'It's my tribute to Count Negroni," explained Head Bartender Carlo as he placed the sparkling silver tray on the table in front of me. It was elegantly laden with small, subtly engraved glasses, filled to the rim with liquor, each chilled with a single, clear ball of ice. Accompanying this Negroni cocktail tasting were diminutive tapas plates; an oyster, a gilda, and a few slices of Pajarete de Cádiz cheese from Andalucía.
"Last year the Negroni was the most popular cocktail in the world," continued the bartender. As I lifted a glass to my lips and took a sip, he started to tell me a story of travels, a Count and how a cocktail was born.
I'd arrived in Madrid a few days earlier on the AVE, which had pierced through the thunderous rain and strong winds with ease. It wasn't until I was waiting for a taxi from the Puerta de Atocha train terminus that I realised just how bad the weather was. My plans for mooching around the Spanish capital's elegant streets and royal parks in springtime sunshine needed a serious rethink.
As I headed to the hotel, I passed luxury cars parked along the streets of the Salamanca district; each one covered in a shroud of dark red dust. The unprecedented Saharan calima had transformed Madrid with dust-laden, Martian-coloured skies.
Yet I wasn't disheartened; in fact, the calima was to be my inspiration. This was how I was to make my few days away less about springtime strolls and street side cafés and more about getting the inside track on the modern twist that's been given to the capital's once traditional hospitality scene.
Calima, as many of you may remember, was the name of Dani García's two-star Michelin restaurant in his hometown of Marbella.
I took this as a sign: motivation to visit the chef's latest culinary showcase, the eponymously named Dani. The restaurant is set atop the striking 19th century art nouveau Centro Canalejas, with a unique terrace that includes the intricate copper cupola that towers over the corner of Calle de Sevilla and Calle de Alcalá.
This iconic city block has been reimagined as the new Four Seasons Hotel Madrid.
The restaurant's rooftop setting, with its commanding urban views, is better suited to a day without calima, but the welcoming interior makes for a bright and colourful refuge for a long, lazy lunch.
This is where the story-telling begins. Within moments one feels embraced by the light and vivaciousness of southern Spain, fused with the contemporary sophistication of Madrid.
Extravagant terrace parasols in rich terracotta, yellow leather bar chairs and lush greenery create a vibrant scene for a meal that recounts the tale of Chef Dani García's career. Throughout the menu are notable highlights, dishes that share Dani's story, from Barbate tuna to his famous Rossini Burger. It's a fun way to try some of his 'greatest hits' without all the fuss or expense of visiting his Michelin-star restaurants.
This extravagant hotel, with its 14-metre indoor roof-top pool, and four-level spa, is one of the reasons Madrid is in the international spotlight for city breaks.
Global hotel groups like Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental and Rosewood have finally given the city the recognition it deserves with multi-million-euro investments that have transformed classic buildings into contemporary temples of luxury leisure and culinary excellence.
If you've visited Madrid for its exceptional galleries within the 'Golden Triangle of Art' (think, the distinguished Prado museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía) then you'll have more than likely passed the Ritz, Madrid.
This belle époque palace can't help but draw you in for a cocktail or afternoon tea, a reward for all those worthy art visits. Mandarin Oriental, synonymous with some of the most extraordinary hotel properties in the world, has recently breathed new life into this 110-year-old building, adding some very impressive sparkle and shine.
The elaborate and stylish restoration is said to celebrate César Ritz's pioneering spirit. Well, the truth is, it's a delight. Here three-star Michelin chef Quique Dacosta leads the culinary tales and adventures.
His eponymously named restaurant in Denia has been recognised as one of the best in Europe. He brings an avant-garde style to the Ritz that's set to surprise. If your desire is for the traditional, then the Palm Court still offers Afternoon Tea, in true English style.
The final big name to come to Madrid recently is Rosewood, which has opened its first flagship property in Spain, remodelling the remarkable Villa Magna. This hotel has long been a favourite with visitors as well as Madrileños since it opened in the seventies. Design, art and polished service are defining qualities, yet it is the dining that truly gives Rosewood Villa Magna its contemporary identity. Especially the captivating Amós Restaurante, by three-star Michelin Chef Jesús Sánchez. The story begins before you even take a bite.
Chef Sánchez had never met his grandfather Amós, but he'd heard stories of how charismatic and popular he was, as a travelling merchant, visiting the different village markets in Cantabria. His arrival was a real occasion in each village, as he would not only bring prized salt for the pig slaughter and seasonal produce from the harvest, but also he'd always carry a bag of liquorice on his cart, ready to be cut into pieces to give to the children who ran out to greet him.
It's an evocative tale, told in the opening page of the restaurant's menu. It continues, explaining how grandfather Amós was a natural entertainer, and an unforgettable storyteller who dreamed of having his own inn. That sadly was never to be, but these yarns were inspiration for his grandson, Jesus Sánchez, to open Cenador de Amós in Cantabria in 1993 and later to continue the story in Madrid.
These are just some of the reasons that Spain's capital is calling; it's the fashionable city that really deserves to be better known. If you're unlucky with the weather, don't worry. Stay cosy and immerse yourself in culinary tales and anecdotes of the city's gastronomy, from all corners of the country and beyond.
And that's how I came to toast the end of my short break, not just with a cocktail, but a full Negroni tasting at the Tarde.O bar, learning how a Florentine aristocrat with a love of gin inadvertently created the world's most popular cocktail.
It made for a city break all about food and drink brought to life with evocative tales and heart-warming stories. It was the most delicious escapism.
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