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DESTINATION: SPAIN

Attention! Madrid Has New Appeal

Even flamenco has a different edge in this reinvigorated city, and a favorable exchange rate makes it a bargain

February 25, 2001|GARY LEE | WASHINGTON POST; Gary Lee is a travel writer for the Washington Post

MADRID — Turbot and pigs' feet are often mixed in a tasty stew in Catalonia, but Sergi Arola has taken it to a savory new level. At La Broche, his chic Madrid restaurant, the upstart chef pan-sears the fish with a touch of cilantro and wraps the pork with onion in a delicate gelatin. He then eases the two dishes like miniature sculptures onto opposite sides of a plate as big and bright as a full moon.

When the waiter brought my order of turbot con patas de puerco, I lingered over every heavenly bite and added the dish to the menu of my imaginary last supper.

Such inspired reinventions of standard Spanish fare have catapulted Arola to numero uno among Madrid's chefs in a year's time, according to Jose Carlos Capel, food critic for El Pais, the Madrid daily. They also have made a seat at the starkly minimalist La Broche the hottest meal ticket in town. On a recent night there, Madrid Mayor Jose Maria Alvarez del Manzano, his wife and some friends hunkered over the next table till 1 a.m.

"Traditional Spanish cooking is wonderful," 32-year-old Arola explained in an after-dinner conversation. "But to stay on the cutting edge, we've got to use a little spice and a lot of imagination."

That sums up nuevo Madrid too. In a week of gadding about the Spanish capital late last fall, I encountered Madrilenos, as the city's residents are known, applying that principle on almost every street I trod. Here were local jazz artists that would inspire a tip of the hat from Miles Davis, maestro of the avant-garde. Spanish designers showed off shoes that might send even Prada, master of fashion fads, running to the drawing board.

Coupled with the formidable buying power of the dollar against the Spanish peseta, this push of the new against the old has made Madrid an excellent destination. Despite recent gains made by the euro, the new currency gradually being phased in across the Continent, almost any stop in Europe is a bargain for American travelers, especially in winter. But the mix of cheap air fares and affordable ground costs has vaulted Spain to the top of the list of "get there if you can" places.

Examples: My room at the five-star Villa Real hotel, whose classy address (footsteps from the magnificent Prado museum) and refined decor would have commanded $300 in New York, went for a $125 a night, a weekend special and quite a deal. An inspired three-course lunch at the posh Cafe de Oriente, sweetened with a view of the lush Plaza de Oriente, was $9. A pair of black leather boots at Lamarca, one of the city's best-known shoe dealers, went for $75, about half of what they would have cost back home. A ride across town on the metro was 75 cents.

Beyond the bargains, the nips and tucks in Madrid's face have transformed it from one of Western Europe's most staid capitals into an urban hot spot with novel allure. Although always a prime travel destination for the incomparable collections of Diego Velazquez and other masters at the Prado, Spain's center of government and finance was slow to emerge from the shadow dictator Francisco Franco cast down every block of the city (and all of Spain) during a 36-year rule that ended with his death in 1975.

But that has long since changed. Along the Calle Echegaray, a narrow street off the Plaza de Santa Ana lined with tapas bars and nightclubs, I stumbled onto a young generation of musicians performing spirited jazz and rock renditions of flamenco, the mesmerizing performance art forged two centuries ago by Andalusian gypsies. In boutiques along such fashionable avenues as Calle Serrano and Calle Jorge Juan, Armand Basi and other top Spanish designers are combining bold colors like Seville blood orange with novel fabric blends in a bid to keep abreast of their trend-setting counterparts in Paris and Milan.

In the raucous dance clubs just north of Gran Via, the heart of Madrid's night life, disc jockeys keep the beat going to the wee hours with salsa and merengue hits from the former Spanish outposts of Cuba and the Dominican Republic, the hip music rage in these parts.

In Carlos Oyarbide, El Chaflan and other trendy new dining spots, young chefs are introducing new versions of old favorites, like gazpacho made with langoustine and scrambled eggs perfumed with sea urchin, and are gradually lifting the city's culinary standards to Parisian heights.

Besides Franco's death, locals credit Spain's membership in the European Union, which links the major countries across Europe in a federal-style system, as a driving force behind the updated look and feel of the capital city. By opening the borders for free movement between member countries, the EU has dramatically increased contacts between Europeans across the Continent.

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