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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


The Bar at Marisquería Rafa: A Five Dalí POM (Persistence of Memory) Melting Watch Award Experience

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Gerry Dawes toasting with Champagne at the Bar at  Marisquería Rafa, Madrid.
Photograph by John Sconzo (Docsconz:  Musings on Food & Life)

 Gerry Dawes's Persistence of Memory* (Salvador Dalí) Melting Watch Awards.

This article on Marisquería Rafa in Madrid, is the first post in what will be a series of articles on restaurants and tapas bars from around Spain that I think, from my very personal experience, deserve Five of Five Dalí POM (Persistence of Memory) Melting Watch Award pins.  I frankly don’t give a damn about Michelin ratings, Repsol or any of the rest.  I have been traveling and eating and drinking wine all over Spain for nearly 50 years and I have been to most of the restaurants in these articles multiples times.  Yes, I am influenced by the friendly relationships I have with many of the chefs and owners of these establishments and I take into consideration the downside for those who might not be connected in some of the restaurants I am writing about.  Nonetheless, I have had repeated Five Melting Watch experiences in all the places I am going to write about.  

Rafael Andrés & María José Orbe with Gerry Dawes at the Bar at Rafa.
   Photo copyright by Harold Heckle.

Though this list of establishments receiving my highest rating does not include all the eating experiences I plan to include in this series, among these establishments are the following:

1.    Extebarri in the Basque Country has refined grilling a magical art form, so almost ever dish you get is something special.

2.    Elkano and Kaia in the fishing village of Getaria is the place to go for the best txangurro (spider crab scrape from the shell, put back into the shell with leeks, sherry, brandy and breadcrumbs and passed under the broiler and whole rodaballo (turbot) cooked outside over a wood fire.

3.    El Crucero, in the overlooked town of Corella, in southern Navarra, which is a vegetable region.  The creative chef, Nabor Jiménez does dishes such as sliced, fried small artichoke hearts with foie gras (have a sweet Aliaga Late Harvest muscatel with dish, since only sweet wines don’t clash with artichokes. 

4.    La Taberna del Gourmet, María José San Román’s incredible tradtional cuisine restaurant in Alicante, just a block of the palm-lined Explanada.  The best product, the best technique. Maybe the best tapas restaurant in Spain.   Gambas rojas de Denia, rice dishes, sea urchins, etc.  Whatever is fresh from the market that day.  Coverage of the remarkable GrupoGourmet culinary empire in Alicante, including her Michelin-starred Monastrell, the Tribeca beer and hamburger bar and her son-in-law’s grilled meat restaurant, La Vaquería, El Campello (Playa de San Juan de Alicante).

5.    Casa Elias, in the pueblo of Xinorlet inland in the province of Alicante, for thin-layer arroz cooked in paella pans over a grape vine cuttings fire. 

6.    D’Berto in O Grove (Pontevedra), Galicia.  Certainly among the greatest shellfish restaurants in the world. 

7.    Casa Bigote and Bar Bigote in Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Andalucía.  Exceptional seafood, friend fish, composed fish dishes and those wonderful Langostinos (prawns) de Sanlúcar, fresh off the plancha grill. 

8.    Quim de la Boquería in la Boquería market in Barcelona.  Put yourself in Quim Marquéz’s hands for a five-star dining experience on a taburete (barstool).  Plump gambas al ajillo, among the best in Spain.  Lovely ceviche de corvina with mango with Juve i Camps Pinot Noir Rosat (rosé) Cava.  Fried tiny fish, chanquetes con huevo frito, with a fried egg.  You can also go to front of the market to the legendary Pinotxo and have Xuchos, a wonderful pastry, and Calamarsets Saltats amb Fesos de Santa Pau (baby squid with tiny white Santa Pau (a village north of Barcelona on the Mediterranean.

9. Ganbara, in the old quarter of San Sebastián, has numerous varieties of mushrooms.  Have an assortment grilled, use a raw egg yolk as the sauce and you will be in mushroom heaven. 

10. Madrid, on Sunday nights most restaurants are closed, so I go to two places.  First, Marisquería Rafa, in the other side of Retiro Park in the Ibiza Metro area, where Rafa Andrés serves one of the best salpicónes, either with lobster or with shellfish in vinaigrette, one of the best ensaladillas rusas (“Russian” potato salad), wonderful jamón Ibérico and other dishes such as beberechos (cockles).    

After having some of Rafa’s dishes as appetizers, I usually go to Casa Lucio on Cava Baja in the Old Quarter of Madrid and eat setas a la plancha (plancha-grilled mushrooms with garlic, for which I request a raw egg yolk or two as a sauce, and huevos rotos con patatas (eggs “broken” over friend potatoes) and maybe a steak brought out on a sizzling platter.  Yes, Casa Lucio is getting my Five Dalí POM (Persistence of Memory) Melting Watch Award as well.  If I am in Madrid on a Sunday night, 99% of those nights I will end up at either Casa Lucio or Marisquería Rafa.   Yes, I know there are supposed to be better places for traditional Castilian food in Madrid than Lucio and Rafa and I know a lot of them, but both places are home and family to me and it would be hard to beat the overall experiences at either place. 

Marisquería Rafa
Calle de Narváez, 68
28009 Madrid, Spain
Phone: +34 915 73 10 87
 Juanjo Mateos Fornelio with mariscos at Marisquería Rafa, Madrid. 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2016.
Marisquería Rafa, which has been in business since 1958, began for me more than twenty years ago as one of those Sunday nights-in-Madrid-when-everything-else-is-closed experiences and, over the period of a decade, became a regular stop on my prowl of Madrid restaurants.  And, because Casa Rafa was reliable I booked a couple of gastronomic tour groups that I was taking around Spain into the upstairs dining room, where I could bring special wines in and talk to my fellow travellers about them over lunch or dinner.

I began to establish the relationship I have today with Rafa Andrés, who owns Rafa with his cousin Miguel Angel Andrés, who alternates between being Chef and running the front of the house.

 Gerry and Rafa having a serious discussion about some item of gastronomic importance.   Maybe I am bugging Rafa to triple the size of the small entry way bar area, which might seat a half dozen people on one side, with maybe room for three-to-four more patrons at a side bar.

Though I have been going to Rafa for more than two decades, my afición really began to ratchet up, beginning with the advent of the Madrid Fusión Gastronomic Summit in 2003, which is held in Madrid every January.   The foreign chef and press contingent always arrives on Sunday the day before the event begins, so I began to look for places where I could take visiting journalists and chefs for one of the only free nights on the town in Madrid.  Thus, Marisquería Rafa and Casa Lucio, both being open on Sunday nights, when many other restaurants are closed, became my go to places to take foreign gastronomic luminaries to experience traditional Spanish cuisine before they began the vortex of cocina de vanguardia Ferran Adrià-inspired creative fusion cuisine on Monday morning.  

 Tapas bar hopping with four great friends in Madrid, Juan Suárez, former Madrid Fusión Director Esmeralda Capel (she retired), cook-cookbook author-culinary educator Gabriela Llamas and British journalist Harold Heckle, at Marisquería Rafa, Sept. 10. 2019.

  Amercian journalists Arthur Bovino, John Sconzo and George Semler at the Bar at Rafa. 
Photo by Gerry Dawes©2015.

I began to rally groups of invitees to Madrid Fusión to these nights on the town.  Over the years they have included Chefs Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar & Grill (NYC), Michael Ginor (Hudson Valley Foie Gras), Ken Oringer (Toro, Boston), Jonathan Benno (then Chef of Per Se, NYC), Santa Fe’s Mark Miller, author Harold McGee, Ruth Reichl (then editor of Gourmet magazine), Jeffrey Steingarten (food critic of Vogue), Colman Andrews (Managing Editor, The Daily Meal and author of Catalan Cuisine), journalists Arthur Bovino, George Semler and John Sconzo (Docsconz: Musings on Food & Life). 

Several Madrid Fusión Gastronomic Summit attendees at the bar at Marisquería Rafa.  Among them Anne E. McBride of the Culinary Institute of America, John Sconzo (Docsconz) and Catalan events promoter, Santi Mas de Xaxàs, CEO and Founder of HuddleApp.  Photo by Gerry Dawes©2016.

But, the year that the Bar at Rafa legend began to kick into high gear was 2006, when the likes of Charlie Trotter, Norman Van Aken, Tetsuya Wakuda and Don Alfonso Iaccarino were all at Madrid Fusión.  That year, I arranged, along with star Spanish food journalist, Juanma Bellver, to meet them all–three of the chefs with their significant others with them–at the Bar at Rafa for some stellar shellfish tapas, a bit of bubbly and some conversation. 

  Gerry Dawes, Tetsuya Wakuda, Rochelle Smith, Livia Iaccarino, Janet Van Aken, Charlie Trotter and Norman Van Aken.  Photo by Don Alfonso Iaccarino.

Casa Rafa would be the first stop, then we were going on to Sergi Arola’s new place.  Still, between the plates of jamón Ibérico de bellota, gambas rosas, salpicón de mariscos and Champagne, we managed to run up an impressive bill.  

Norman Van Aken pulled out an American Express Platinum card and tried to pay the bill.  Charlie Trotter trumped him with TWO American Express Platinum cards, then Tetsuya Wakuda pushed them both aside and plopped down his American Express BLACK card and paid the bill. 

 Spanish journalist Juanma Bellver, the late Charlie Trotter and his great friend Chef Norman Van Aken at the bar at Marisquería Rafa.  Photo by Gerry Dawes©2006.

Over the years, with or without celebrity chefs in two–more often it is talented foreign journalists who join me on these jaunts–Casa Rafa had become one of my favorite places in Madrid.  Usually with friends, sometimes alone with my friend Rafa Andrés, drifting in and out as he fulfills his duties as maitre’d and cashier, I corner one or more of the half dozen seats at the small bar and the parade of superb quality product-driven begins.

The All-Star Food Gallery at Casa Rafa
(All photos copyright 2017 by Gerry Dawes;

 Rafa Andrés, who owns Rafa with his cousin Miguel Angel Andrés Poyo, alternates between being Chef and running the front of the house.  Miguel Angel with a plate of gambas rebozadas with romesco sauce (deep-fried, tempura-like battered shrimp).

 Rafa Andrés at the bar with his prized salpicón de bogavante, lobster melange in vinaigrette.

 Rafa's salpicón de bogavante, lobster melange in vinaigrette.

Employee at Rafa shows off a huge centollo, spider crab.

Ham cutter at Casa Rafa slicing a jamón Ibérico de bellota (ham from acorn-grazed pigs) from Joselito in Guijuelo, Salamanca.

Plate of Jamón Ibérico de bellota (ham from acorn-grazed pigs) from Joselito in Guijuelo, Salamanca at Casa Rafa.

 My long-time friend Gabriella Llamas at a table on the sidewalk terrace at Casa Rafa having the house ensaladilla Rusa (Russian potato salad with ventresca de bonito, bonito belly tuna), which has been proclaimed one of the ten best ensaladillas in Spain. 

 Zamburiñas (small scallops with their coral, the delcious orange part that is always stripped away in America), tapas bar hopping with four great friends in Madrid, Juan Suárez, former Madrid Fusión Director Esmeralda Capel (she retired), Gabriela Llamas and British journalist Harold Heckle, at Marisquería Rafa, Sept. 10. 2019.

Almejas a la marinera, superb clams in a light sauce, at Marisquería Rafa.

 Boquerones en vinagre, fresh anchovies dressed in vinegar and oil at Marisquería Rafa.

 Percebes, prized Galicia goose barnacles, that taste of the essence of the sea, at Marisquería Rafa.

Rafa's salpicón de langostinos, exceptional prawns in vinaigrette.

 Espardenyas, rare "Royal" sea cucumbers, from Catalunya, an expensive and prized delicacy in Spain, at Rafa.

 Angulas, baby eels caught in estuaries in northern Spain, another rare, expensive and legendary Spanish delicacy at at Marisquería Rafa.

 American journalist Arthur Bovino doing justice to his share of angulas, baby eels caught in estuaries in northern Spain, another rare, expensive and legendary Spanish delicacy at Marisquería Rafa.

  Fried salmonetes, excellent small red mullet, at Marisquería Rafa.

 Langostinos cocidos, steamed prawns, at Marisquería Rafa.

  Exquisite gambas rosas de Denia at Marisquería Rafa.

 Exquisite gambas rosas de Denia at Marisquería Rafa done on the plancha grill with sea salt.

  Exquisite gambas rosas de Denia at Marisquería Rafa done on the plancha grill with sea salt.

  A pair of exquisite gambas rosas de Denia at Marisquería Rafa done on the plancha grill and served on a brick of sea salt.

My fiancee Kay Balun with a pair of exquisite gambas rosas de Denia at Marisquería Rafa done on the plancha grill and served on a brick of sea salt.

It is not all seafood at Casa Rafa, mollejas de cordero (lamb sweetbreads), served with a bottle of Décima, a lovely Ribeira Sacra Mencía-based red wine made by my friend José Manuel Rodríguez, an artisan grape farmer-winemaker, who is the only viticulturist in Spain who is the President of his denominación de origen (Ribeira Sacra).

Chuletas de cordero, baby lamb chops with fried potatoes at Casa Rafa, also with a bottle of Décima.

My long-time friend, Juan Suárez, lives near Rafa and sometimes meets me at the bar for a glass of vino and a tapa or two.   Even though Marisquería Rafa is one of the best seafood restaurants in Madrid, it is still somewhat of a neighborhood hangout in the well-to-do barrio beyond Madrid's Retiro Park.

About Gerry Dawes

 Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià. 

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 
Pilot for a reality television series on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

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