MADRID—Today it was off to the swank side of town, in the posh Serrano shopping district. We shot all morning in the trendy food stalls of the Mercado de la Paz, a 200-stall market with butchers, seafood stalls, fromagerias, and so on. We ate criadillas (bulls' balls) and tripe stew with the truckers and stevedores in the small café inside the market whose bar was four deep at ten in the morning. The salt cod, cured-pressed, and dried tuna roe and the incredible array of fish and shellfish in the stalls were staggering. We saw plenty of percebes, the small goose-neck barnacles that everyone loves, and hundreds of species of langosto, crab, and small rockfish. For a landlocked burg, Madrid has an insatiable appetite for seafood, one that harkens back to the days of the first two Phillips, who were both fish fanatics. Madrillenos still tell stories about the Royal Coaches perambulating from the palace to the seashores and back, their carts overflowing with fresh catch for the Royal Kitchens. And this was hundreds of years ago!
Today, the chic ladies who lunch, wealthy businessmen, the rich and famous, celebrities of all types, or just curious gastronomes fall into lunch at La Trainera, the forty-year-old grandmama of Madrid's great seafood restaurants, and the one that Francis Bacon so famously touted back in the day. We had the opportunity to roll in there about three hours before the lunch crowds packed the place and shoot in the kitchens of this remarkable eatery that is right around the corner from the Mercado (La Trainera is on Lagasca 60, Madrid Spain 28001, 91-576-8035).
The small, humble, blue and white storefront with the cute shutters is a pretty impressive statement about the restaurant all on its own. No bells, no whistles—just great food and a reputation for perfection. But the stream of famous faces and the jacketed doorman out front let you know you are in for a speical experience. All the fish and shellfish is gathered from small fishing co-ops sprinkled all over Spain, many from Galicia, the famous coastal city in the Northwest corner of the country. When you walk into the restaurant, you see the awesome iced seafood display, and many customers find that without a reservation you are only able to avail yourself of a meal at the bar, but that's not a bad thing since you can just keep pointing at what looks good in the case. Be careful: Almost all the goodies, from the oysters to the red prawns to the cigalas (langostos), buey crab, lobsters, percebes, and the like are all sold by the gram, and an over-eager diner can quickly pile up quite a bill. I had the opportunity to sit in the kitchen with the chef, where he keeps many pots of court bouillons simmering for his percebes, oysters, and crabs, and a few massive griddles for the giant prawns seared 'a la plancha' served pil-pil style, drizzled with the herb-oil-chili-garlic sauce that the Basques are renowned for. Be sure to try the rodaballo, a Spanish turbot that is griddled and served with a sherry vinegar pan sauce—it's the house specialty. The percebes (gooseneck barnacles), also known locally as dragons' feet becasue of their odd lizard-skin look, are sold in 200-gram increments and can wholesale for more than $50 a pound, so I tried my best to be respectful, but standing in the kitchen with the chef and the restaurant's septuagenarian owner (who kept hitting on our twenty-something Spanish production fixer), I joyfully tucked into a mammoth platter of the little buggers, which taste like a lobster-kissed, butter tender clam. You split the skin at the base of the barnacle where it attaches to the rocks, then using the foot like a handle, you slide the edible cylinder of flesh out from the sheathing and suck it down, then you can split apart the feathery foot and eat the small kernel of meat inside the top of the percebe . . .heaven. We went upstairs and ate Mediterranean clams on the half shell, langostos, three types of lobsters, cigalas, giant red prawns, rodaballo, buey crab, and a a flurry of desserts and cheeses. Put La Trainera on your list of places not to miss next time you are in Madrid. But bring a large wallet; had we been paying the full freight, my little snack there, albeit enough for two or three people, would have cost almost 500 euros.
We raced into our van after shooting the lunch, still reeking of shellfish, sped to Madrid's Barajas airport (the new Terminal 4 is an AMAZING piece of architecture), checked in as quickly as we could with our piles of bags of video equipment, and took off for Barcelona, one of the most exciting cities in the world. More on that city, and my visit to El Bulli, later in the week.