Welcome to Buen Provecho! A gastronomic tour of Spain seen through the eyes of a citizen expatriate

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Astrid & Gastón (Madrid)

A special occasion last week called for a special meal, so after several recommendations I booked a table at Astrid & Gaston (http://astridygastonmadrid.com). This high end Peruvian restaurant now has locations in eight different countries, and its Lima flagship is currently ranked 42nd in the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. Although the menus vary from country to country, Astrid & Gaston's Madrid location manages to capture the essence of Peruvian cuisine while fusing it with flavors and aromas of other countries and continents.

After being seated by a delightful wait staff, who attended to our every need throughout the meal and answered every question I had regarding our dishes, we were served complimentary Chifles de Platano Verde (Peruvian Unripened Plantain Chips) and Palitos de Crocanti (Breadsticks with Sesame Seeds). Not only was the presentation spectacular, which can be said about every dish we ordered, but so was the taste. The Chifles were out of this world. I have had my share of plantain chips, both fresh and commercially bagged, but those served at Astrid & Gaston, which were made right there and then, didn't have an ounce of oil on them, were as crunchy as can be, not too salty and the overpowering taste of banana that you typically find in fried plantains was nothing but a trace on this occasion. The same can be said for the Palitos. The homemade Sesame-lined breadsticks sat upright in a sea of black, white and toasted seeds, and for the first time ever I tried all three in the same bite, which made for a delicious combination of flavors. It was the first sign of the Asian influence Astrid & Gaston have incorporated into their dishes.

As we noshed on our Chifles and Palitos, we were served our obligatory Pisco Sours and boy were they incredible. Astrid & Gaston add a unique touch with their homemade simple syrup, which along with Persian Lime did a relatively good job taming the stiff Pisco. Drinkers beware, these Pisco Sours pack a heavy punch but are well worth the 12 Euro price tag.

We were next brought another complimentary appetizer consisting of four different kinds of homemade breads accompanied by Uchucuta dipping sauce, made from Queso Fresco (Crumbly Fresh Cheese), Queso Tierno (Semi-Hard Fresh Cheese), Hierbas Aromaticas (Fine Herbs), Aceite (Oil) and Rocoto (Capsicum found in Central and South America.) Typically served with corn or potatoes, the Uchucuta made for a savory combination of flavors and textures with  the slightest hint of cheesy taste. From right to left, the Boniato (Caribbean Sweet Potato) bread was sweet and delicate, but the doughiest of the four. The Patata (Potato) bread was much lighter and simpler and my second favorite behind the Cebolla y Cilantro (Onion and Cilantro/Coriander) bread, which packed subtle hints of both vegetable and herb. The fourth, the Pan Tradicional (Traditional Bread Roll), was much better than your standard roll. Be sure to take it easy on the breads, however. Although small, they are very filling and almost prevented me from being able to finish my main course.

One last surprise was in store before we were brought the first of the two appetizers we ordered. Served in spoons featuring a unique curved-handle, we were each presented with a bite size portion of Quínoa con un Chipirón Salteado (Quinoa with Sautéed Baby Squid). If you have ever tasted Fideuà (Paella using thin Vermicelli-like noodles rather than rice) before, than this was an entire plate packed into one spoonful. Judging by the concentrated sea flavor, I would venture to say they had been cooked in Fumet, a fish and seafood based broth. A fine precursor to our next dish.

Cebiche (also spelled Ceviche) is a part of Peru's national heritage and typically consists of marinating and serving white fish in onion, lemon juice, Ají chili pepper and salt. But similar to Paella (mentioned in a previous entry), many different variations to Cebiche are now found, as evidenced by the Astrid & Gaston menu. We selected the Cebiche Nikkei - Atún Rojo en Leche de Tigre de Ají Panca y Sésamo, Rocoto y Piña- (Tuna Marinated in Tiger's Milk -the Peruvian term for the citrus-based marinade that cures the seafood in a Cebiche- with Peruvian Chili Pepper, Sesame, Capsicum and Pineapple). The bright red cubes of tuna were garnished with bean sprouts, julienned spring onion, ginger and peanuts and tasted ridiculously good. No bite was similar to its predecessor as each consisted of new flavors and textures. Instructed to eat the Cebiche with a spoon to savor the Leche de Tigre, the lone piece of tuna fell apart in my mouth. But when combined with a peanut, onion and/or ginger, the tangy, crunchy sensations were astonishing. I couldn't help but sip up the marinade with my spoon once it was all that was left in the dish.

I didn't expect our next dish to match up against the Cebiche Nikkei, but the Tiradito Ponzu -Salmón con Mirín, Soja, Zumo de Naranja y Sake topped with Ensaladita Crujiente de Wakame- (Salmon Slices Marinated in Mirin, Soy Sauce, Orange Juice and Sake Topped with Seaweed, Ají, Onion and Turnip) was equally as good yet completely different. Rather than being served in cubes like the tuna, the salmon was presented in square slivers that dissolved as soon as they hit my tongue. An explosion of aromas and flavors simultaneously stimulated the nostrils and taste buds. I thought the price was a little steep at 21 Euros for six small slices, but it's a lot of bang for your buck. What I also appreciated about the Tiradito Ponzu were the utensils provided to enjoy it. Although I am not a Southpaw, for some reason have always held a cutting or fish knife in my left hand, but for the first time ever, at Astrid & Gaston I found myself using an ambidextrous fish knife. Nice touch on their part.

Slightly buzzed from my Pisco Sour and with my belly more full than expected, our main dishes were brought to the table much to our delight. Rather than both ordering fish, I opted for a meat dish so we could try a little of everything. Our waiter recommended the Ternera en Tres Texturas -Carrillera Estofada al Ají Panca, Solomillo Asado, Tuétano en Tostada, Puré Batido Relleno de Cebollitas y Jugo de Eestofado al Ají- (Three Textures of Beef -Beef Cheek Braised with Peruvian Red Pepper, Roasted Tenderloin and Toasted Marrow accompanied by Potato Puree with Small Onions and Reduction of Braised Beef Cheek-), and I wasn't going to second guess him. The braised beef cheek, which was smothered in the reduction, was so tender that it literally fell apart as I went in for the first bite. Although a little on the salty side, the Ají gave it just the right kick. I noticed the tenderloin was also a tad salty, but it was perfectly cooked and topped with a not-too-pungent house Chimichurri. I had never tasted marrow before, and had I not known that it was in fact that, I would have thought I was eating a continuation of the potato it was served on top of. It was neither gelatinous nor fatty, but rather firm. Quite pleasant actually.

The other entrée selected was the Pez Mantequilla - Churrasco Marino con Chimichurri Parrillero, Quinoto de Vegetales Asados y Reducción de Parihuela (Grilled Atlantic Halibut topped with Chimichurri Sauce, served over Roasted Vegetable Quinoa Risotto and Seafood Soup Reduction). Not to be confused with Pez Mantequilla found in Japanese restaurants in Spain, which is actually Sablefish, the halibut tasted almost like swordfish. It was mild, sweet, flaky and tender, but still firm and spectacular tasting. The Quinoa risotto was cooked just right, and when eaten with the fish and reduction made for a scrumptious selection of ingredients by the chef.

Not one to usually order dessert, we figured we should at least try one of Astrid & Gaston's specialties, the Esfera de Chocolate -Derretida con Compota de Frambuesa, Helado de Lúcuma y Espuma de Crème Brulée- (Chocolate Sphere filled with Raspberry Compote, Lucuma Ice Cream and Crème Brulée Foam melted with Hot Chocolate). Lucuma is a subtropical fruit native to the Andean region of South America and commonly used to flavor ice cream in Chile and Peru. In this instance, it provided another delicate touch to the already elaborate dessert. The waiter poured the hot chocolate over the unassuming sphere, and as it melted it revealed a white ball of ice cream and the foam. The medley of hot, cold, liquid, solid, crunchiness, silkiness, fruit, chocolate and caramel was astounding. As my companion so adequately called it, the Kama Sutra of desserts.

A complimentary selection of petits fours was presented prior to receiving the bill. From left to right, Dulce de Leche biscuits, Pineapple and Chicha Morada (a very well known soft drink made of purple corn, fruits, cinnamon, cloves, sugar and lime juice) Gummies and Chocolate Bonbons, all of which were delicious. It was another small detail on top of an already heavenly meal; and one that would surely make me go back for more. Buen Provecho! rating: 5/5

Thursday, July 21, 2011

El Güero (Madrid)

Having been born in Brazil, and soon thereafter introduced to and fallen in love with Latin and South American cuisine, I was over the moon when a friend recently invited me to lunch at  a Venezuelan dive in Madrid. Prior to actually meeting for lunch, I did my due diligence and researched El Güero (http://www.elguero.es). What used to be a strictly Mexican restaurant, El Güero (a word used in Mexico to denote a person with blond or red hair or of fair complexion) began offering Venezuelan cuisine when Alicia and Antonio, a married couple who landed in the Spanish capital many years ago, took over proprietorship of the joint. I also noticed many of the dishes on the menu resembled those found in Cuban or Mexican cuisine, but I was pleased to find out that the Venezuelans added their own touch to what you might take for Ropa Vieja or Gorditas.

Rather than ordering a la carte, and because it included what I originally intended to order, I opted for the 12 Euro Menú del Día, which in most restaurants in Spain is a set menu from which you choose a drink, an appetizer, entrée and dessert.  To accompany my meal and wash things down, I selected a fresh fruit juice called Parchita, the Venezuelan word for Maracuya (Passion Fruit). Having already tried concentrated Lilikoi juice in the past, which I found delicious but brutal on the taste buds and throat, the Parchita was completely the opposite. It was neither too sweet nor too bitter, and rather than cringing as I sipped it through the straw, it put a huge smile on my face.

So did the Arepas, which are a traditional national food of Venezuela. Similar to a Mexican Gordita, an Arepa is a round cornmeal patty that is either grilled, baked or fried and then stuffed with cheese, meat, beans, veggies or fruit. On this occasion, I was able to pick two varieties and chose Queso Blanco (White Cheese) and Carne Mechada (Shredded Beef).  Both were delicious. The patty was grilled to a nice crunchy exterior and soft interior, and was much lighter than I expected. The Queso Blanco, which resembled Mozzarella in taste and texture and is actually called Queso Guayanés, was produced in Asturias (a province in Northern Spain) by a Venezuelan family according to Antonio. The Carne Mechada, meanwhile, was similar to Mexican Salpicón or Cuban Ropa Vieja but appeared to have fewer vegetables thrown into the mix. It was lightly spiced and tender as slow-cooked shredded beef should be.

To top the Arepas off, we were brought a bottle of homemade Guasacaca sauce, which is commonly served with meats and fried foods as Chimichurri is in Argentina. El Güero makes theirs by blending avocado with oil, vinegar, onion and Paprika, and boy did it add a yummy kick to the Arepas. Consider it the Venezuelan version of Guacamole.

Thinking we weren’t going to have enough food and wanting to try a little more than came with our order, we also decided to share a plate of Tostones con Queso (Fried Plantains with Cheese). The Tostones were cooked just right and had very subtle hints of banana flavor. Of course, we poured the Guasacaca sauce all over these as well and gobbled them right up.

When it came to my entrée, I opted for the Pabellón Criollo, which consisted of Carne Mechada (Shredded Beef), Judias Negras (Black Beans), Arroz Blanco (White Rice) and Tajadas Fritas de Platano Maduro (Pan Fried Unripened Green Plantain Bananas). Again, the plate looked exactly like it came out of a Cuban kitchen... Ropa Vieja, Moros y Cristianos and Platano Frito... But the taste was anything but Cuban. The Beef was the same as that used in the Arepa, which I found pleasing to begin with. The Black Beans were a little on the bland side, but put beans in front of a Brazilian and they’ll go down with no complaints. The rice was also good. It had that nice South American flavor to it, which you have to taste to know what I am referring to. I have never been a banana eater. In fact, I despise them. But I am willing to try everything on this blogging adventure I am on and I must say I didn’t leave any trace on the plate. I don’t know if it was the sweet caramelization or the firm, non-mushy texture, but the Platanos were darn good.

My two lunch mates selected the Patacón Relleno con Carne, which was like a Fried Unripened Green Plantain sandwich. The two layers of banana were filled with Carne Mechada, a homemade Tartar sauce, Pico de Gallo (Chopped Tomato and Onion) and White Cheese. What an incredible combination of flavors. And what a fun dish to eat, especially when drenched in Guasacaca sauce.

With barely any room left in our stomachs, we then had to decide what to order for dessert. I chose the home made Crepe de Cajeta, an extremely thin crepe or pancake doubled over and filled with the caramel-like milk-based sauce similar to Dulce de Leche. Many times you will find that the Cajeta is too thick or too warm, but El Güero’s was light and just runny enough to make me have to scoop every last drop off the plate with a spoon. Our other desserts included the Tarta de Tres Leches (Three Milk Cake), a sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream and topped with meringue, and Helado de Vainilla (Vanilla Ice Cream) sitting in chocolate sauce and topped with strawberry sauce. These, too, were outstanding and a great ending to an even better meal.

I left El Güero a very happy camper and would certainly go back for more of its delicious Venezuelan cuisine, but if given the choice between Brazilian Feijão, Cuban Ropa Vieja with Moros and Cristianos and Venezuelan Pabellón Criollo, I have to admit that 98% of the time I would jump at the former two first. But that's just me being partial! Buen Provecho! rating: 4/5

Monday, July 4, 2011

Arrocería Duna (Valencia)

Before heading back to Madrid from the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Valencia, my travel mates and I made a pit stop at Arrocería Duna (http://www.arroceriaduna.es/en/), located approximately 10 minutes inside the Albufera National Park. The restaurant first opened its doors in 2002 and has since developed into an almost 11,000 square foot eatery with spectacular views of white sand beach and crystal blue water. The all-white minimalist and modern motif creates a unique and special setting that was as easy on the eyes as the food was on the stomach.

We each selected an appetizer to share at the table followed by two Paellas (more on this later) as the main course. To get things started, we were brought an Ensalada Valenciana (Valencian Salad), Tellinas (Tellina clams), Calamar de Playa (Grilled Squid) and Puntillas (also known in Spanish as Chopitos, or Battered and Fried Baby Squid).

The Ensalada Valencia was spectacular. The colors of the vegetables were so vibrant that it was almost too pretty to eat. Although the Romaine was chopped a little small to the fork's content, it was slightly bitter and crunchy as it should be. All the other veggies, which included tomato, onion, corn and olives, were market fresh, and the egg, tuna and light oil and vinegar dressing provided the final touch. It was the perfect refresher course before the rest of our order poured out of the kitchen.

Tellinas came out as the second appetizer. This oval shaped bivalve mollusk is commonly found on the Iberian Peninsula coastline and resembles a standard clam but is slightly smaller. Although each shell contained the tiniest bit of meat, traces of sea water, lemon, white wine and olive oil were ever so prevalent. It didn't take us but three minutes to devour the entire platter, by which time our next plate had already appeared.

The Calamar de Playa was gorgeous. Presented as florets, the grilled squid was accompanied by a finely chopped mix of zucchini, squash and red and green peppers, all of which were topped off by a Quenelle of soft cheese. Sitting on a black plate, lightly drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkle of Maldon Sea Salt Flakes, the squid tasted every bit as good as it looked. It wasn't tough as often is the case due to overcooking and when eaten with the vegetable medley combined for a rich mix of flavors and textures.

Our final appetizer before the two stars of the show was the Puntillas. More commonly referred to as Chopitos, those served at Arrocería Duna had to be some of the best I have ever had. Many restaurants don't do a good job of cleaning these baby squid and oftentimes you will bite into a grain of sand or cartilage, neither of which is very pleasant. At Duna, the Puntillas were larger than expected but still packed delicious punch. The batter wasn't too overbearing and although fried to golden brown beauty, there was no trace of the oil they had been submerged in. There was no need to ruin the flavor or texture with the sauce that accompanied that platter. 

Hungry for more, we were eventually presented with our two Paellas. While many consider Paella the national dish of Spain, it was actually first created in Valencia. The word Paella is Valencian (similar to Catalán) for pan and traces its roots to the Latin word for pan, patella. According to Spanish writer and gastronomer Dionisio Pérez, a true Paella includes eel, snails and green beans, but because Valencia lacked such ingredients, natives turned to local products found in abundance, such as  rabbit, chicken, snails and duck. Paella has continued to develop over time and now hundreds of different varieties are served all over Spain and the world.

Although Arrocería Duna names theirs Paella, I would consider what we ordered Arroz a Banda, a thin layer of rice cooked in a Paella dish but using fish broth to cook the rice rather than water. Arroz a Banda also sees the seafood or fish eaten on the side of the rice, but for presentation purposes I believe Duna just places the seafood on top. That said, this tired but hungry rabble sat in amazement as we looked at our Paella de los Rojos and Paella de Langosta. Each dish supposedly served two people, but we could have invited a small army to lend us a hand and mouth.

Aptly named los Rojos (the Reds), the Paella de los Rojos was topped with two Carabinero (Red Shrimp/Scarlet Prawn), while the Paella de Langosta (Lobster) was topped with two lobster halves. The meat of each of the shellfish was divine and the rice of each paella outstanding, but the Paella de Langosta outdid its counterpart and was the richer of the two. Getting the rice to look and taste as good as Duna does it is a difficult assignment, but that is why it has enjoyed the success it has over the last nine years. The shades of yellow and orange jumped out at us as we first lay our eyes on the Paella, and once in the mouth, the just-passed-Al Dente rice went down like an angel upon landing. The best part, however, was the toasted rice along the edge, otherwise known as the Socarrat, and there was plenty to be had in ours. Duna sure does know what customers like, and at this rate I am sure they will continue to provide outstanding meals to seafood and rice freaks like me. Buen Provecho! rating: 5/5

Taberna Gaspar (Marbella)

Last week I headed down to Marbella for the night before a wedding in Malaga and a weekend that included the Formula 1 in Valencia. A few friends who were already there decided we should hit up a local joint named Taberna Gaspar. Judging by the clientele sitting on the terrace, it occurred to me that this was a hole in the wall that not too many outsiders knew about. Under the name of the outdoor sign reads "Lentos pero torpes," meaning  "Slow but clumsy." Although the service was a little laggard, the food was anything but clumsily made, so in that sense I am not quite sure what they are referring to. You may also notice that many of the items on the menu are fried, which is called Fritanga in Spain and quite common in the South.

The menu changes on a daily basis according to local markets and only has between 15 and 20 items to choose from, but the mainstay is the Tortilla de Patata (Spanish style omelet/Frittata), which is only prepared for dinner service and topped with Pimiento Rojo (Marinated red peppers). Tortilla comes in many different versions in Spain, but it is classically prepared with egg, potato, onion and salt. After sautéing the potatoes and onions, beaten eggs are then thrown into the pan. Once the bottom side is cooked, it is flipped upside down onto a plate and slipped back into the pan. I have never known of  anyone getting ill from eating runny, undercooked eggs in Spain, but I prefer to eat mine as well cooked as possible. Most eateries in Spain serve their Tortilla with a raw and runny inside, which was why I was so impressed to see that Gaspar served theirs cooked through almost all the way. The potatoes weren't too soggy or undercooked either and the right dash of salt brought out the flavors of every ingredient. 

We then shared a plate of Croquetas (Croquettes/Fritters),  which were home-made and fried to a beautiful golden brown crunch. Croquetas are fried potato dumplings and in Spain are typically filled with pieces of ham, as was the case at Gaspar. Similar to Tortilla, Croquetas may be undercooked or soggy, but neither was the case on this night. Ours included just the right amount of ham (two little pieces) and were served with a bright orange garlic sauce that tasted like a mix between Alioli (Aioli) and Chimichurri, which is extremely uncommon.

Next up were Salmonetes Fritos (Fried Red Mullet). The fish, which is commonly found in the Mediterranean Sea, was battered very lightly, allowing the bright pink skin to gleam through. The meat fell right of the spine and although considered a white fish had a richer taste than say Bacalao (Cod). The lettuce and tomato garnish also provided a breather from all the Fritanga prior to the last two dishes being brought to the table.

Our first red meat dish was the Entrecot (Entrecôte). The cut had been ordered medium-rare, was served exactly as requested and was just the right amount for the five of us. It was nowhere near the quality of beef served at El Capricho, but for a Taberna (Tavern) it surely did not disappoint. Served in slices, the plate also included the previously seen garlic sauce (not at all needed) and french fried potato slices/chips.

We were pretty full by the time the Albondigas (Meatballs) made it our way, but we managed to scarf them down anyway. Meatballs in Spain are made with a either a mix of beef and pork or just beef, and  fortunately Taberna Gaspar's were the latter. They were cooked just right, which for me meant that I could slice right through them with a fork. The Shiitake mushroom sauce was an unexpected and pleasant touch and the same potatoes that garnished the Entrecot were the perfect companion in terms of both taste and presentation. We washed everything down with another mug of beer and headed out for a night on the town. Buen Provecho! rating: 3.5/5

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Zen Market (Madrid)

The Chen family has enjoyed tremendous success with their design Asian restaurants in Madrid and its peripheries. Zen, Zen Central and Asia Gallery, the latter which is located in Madrid's exclusive Westin Palace Hotel, are the predecessors of the latest creation, Zen Market (http://www.zenmarket.es). With decor resembling the trendiest eateries in New York and London, Zen Market is unique in that it occupies over 2,000 square meters of Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, offers many of the more than 300 guests spectacular views of the field, has a lounge bar with a wide selection of cocktails not commonly found in Madrid and even includes 11 private boxes to be used during games.

I was accompanied by two friends during my first Zen Market experience, so rather than each ordering first and second courses we decided on one of four Menu Desgustaciones (Tasting Menus). I must say I was initially quite impressed by the prices. Two tasting menus came in at 35 Euros per person and two others at 45. Shocking when taking into account that the restaurant construction and design are rumored to have cost over 5 million Euros.

With pretty large appetites, we decided on the Menu Gastronómico (45 euros per person) plus one of the house specialties, Auténtico Pato Lacada Estilo Pekín (Roasted Peking Duck). As we looked onto a floodlit field that was hosting an event, the immaculate servers at Zen started us off with a small appetizer consisting of mixed field greens, finely sliced veggies and a cube of tempura battered salmon. I must admit that several Asian restaurants skimp on the quality of such on-the-house appetizers, but the ingredients selected by Zen complemented one another extremely well and the light use of dressing brought out each and every flavor.

As we sipped on our Pisco Sours, Whiskey Sours and Lychee Martinis (the cocktail menu is quite impressive, but the time it took to make our drinks was less than acceptable for an Asian restaurant boasting to be one of the best in Europe), the first item on our tasting menu was brought to the table. The Sopa de Miso con Almeja Japónica (Miso Soup with Japonica Clam) had the standard taste of any non-instant Miso soup you will find, but the clam that sat in the bowl provided a distinctly unique seafood bite. Had it been a business meeting, date or other important event, however, and I am sure there are plenty that take place at Zen Market, getting at the actual clam would have been difficult without proper dining etiquette instruction. I just popped mine open with my fingers and pulled it out, but there really was no need as it had very little flavor on its own.

With the soup out of the way and my friends and I on round two of drinks, the waitstaff served the next three plates on the menu: Ensalada de Frutos del Mar (Seafood Japanese Style Salad), Tartar de Atún y Tobiko Negro (Tuna Tartare with Black Tobiko) and Carpaccio de Buey (Beef Carpaccio).

The first was really nothing more than three pieces of Sashimi layed over Frisée lettuce. The one piece of shrimp, salmon and some sort of white fish were very fresh, but lacked the taste you would expect if ordered at any Japanese restaurant. The light dressing over the greens resembled that of the appetizer and I would venture to say it was the exact same. Really?

The Tuna Tartare was more to my liking although I have made a conscious effort to avoid eating Ahi (Yellowfin) due to over-fishing of the species. The fish was finely chopped, topped with black Flying Fish Roe and what appeared to be strands of saffron (I have yet to confirm the latter) and sat in what I believe was a Ponzu sauce. The presentation and combination of flavors were both fantastic, but for God's sake don't serve Tartare in a bowl, especially when you expect clientele to use chopsticks! I love Tuna Tartare and prefer it to be more compact than that of Zen's, so after picking at it for several minutes to no avail, I finally gave in to using a fork.

The third dish looked so good but was so disappointing. When I order Beef Carpaccio I expect to receive paper thin slices of bright red meat, perhaps topped with truffle oil and Parmesan. Because Zen is Asian cuisine, I knew that wouldn't be the case. But I was astonished to see their version. What we were served was a bowl containing shredded Daikon Radish and four slivers of flavorless beef Tataki; nothing resembling the slightest hint of Carpaccio. You would certainly expect better from a restaurant priding itself on being one of Madrid's new "places to see and be seen."

Fortunately for my tastebuds, the next course was my favorite of the night: Bogavante con Sal y Pimienta (Pan Fried Lobster with Salt and Pepper). Two platters each containing half a lobster tail and a claw found their way to our table and I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into them. While the presentation was a bit drab and could have used a touch here and there, the taste more than made up for it. The meat popped right out of the shell and was both firm and juicy. The taste was also extaordinary. The combination of seasoning with the searing from the pan (it looked more seared than fried) gave the lobster an almost tangy flavor. Definitely a must when ordering a la carte.

Before our last two items on the tasting menu were served, we were first shown the entire Peking Duck (as is the custom) prior to it being carved and brought back to us in a bamboo steamer basket. I am not crazy about duck to begin with, but I must admit this was pretty good. I don't know if it was the crunchy texture, the bean sauce, the green onions or the pancake, but I was pretty impressed... Until I saw how much it cost when we got the bill. I know proper Peking Duck involves hours of care, but 70 Euros is a little steep for what turned out to be nine miniature pancakes.

The last two dishes included Magret de Pato y Salsa de Ciruelas (Duck Maigret with Plum Sauce) and Arroz Frito con Marisco (Pan Fried Rice with Shellfish). The Maigret was tender as you would expect from a breast, but I prefer lean meat of any nature and this definitely was not. Although cooking it without removing the fat does add fantastic flavor, the duck would have been more appealing had it been removed prior to serving. The sauce was also satisfactory, but Zen did go a little overboard with it. As a huge rice fan, I found Zen's version with shellfish to be a nice break from what you tend to find in Spain. Here it's either white or Tres Delicias, which includes ham (so wrong in my book). Zen's had subtle hints of shellfish and veggies and was fried just right. Let's see if any other Asian restaurants here take notice.

After dessert, which consisted of a ball of Raspberry sherbet, a squeeze of crunchy lemon mousse and what resembled a slice of flan, we made our way to Zen's lounge for a nightcap. The service left much to be desired and after a lot of bickering between the bartender and what appeared to be a cook who was lending a hand, we decided to pick up and leave. All in all, Zen Market provided an impressive ambiance and a very cool setting, but if you want Chinese or Japanese food in Madrid I can think of plenty of other places where you will get much more bang for your buck. I hope to visit a couple and write about them to give you readers some other dining options. Buen Provecho! rating: 3/5