It took me a while to find La Tasquita, to locate exactly where I should meet my friend Kaja for dinner. When I did, it was through the strangest of circumstances. The taxi dropped me off halfway down a dark lane in the rain. Madrid in the spring brought to mind images of sexy señoritas eating Bocadillos de Calamares and playing castanets, and yet, the reality was that I had swapped a dreary London for a drearier Madrid – and not a señorita in sight.
It was so damp, hair gel ran into my eyes. I could make out a Brazilian bar, an off-licence and a sex shop
It was so damp, hair gel ran into my eyes. I could make out a Brazilian bar, an off-licence and a sex shop. This could be Margate, not Madrid. A dumpy blonde in a leather jacket and jeans moved in from the downpour and took shelter beside me beneath the bar’s awning. She then proceeded to pull down her trousers and do, something. Despite gel in my eyes, I caught some thong and a flash of jiggly flesh, like cheese wire through jamón. I turned to escape, only to discover that we were both in front of the restaurant entrance, graffiti plastered across the exterior walls. I left her to do whatever she felt the need to do and sort refuge inside.
La Tasquita is narrow and cluttered. There’s a cramped bar on the left with tiny art installations of Spanish chefs, a celebration of the country’s culinary exuberance with at least one bobblehead of the acclaimed Catalan chef and global culinary icon Ferran Adria. The right wall is bestrewn with assorted pictures, posters and pencil drawings – witty and quite mad. The dining room had a surprising constraint of six or seven tables without cloths or unnecessarily refined accoutrements. All were occupied by burbly men, clinking glasses. Kaja was the only woman. This is my first visit but her second. She tells me that she was the only female diner on that occasion, too.
So why so masculine? I don’t know the answer. This is a family restaurant with a 50-year history. The menu is primarily seasonal market produce, fit for both sexes, equal-opportunity cooking. It’s Madrilenian, for the most part. However, inspiration is taken from further afield. For instance, there’s a Russian salad (Russian, duh!) and a panna cotta (Italian) that’s superlatively brilliant. I can confidently say that it was the best panna cotta I have ever had. And a chilled glass of Bruno Paillard Premiere Cuvee (French) bubbles, which is just about the best way to begin any meal.
The cooking is simple, which is not to do it an injustice. Simple is simple to fuck up. Most chefs fuck up simple. And because sourcing is so crucial to chef Juanjo López, who took over the kitchen from his father 20 years ago, ingredients are served at the peak of their powers. Most of the dishes are centred around a single element, with no course having more than three. But it’s the pairing of these ingredients that impresses; Juanjo studying the turnout from head chef Nacho Trujillo. Theirs isn’t a modern approach or cooking chemistry like Ferran; it’s just very, very good. Yes, the food is simple but intense and rooted in the region, deeply nationalistic.
Dishes play with sweetness and bitterness and techniques that amplify the natural flavouring. A fresh, fatty eel is served with a crack of black pepper and a dab of caramelised pear that complimented the eel so well that you wondered why eel wasn’t always served with pear. Then the aforementioned Russian salad made with chunks of thick, cubed potato and mayonnaise, with some grated egg yolk and fish roe. And langostinos de sanlúcar, which showcases some of the finest Ebro Delta prawns from the Province of Tarragona in Catalonia. They’re served raw in a piquant marinade of olive oil, vinegar and onion. Just brilliant. There is none of the faux ponce or table-side theatrics, just uncomplicated, down-to-earth cooking.
Juanjo then arrives with a rectangle of foil. I’m intrigued, so lean in, close enough to smell the scarlet prawn within. He peels back the corners of the silver envelope, releasing all of the mingled aromas – the body meat and innards cooking with the joyous, fleshy head gunk. The prawn is steamed in its shell. Nothing is added. Found in the eastern Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea – both with long coastlines that flank Spain – the scarlet prawn is called carabineros here, and they are the finest you can find. I’m encouraged to pick it up and go to town, ripping and tearing and sucking, all of the slurping and tongue action that allows you to enthral in the flesh. It’s pure and honest eating. I consume everything, from the legs to the head, letting the small, dotty-black eyes explode into gooey-gritty-sea freshness.
Spain could teach the British a thing or two about crustaceans and cooking; they seem to value them more than we do and cook them much better. As an island and seafaring nation, we just haven’t taken to them like the Spanish, the French and the Belgians. Spain, in particular, has an insatiable appetite for carabineros, mussels and clams, notably in Valencia, Andalusia and along the southern coast. It’s about time that we had our own gambas à la plancha.
Then guisante lágrima, like little green snowdrops. They are a vegetable so highly prized that they have come to be known as “green caviar” and once shelled, can reach around €200 per kilogram. It’s expensive because of its unpredictable and short harvest, the intensive labour it requires, and the need to transport it quickly from the orchard to the kitchen. They’re served with shaved cèpes for added earthiness, with each tiny pearl bursting in my mouth as the sap and sugars are released. And then albondigas de solomillo de vaca, or beef tenderloin meatballs, with tiny fried potato cubes that lace and compound the mouth with olive oil and buttery muscle. Dense with meat, they’re brawny and deliciously nourishing, very good with a glass of floral Gaba do Xil Branco from Spain’s Valdeorras region, on the banks of the river Sil.
For 8-courses, €90 (around £75) is a decent return. This is the best in regional produce, raw materials treated with respect and brought alive in the kitchen, earning La Tasquita a Michelin-star. The 10-course menu at €150 (around £125) is punchier, but your reward is the best damn prawns on earth, a plate of rare and opulent “green caviar” peas and the most brilliant panna cotta outside of Piedmont. It’s all gastronomically and emotionally honest stuff, cooking that intensifies, not disguises. I can describe it, but it’s up to you to go taste it. C
La Tasquita de Enfrente, C. de la Ballesta, 6, 28004 Madrid, Spain
+34 915 32 54 49; latasquitadeenfrente.com