Walk past the concierge desk at the Hotel Occidental Miguel Angel in Madrid and make a left, then make your next left through the glass door, the one just past the shoe shine stand, and you will find yourself in La Broche, Sergei Arola's restaurant. Through this simple glass door you walk from the dark reds and polished wood of a classic old world hotel into the sleek white space of a modern fine dining restaurant.
There is something about a well-executed theme that makes you realize how thin the line is between a graceful aesthetic and disaster. La Broche has such a theme. Most things in the room are white and trapezoidal. There are sleek low white flat box-shaped furniture pieces dividing the dining room, the tables are squares draped in white linen, the chairs are white and square-backed and seated, even the windows are large white framed squares with flat, square, sheer, white, curtains. Besides flat white wood there is also some glass. The wine room is a large glass box around a rectangular column in which the wine is held.
What isn't a parrelelogram is a perfect flat circle -- the plates, two of the tables, even the flat white walls have small circles recessed in them in a rectangular pattern below knee level, as does the ceiling. It is truly captivating. If there was a single imbalance in the décor it was that, with the sun filling the flat white windows, the spotlights on the tables were turned up, creating a hot bright spot in the center of each table. This room lives at such a zenith level that you can notice things like this.
The only things not flat and white or glass in the room are the black-clad servers -- the gentlemen in suits and the ladies in pants and black leather waist jackets. The effect is somehow reminiscent of the matrix, if the matrix had been populated with an extraordinarily attentive and talented wait-staff as opposed to deadpan actors. The attentiveness of the servers is worth mentioning. I do not know what accolades La Broche has received from the local or international press (it was recommended by a friend) but I suspect it is close to but not at the top, creating a charming eagerness in the service unmatched by the comfortably-settled, awarded places I visited in the region. Try as I might, I could not empty a water glass. When Wife retired to the restroom, one server ushered her to the door back to the hotel lobby and opened it while another changed her linen. While never intrusive, not a single trick was missed or even delayed.
At some point after you pull your menu from the flat white box sitting on the table at your place, but before you order, the focus moves from aesthetic to food. Except for those moments between courses when you realize that the sculpture in a square recession in the wall is of the sacred heart, or you think “wow” that in spite of the language barrier you have a good comprehension of what you are being presented with and everything you could possibly need is provided, you concentration is absorbed with the exceptional food.
Before making a decision on the menu we were presented with a dish of impossibly thin bread crisps and three accoutrements for dipping: an aioli, salted tomatoes in their water and a very grassy olive oil, and guacamole.
Once we had committed to the Chef's Grand Tasting Menu, the bread service arrived. On a plate was a soft whole grain bread, dry white bread toasts, a pot of sweet cream butter, and three versions of a fine grain salt – pink pepper, coffee, and a Himalayan salt (white with pink specks). Part of this service included a choice of four olive oils. We went with the house olive oil (medium-bodied) and one noted as strong called Picual. I went through a step-by-step process, tasting the bread, then bread and lipid, then bread, lipid and salt. My favorite combination ended up being the strong Picual oil with the pink pepper salt.
Having opted to receive English language menus at the end of our meal we did not know what we would be eating so I asked the sommelier to provide glasses of wine. First was white, a Sauvignon Blanc-Verdeho blend by Brada from Rueda. The second was red, a Granacha-Syrah from Ribera del Duero. Both were simple, with food friendly acids, and both were good at adding a component to the dishes' flavors without getting in the way. With dessert we had a Domaine Des Baumard, Coteaux du Layon that was wonderful.
Following in bold italics are the menus headings; in italics are the descriptions from the English menu.
Selection of classical tapas to start the menu following by our spirit Arola's concept
Tapas: cornmeal-dusted baby squid, fried and served with black (squid ink) aioli; potato confit, cylinders of new potato poached in olive oil with a depression in the top holding a little green garlic and a dollop of crème fraiche; creamed mushroom shot, hot mushroom soup topped with a froth of mushroom cream; and spicy baked cod brandade with toasted pine nuts and raisins.
Crepe rice filled with roes of sturgeon calyx caviar and an olive oil frosting
A sheet of rice-paper wrapped around sturgeon caviar to form a cannelloni with micro greens and the tiniest mirepoix I've ever seen – carrot, celery and chive (playing the role of onion) – on top. The frosting was olive oil which had been poured onto a negative degree fryer and scraped off, with its shavings collected in a Chinese soup spoon, then dusted over the top of the cannelloni tableside.
Radish from Loire coated with herring "gazpacho"
A canelle of bread ice cream was topped with thinly sliced radish and baby watercress, over which a pickled herring cream was poured tableside. A decomposition of the tastes of afternoon tea sandwiches, clever for touches like a smooth frozen ingredient being the bread, and the piquantness of pickled herring being softened by cream, with the work of tearing it taken out of the equation.
Roast beef and side order of sprouts & vegetables with hints of béarnaise sauce
Roast beef, beautifully rare and sliced inconceivably thin, on roasted baby vegetables with rosemary oil-fortified pan gravy and béarnaise air. These days it is very in vogue to be over foams, airs, and the like. To people who claim to be so, I offer this dish. All the flavors, sensations and reminiscence of a decadent roast beef dinner, yet light enough to fit in the middle of a lunch as a part of progression in tasting.
Sea Urchin with algae cream, boletus powdering and a mint pea sphere
A Mediterranean sea urchin, darker and far more intensely flavored than its Pacific brethren, sat in a pool of creamed nori with a shaved mushroom giving a fleshy bite to it. Set atop all this was a bright green puree of spring peas and mint contained in an alginate pill. All together it offered the taste of a sunny day sitting on a jetty at low tide, of drying seaweed, evaporating sea water on black rocks, and light green air blowing off the shore.
From the Sea and Mountain...
Homemade gnocchi with "Thassos" olives, red prawn & "Marcona" almonds soup
Black olive gnocchi in Marcona almond soup, with seared red shrimp and breadcrumbs. The black olive gnocchi felt like marzipan and the almond soup tasted somewhat like an un-sweet version of the treat. Then there was sort of a saffrony-paprika flavor to the shrimp that permeated the whole thing, keeping it safely savory and wholly Mediterranean.
Rock mullet with broad bean "Iberian" lasagna, peas and black pudding
Seared mullet filets on top of a mixture of peas, baby favas and diced blood sausage which had been made into an "Iberian" lasagna (with thin strips of the fat from cured Iberian pigs acting as the layered pasta sheets) accompanied by a pan sauce from the fish's cooking built with lobster stock. The strips of Iberian ham fat, about an inch and a half long and an eighth of an inch wide, all but melted from the dish’s heat. They added a fascinating body, tying together a dish that played with the lighter side of textures while combing flavors rooted in the land and pulled from the sea.
Veal sweetbread with asparagus and caper cream based on a Bernard Pacaud classic
Roasted veal sweetbread sauced with demi-glace on pared, poached baby asparagus tips with a champagne caper air bridging the gap between the sweet rich earthy flavors and the light green astringent ones.
Before the dessert...
Little plate of cheese with nuts compote & P.X. syrup
A cow's milk cheese from Mallorca with almond zest, a dot of reduced Pedro Ximenez, a nut compote, and a twist of black pepper
Coconut cloud, marscapone cheese, and toffee cream
Shaved, toasted coconut dusted on coconut foam enveloping marscapone cheese set atop toffee cream, with a tiny little dusting of powdered anise seed on the rim of the plate
Chocolate scented and chili pepper olive farmhouse bread based on a "chocolate with bread" concept
Two rectangular logs of chocolate mousse with notes of capsicum studded with chocolate-covered puffs and topped with tomato sorbet and a micro-cilantro leaf
corn-chip dust in a chocolate cone, violet-flavored marshmallow, chocolate with coffee cream and raspberry, strawberry cookie, orange jelly, chocolate with nut-cream filling, lemon crunch (as if the astronaut version of lemon sorbet), white chocolate and black olive lollipop
There is no chef involved in fine dining today anywhere in the world who is not borrowing some techniques from the new school. The point at which a chef becomes a practitioner of the new cuisine, as opposed to one using the new technologies to round out and advance traditional cuisine, is to be found in the lightness of this meal. Very satisfying and pleasing to the palate, Arola's dishes presented challenging and successful reinterpretations of the expected. Rather than depending on traditional conveyances of flavor (fat), textures, temperatures and primacy are played with here providing a wonderful dining experience without being cripplingly heavy. The interest is more in stimulating your five senses, taste being primary, than in making you feel you got your money’s worth by stimulating the nerves in your belly that sense your belt.
Immediately after this meal I got in a car to drive six plus hours from Madrid to Barcelona. Rather than feeling weighted down and forced to recline and contemplate a meal of this length and range, I was stimulated and excited by it. I spent every second of the drive thinking about the components of each course, loving the bitter, the sweet, the salty, the rich, the tart, the light, the heavy, the presupposed and the realized, each presenting a new experience to be enjoyed. Even when the inspiration was a boring old roast beef with vegetables, gravy and béarnaise, in Arola’s hands it was creative, beautiful, textured and, of course what matters most, delicious to eat.