants. When we met in person with our wives in Valencia in 2007 at Casa Montaña, we became great friends. Rogelio is a Madrileño and he and I have gotten together a number of times in Madrid over the ensuing years. One time, he and his wife came to my rescue when my scheduled overnight train from Madrid to Paris was cancelled at the last minute due to weather. That night, he and his wife assuaged my difficulties by taking me to eat the best tortilla Española that I’ve ever had. Needless to say, when getting together with Rogelio in Madrid, I generally leave the restaurant choice up to him. On this night when we would be joined by the lovely Anne Engamare McBride, he chose a small restaurant that hadn’t previously crossed my radar. La Buena Vida certainly was a promising name, but I couldn’t have guessed how apt it would turn out to be.
La Buena Vida is a small, intimate restaurant with a small bar and less than ten tables. It was started and run for the past fifteen years by Carlos Torres and Elisa Rodriguez, a husband and wife team, who combine to do almost everything at the restaurant. Torres is the chef and server. Rodriguez was not there on this particular night, but she is significantly involved in the food production and overall running of the restaurant. We arrived before Torres, who came in through the front door shortly after bearing the evening’s specials straight from his sources. Torres did not start out as a cook, but while engaged in another career, gravitated towards it, eventually, with his wife, opening this restaurant, which still has something of the comforting feel of eating at someone’s home.
There is a menu, but according to Rogelio, while it is quite good, the greatest magic here comes from the daily, seasonal specials based upon the quality product that Torres is able to procure on that day. Of course, we proceeded to work with Chef Torres to build our meal from those products.
We started with quisquillas – sweet, plump shrimp that came shell-on and seasoned. Unlike some of their larger, Spanish cousins, which are in another league entirely, these shrimp reminded me of top quality Gulf or Carolina shrimp. They were full-flavored and delicious.
Corujas are a kind of wild watercress that requires extremely pure water for growth. Here, Torres served them as a simply dressed salad with radishes and granada or pomegranate. It was a refreshing and delightful salad.
Habitas or favas are popular and excellent in Spain. These served with a slice of morcilla and pork jus were superb.
It was with the next dish that things began to get, in addition to delicious, truly interesting. Perfectly fried artichokes were paired with callos de bacalao or cod tripe. cod trip isn’t tripe in the way that we expect it from land animals (i.e. stomach). It is so called by the Spanish, because it has the texture of cooked tripe, but in reality, is the natatory organ or flotation bladder or maw of the cod.I’m not sure how much of a difference the “tripe” made to the flavor of the dish, but it didn’t detract and did add a very interesting textural element.
Brightly colored Loritos or raons or razorfish are a Mediterranean delicacy that I had never before tasted.
Torres flash fried them with their scales intact. This provided a nice light crunch to go with the delicious, sweet white flesh. Loritos are a delicate fish, but this was cooked perfectly and served with mangetouts or snowpeas.
Cerceta is a wild duck or teal that was taken in Valencia’s Albufera rice paddies. It was roasted and served simply with a light sauce. It was superb.
Patatas a la Importancia is a classic Spanish dish of battered and fried potatoes smothered in a light sauce. While there are many variations, this deliciously rich example boasted a parsley enriched sauce that was right on the money.
Woodcock or becada is a true delicacy in the world of cooking game and justly so. It is a meaty bird of deep, complex flavor. Sucking the brains from the skull is considered de rigeur. Aside from its gustatory pleasure, the inclusion of the head with its tell-tale beak confirms that this is indeed the legendary game bird for those who may not already be intimately familiar with it.
Torres had roasted the birds exquisitely, but to make sure that he put the already transcendent dish over the top, he shaved a generous amount of fresh black truffle over each of our plates.
Cheesecake is cheesecake, right? Usually, yes, but this one, so light and fluffy was outstanding! The presentation may have been ordinary, but any concerns that there might have been went out with the first bite.
Rogelio’s unique sherries ere beautiful accompaniments to an amazing meal, but this required, what else but a glass of pacharán!
There was nothing revolutionary or even evolutionary about the cooking at La Buena Vida and that is perfectly fine because the technique and savvy is absolutely rock solid. This is an ideal approach when working with such singular ingredients. Not every place needs to be nor can be an Etxebarri, where world class ingredients receive the subtle, original stamp of a certified master. This is not a knock on La Buena Vida, which has a more classical take on empirical cooking. The vast majority of the central ingredients utilized here are, for a variety of reasons, simply unavailable or exceedingly rare in the United States, especially in restaurants. Truth is, this place is a real gem. Carlos Torres’ cooking is spot on and his selection of ingredients is both interesting and of superb quality with all of it in a cozy, welcoming space that allows its diners to focus on the food, drink and one’s table fellows. This is a restaurant worthy of becoming a mainstay when I visit Madrid.