Madrid remains impressively distinctive. The taxi drivers have strong opinions on the restaurants they take people to. Restaurants which are empty at 1.30pm are packed at 3.30, and cigar smokers are encouraged at every turn. But radical change is afoot. The city's traditional taverns are closing even faster than the almost weekly opening of a new Asian-influenced restaurant.
In the middle of this flux, it seemed an opportune moment to visit restaurantes de producto , raw material restaurants which have been the staple of the capital's restaurant scene for decades. Their leitmotif is the best, freshest produce, served as simply as possible so that vegetables and potatoes have to be ordered separately.
Asador Fronton II, close to the Bernabeu Stadium that is home to Real Madrid football club, exudes an air of culinary confidence. A long list of first courses encompassed fish soup, Iberico ham, various lettuce salads, salt cod wrapped in red peppers and, best of all, hake cheeks sliced into small strips, then fried crispy. What followed were three of the juiciest, largest and most flavourful steaks my 21-year-old student guests had ever come across, which, despite their enforced abstinence in expectation of a free dinner, they could not finish. A dish of monkfish braised with sliced garlic and chilli showed that there was considerable delicacy as well as grilling power in the kitchen.
Pescadera Coruñesas, run by Evaristo Garcia, is the link between the fishermen of La Coruña and the best Spanish chefs but the Garca family originated in landlocked León in northern Spain. Sixty years ago, they swapped their business of transporting other people's goods for fish wholesaling, and have created their own Spanish fish-empire which includes the renowned O'Pazo restaurant.
Although I know from visiting Santiago de Compostela that fish from the north-western region of Galicia is the best in Spain, the taxi driver I asked to take me to Casa d'a Troya proceeded to give me a lecture on why it is his wife's favourite. As he would not start his engine until this discourse was over, and we were already 90 minutes late, we arrived somewhat flustered. But we were greeted with smiles. In the 35 years that the women who run this restaurant have been in business (buying their fish directly from their cousin in Santa Uxia de Ribeira near La Coruña, who sends it to them by overnight train), I am sure that they must have seen more harassed customers than us - but rarely hungrier ones.
We managed to do full justice to a plate of the most tender octopus, authentic empanadas stuffed with stewed onions and fresh cockles, a dish of the freshest lobster with diced egg and capers, a plateful of tiny, sweet queen scallops gratineed with breadcrumbs, a couple of hake steaks two inches thick, and finally a traditional Galician winter dish, lacón con grelos, a shoulder of pork cooked with turnip flowers, potatoes and chorizo. Our unanimous consensus, before we paid the bill of 204 euros for lunch with two bottles, was that should there ever be a particular award for a restaurant serving the freshest fish in the most incongruous of settings, the prosaically suburban Casa d'a Troya would win hands down.
El Club Allard is situated in the corner of one of the capital's few art deco buildings opposite the Plaza de España with its statue of Cervantes. The entrance, steps and rooms are truly impressive as is the charm of Cristina Goicolea, the maitre d' dressed in chef's whites and a bright, multi-coloured scarf. Gradually, the food is reaching the same standard. Best of all was a white soup of fresh cockles with asparagus, roasted scallops with rice thickened with cod tripe, and modern variations on classic Basque dishes involving baby squid and salt cod. Walking home at midnight, my companion said: "Twenty years ago, even at midnight these streets would be bustling. Now it is only like that on Friday and Saturday nights, just like the rest of Europe." Fortunately, Madrid's restaurantes de producto remain very distinctive.
Asador Fronton II, tel: +34 91 345 3696
Casa d'a Troya, tel: +34 91 416 4455
O'Pazo, tel: +34 91 553 2333
El Club Allard, tel: +34 91 559 0939