Cafe Reviews

Tapas Dancing

After days of eating sleep-inducing Thanksgiving turkey, I'm ready for a jolt to my taste buds.

And Bradley and I are absolutely starving. After spending the day fastening a new, remarkably heavy metal roof to my barn, struggling in the chill and gusting winds of a wintry Sunday, we've worked up a fierce appetite. Yet we're almost too exhausted to eat, and neither of us has the energy to decide what we want for dinner. Something filling but not heavy (no more rich gravy or buttery stuffing for the next week at least). We crave meat, but we're too worn out to tackle big entrees. Seafood perhaps. Sips of soup, bites of salad, crusty bread, cheeses, some wine -- all of it sounds good.

So we've come to Bistro Madrid to sample small and varied helpings of Spanish tapas, seeking out the flurry of spices and seasonings that spark this cuisine. According to legend, tapas were the brainstorm of King Alfonso X, who, around 1250 or so, introduced to his Castilian subjects the concept of eating meals in the form of savory appetizers. His highness is remembered by history as Alfonso the Wise, and midway through our meal of magical morsels, Bradley and I know why.

Alfonso gets the credit for discovering the joy of nibbling bits of this and that while appreciating tastes of fine wines, sherries, aperitifs or cocktails. But several different theories compete to explain why the monarch changed the way the Spanish eat. One story says he came upon the ritual under a doctor's advice to calm his stomach by eating multiple miniature repasts rather than three heavy ones per day. Another tale lauds him for realizing that alcohol is better imbibed with food. The taste of both is improved, and drinkers don't get as drunk. Another, less-charitable account suggests that Alfonso realized that keeping his workers away from a large midday meal made them less prone to a post-lunch siesta. Ends . . . means . . . I don't care how we got there, just that I have my tapas today.

And I'm pleased to find an excellent, exciting restaurant in Ahwatukee that's not a we-could-be-anywhere-in-the-Valley chain operation. Bistro Madrid is owned by Sasha and Donna Cosic, also proprietors of the charming Va Bene Italian eatery a few doors down, across bustling Chandler Boulevard.

If it seems odd that Italian restaurant owners operate an authentic Spanish shop, it's not really. The restaurant is the former Altos, one of the Valley's original, beloved tapas emporiums that closed abruptly last February. The Cosics stepped in, retaining the Ahwatukee chef and bringing over another from Altos' other (closed) location on Camelback and 44th Street. A tradition lives on, and brightly.

This is a place for profound contentment in a dark setting. The only bright note in the place, white cloths on tables and canvas window caps are painted with whimsical Spanish scenes, complete with exposed black duct ceilings and heavy carved wood furniture. Sitting at Bistro Madrid's curvy, highly polished wood bar in the near dark, life is good.

Finally, I can relax. Bradley has done such a beautiful job on the barn. With a roof installed, the horses won't wake up glistening with ice crystals anymore, and that warms my heart greatly. Sangria, meanwhile, is warming my stomach with its gentle red wine glow.

Bradley has never had Spanish food before (and I've never helped build a barn before, daring to handle a welder, wire electricity, pour concrete and fight off swarms of angry bees disrupted from a persimmon tree). But I've been willing to share his excitement over a fence stretcher, and now he's going to find out what turns me on about tapas.

We've got a bounty before us. Jamon and queso is much more than just ham and cheese, the mountain-cured meat salty and tender against manchego, a sharp, nutty sheep's milk cheese, the plate sparked with whole, tart olives. A smooth counterpart is smoked salmon pâté, laced with fresh herbs, goat cheese and capers; or firm, meaty gulf shrimp sautéed with lemon, herbs, white wine and butter. And steak "tartara" is art, paired with Bistro Madrid's fruity sangria, the finely diced tenderloin silky and splendid with sharp Spanish spices and anchovies.

I'm having some lazy fun, mildly tormenting Bradley by ordering lamb chops in fermented chile sauce. I agree, it's not the most provocative menu description, and he's not really wanting any part of it. Until the plate arrives, that is, brimming with beautiful Frenched chops, the bones thick with meat under a robust slick of chile negro, garlic, beer, spices and dots of melted cojita cheese. It's a musky deep coating, much like Mexican mole, and pretty with ribbon curls of raw beet and carrot. He gnaws the stuff clean.

Soups and salads aren't listed under tapas, but in my book of petite bites, they qualify. Bistro Madrid crafts a stunning white bean sopa, a serving that's small yet vigorous in tart opaque broth floating with spinach, tiny chunks of salty ham, celery, onion and specks of soft white cheese. I partner it with jicama and pear salad, the raw slabs of Styrofoam-crunchy vegetable contrasting elegantly with sweet soft fruit over gloriously astringent field greens, raw beet, carrot, almost buttery vinaigrette, and lots of salt and cracked black pepper.

Bistro Madrid has a full menu, too -- ravenous Bradley is drawn to superbly crafted entrees of fillet with spinach, mushrooms, garlic mashed potatoes and cabrales sauce (tangy blue cheese); and rainbow-flavored achiote-marinated pork tenderloin with cilantro pesto, saffron rice and pickled onions. Paella Valencia is always one of my favorite soul satisfiers, bringing a fragrant, garlic-rich stew of fresh seafood, vegetables, rice and Spanish saffron. Tonight, though, we choose humble chicken and are impressed with how inspired the bird is. Seared black-peppered breast is stuffed with goat cheese and mushrooms, sliced and splayed under a slick of thick roasted tomato sauce over saffron rice, carrot, zucchini, portobello and artichoke.

It's cozy and quiet in here this evening. Live salsa, flamenco and Spanish guitar keep things jumping Friday and Saturday nights, but late on a Sunday, it's just me, Bradley and a server who's passing the time watching The Simpsons at the end of the bar. It's cold outside, but deliciously warm inside the bistro, and with my stomach full of Spanish riches, I'm about as happy as I've ever been. I'm going to head home, walk out to admire my beautiful barn one last time, then crawl into my cozy bed and sleep.