Sunday, 23 March 2014

Brunch in Madrid: Maricastaña

In January I started my mission to find a decent brunch in Madrid. A leisurely weekend brunch isn't yet a Spanish tradition, but it's one I enjoy, so decided to check out the brunch options available in the capital. I hit the right note first time with Australian-influenced Federal. Could round two match or even top Federal's offer?

I'd read good things about Maricastaña, a trendy but relaxed restaurant in Triball, the up-and-coming corner of Malasaña where barrio bars sit alongside hipster hangouts. A softly-lit, inviting-looking place, Maricastaña opens all day every day, serving breakfast, lunch (the menú del día served on weekdays looks tempting for €11.50) and dinner. And on Sundays, they also serve brunch. We arrived at 12.45 and were able to get a table for 2 in the main room upstairs (there are also 3 tables downstairs, which is nice enough but windowless). However, it seemed there were quite a few tables reserved from 1.30 onwards, so if you fancy giving their brunch a go, arrive early or call to book.

Rather than Federal's à la carte menu, Maricastaña offers two set options at €15 each, the 'French' and the 'Iberian'. This style of brunch seems much more popular in Spain, and I must admit that I prefer the freedom to choose from a wider menu, but it can often be better value to go for this approach. The problem for me (as a non-meat eater who isn't mad on eggs) is that often the set options include things I'd rather not eat. Maricastaña's 'Ibérico' menu was a definite no for me, with its ham and cheese tabla and fried or scrambled eggs with bacon alongside pan tumaca (toasted bread with tomato), a basket of bread and mini croissants and a bowl of fruit with yoghurt and cereal. Much more suitable was the 'Francés': the same fruit/yoghurt/cereal combo, a banana and chocolate crepe, a mozzarella and crema de calabaza (cream of squash) sandwich, and bread and jam. Both options are served with orange juice and a coffee of your choice.

Excuse the awful BlackBerry photo. It won't happen again.

Once my friend J and I placed our orders for one French, one Spanish brunch, it didn't take long for our coffees and juices to arrive. The juice tasted fresh, although I did spy staff pouring it from a Granini bottle. The coffee was a cut above your usual Spanish bar, though. Next came a plate resembling an artists' palette with jam and butter instead of paints, the basket of toasted breads (no mini croissants in sight), and before long we were presented with a slate each. Mine was topped with a dish of fruit, yoghurt and cereal, the crepe and the toasted sandwich, both perched atop a scattering of balsamic-dressed lettuce leaves. There was also a healthy helping of strawberry jam on the side, and a mystery red liquid in a shot glass that turned out to be a Bloody Mary chupito. Now, these set brunches do mean that you get a taste of both savoury and sweet, making them perfect for the indecisive. However, mixing the two on the same plate (or slate) just seems wrong to me. I definitely didn't see the appeal of a banana, nutella and balsamic crepe, so I shifted the pancake away from the salad as quickly as possible. J was similarly puzzled by the jam n' ham combo she had going on, but was pleased on the whole: the brie was 'good', the eggs 'nice', the bacon 'really good' and the ham 'mediocre'. We are talking about a girl who loves her bellota ham though, so I can't comment.

I opted for savoury first, and polished off the slightly soggy sandwich pretty quickly. The puzzling crema de calabaza tasted more like tomato to me. Pleasant enough but nothing memorable. The crepe was basically a banana inside crispy pancake batter and drizzled with chocolate syrup (and a touch of balsamic); not quite the French crepe I'd been hoping for. The yoghurt and fruit was fine, and the breads and jam nice enough and the Bloody Mary shot definitely spiced things up, but all in all it was nothing special. We had to ask for more bread, which was provided with no extra charge, but then again the initial serving was a little lacking for 2 people. I couldn't help but feel that the Spanish don't quite 'get' brunch, what the mixture of savoury and sweet, the needless jam and lettuce leaves. Give me a choice and I'm a happy girl. Crisp my crepe and plonk it on top of some salad and not so much.

Maricastaña didn't quite deliver in terms of brunch. The odd combinations and the average quality of the food didn't live up to my hopes: there was just nothing special about it all. However, the well-designed interior and the relaxed atmosphere made me think it might be worth a return visit for the rather more tempting-sounding lunch menu, or for a drink in the evening. But I'll be giving the balsamic banana crepes a miss.

The details
Address: Calle Corredera de San Pablo Bajo 12
Tel: 910 827 142 
How to get there: Metro to Tribunal (lines 1 & 10) or Callao (lines 3 & 5).
Opening hours: Mon Thu 9am–2am, Friday 9am–2.30 am, Saturday 10.30am–2.30am, Sunday 10am2am. Brunch is served on Sundays only.

The brunch scoreboard
After round 2, Federal is most definitely still in the lead.

Where do you think serves the best brunch in Madrid? Where should I try next? If you have any suggestions, leave me a comment below or tweet me @katebritabroad and use the hashtag #brunchchallenge.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Sunday stroll: El Retiro Park, Madrid

If last month's Sunday stroll by Madrid Rio was a relative newcomer to the city's scene, a paseo in El Retiro is a clásico de toda la vida. More formally known as 'El Parque del Buen Retiro', this city-centre splash of greenery has been the madrileños' favourite place for a promenade since it opened to the public in the late nineteenth century. Formally a royal park, there's still a regal feel to El Retiro today, with its well-tended flower beds, fancy fountains and grand monuments.

Located close to the Paseo del Prado, with main entrances near both the Puerta de Alcalá and Atocha station, El Retiro couldn't be much more central. Unlike many parks in Spanish cities, we're not talking about a glorified patch of grass; we're talking 350 acres (or 1.4 square kilometres, if you want to go all modern and metric). Contained in this space are shaded areas ideal for lounging and picknicking, more formal gardens, two exhibition spaces, a large duck pond and the estanque, a miniature lake replete with rowing boats for hire. The estanque is emblematic of the Retiro and of Madrid itself, and it's particularly lively on sunny Sundays when the steps surrounding the monument behind it are carpeted with lounging bodies, musicians and even sometimes demonstrators.

Another key sight is the Palacio de Cristal, a glasshouse which features modern art installations curated by Madrid's Museo Reina Sofia. Whether or not these often curious exhbitions are your cup of tea or not, the Palacio de Cristal is a beautiful late-nineteenth century building modelled on London's Crystal Palace.

Visiting El Retiro on a Sunday, you might feel like you're sharing the park with half of the city (the rest are at the Rastro fleamarket). It's true the area around the estanque in particular can be crowded with a melee of ambling pedestrians, tumultuous toddlers applauding the children's puppet shows, handbag sellers poised to flee at the sight of a police car and rollerbladers weaving through the crowds. But away from this main paseo, you're sure to find a quiet spot to sit. There's no doubt a mid-week wander is far more peaceful, there's something quintessentially Madrid about a stroll in El Retiro on Sunday, rubbing shoulders with families, young couples, abuelos, tourists as you try and capture that perfect shot of the estanque.

Metro: Retiro (line 2) or Atocha (line 1)
El Retiro is open daily from 6am until 10pm in winter, and until midnight in summer. As with any park, be careful when visiting in the evening.
There are several cafés in the park, to be recommended only if you have a penchant for overpaying and/or badly translated menus.
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