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Yayos and Green Olives
Back to March-April 2018
Abraham Garcia, one of Madrid’s best-known chefs, loves horse racing so much he pursued work as an announcer for the local track. But he admits to finding horses confusing since they prefer to eat barley than to drink whiskey.
And he is quick with a quip. When asked about his preferences for a last meal, he commented: “One should venture into the unknown on an empty stomach.” And he prefers olive oil to butter since “butter is like the moon and oil like the sun—who doesn’t love the sun?”
I recently dined at his restaurant, Viridiana, which is named after a Luis Buñuel movie about a novitiate, Viridiana, who gets mixed up with drunken beggars and murder, and has a lusty, suggestive ending. It’s an earthy, passionate movie much like Garcia himself: large and portly with sad expressive eyes, thick brushstroke brows, and a face that settles down into a solid foundation of a curved chin, leaving a beguiling impression of both comedy and drama.
He opened Viridiana in the '70s, one of Spain’s early promoters of fusion cooking with a rich background in the Spanish classics. My meal was a delicious mix of the old—lentil pork stew, salt cod fritters, escargots with oil not butter, roasted potatoes and chestnuts with meatballs, and an old-fashioned egg yolk custard (tocinillo de cielo)—and the new—a crazy dish of pickled herring, mango and avocado, chickpeas and shrimp, a soft-fried egg on a bed of mushroom purée with shaved black truffle, and an ice cream of wild bison milk from Poland where they graze on a special sweet grass, zubrowka.
Like Garcia, Madrid is a city of conflicting style. You can order hummus made from roasted eggplant or tuna served five ways. You can get a good garlic and bread soup, thin crispy churros, or one of my favorite local dishes, fried calamari sandwiches—perfectly executed, not greasy, stuffed into long, soft buns.
We walked the crowded streets during holiday week. Christmas revelers primped in gnomish hats and brightly colored wigs. Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters posed for pictures for quick tourist money. Shops sell giant empanadas and roscon de reyes, a round pastry topped with brightly colored preserved fruits and filled with sweet cream.
After years of travel I know that if you look hard enough eventually you end up at the place. It represents the heart of a city; it is crowded, noisy, cheap and good. In Madrid, it is a small bar called Casa Camacho. They serve their own unique cocktail, the yayo—an aperitif of gin, sparkling water and sweet vermouth accompanied by a plate of green olives. There is a slot machine in the corner, the two ruddy-faced proprietors work the antique vermouth spigots like musicians, and the narrow shelves around the perimeter of the railroad-car room are stacked with empty plates spotted with olive pits, crumpled napkins and empty yayo glasses. You are pressed against your neighbor like croquetas de jambon.
After my return, I went to the Country Gals Cafe in Cambridge, New York, for a late breakfast with my neighbor, Tom. It was -20°F outside during the cold snap after Christmas. The waitress chatted about the weather, the frigid air that rushed in every time the door opened, then came back with our bottomless cups of coffee, once-over-easy eggs, good hash browns, a pork sausage patty each, and slices of honest toast, thick and crunchy.
The other diners were chatting about the weather. The road crew had already been in after an early morning sanding and had been the first to report on the record-breaking low temperatures. One local said he had sprinkled rodent poison around the baseboards of his house only to find that the mice had collected most of it and left it piled in his boots.
Every town has the place. It might be a bar in Madrid, a noodle shop in Hanoi, or a diner in New York. But you’ll always be welcome and offered a seat at the table. It may be on Main Street or Milk Street, but the place awaits.March-April 2018