Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Madrid Restaurants: Pan De Lujo

There is no restaurant in London that would serve a dish of exceptionally high quality tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil and good sea salt as a starter in its own right.  People probably wouldn't order it.  But that dish typifies what is great about the food culture of Spain.  Never dislocated from traditional foods and produce in the way Britain was by the industrial revolution Spain mantains a genuine appreciation for quality and seasonality of ingredients that we are only just rediscovering.  That's why a trendy, modern Madrid restaurant unafraid of innovation can serve a delicious plate of tomatoes without it seeming strange.  This focus on the quality of ingredients underpins the cooking at Pan De Lujo.  The produce is sometimes presented simply or with a great deal of invention, it all depends on what is most suitable.  This approach, complimented by a stylish contemporary interior and good service all adds up to an excellent dining experience.

Sometime in the distant past this was a bakery, or so it says over the door.  After seeing the clothes displayed in the window you could be forgiven for thinking it had become a clothes shop.  If you carry on inside though you'll walk through a narrow reception area with bottles of wine in clean wooden shelving on the other side before entering the main dining room.  This is housed in a glass and steel extension with pale red walls and wooden tables and floors.  Despite being fairly large the room is cleverly broken up by the structure of the steel frame so it doesn't feel like a hanger.  Outside the high glass wall there is a shallow pool with light boxes that reflect off it at night.  This type of hyper modern, design orientated interior is becoming the norm for new Madrid restaurants, which previously have been very traditional in tone.

All this would be pointless, however, without good food.  Thankfully Pan De Lujo delivers excellently well on this front.  Style does not overtake substance, experimentation augments quality rather than replacing it.  The best example of this balance between solid classic food and invention was an ajoblanco, with olive oil icecream and crispy squid legs.  Ajoblanco is a traditional cold Spanish soup made with garlic and almonds.  This highly flavoured, refreshing soup was given added richness and sweetness as well as a great deal more subtlty from a wonderfully smooth olive oil icecream.  The squid was subtle enough to not throw this off the balance, but well flavoured enough to give a greater depth of flavour as well as some crispiness to give the dish a more complete textural experience.  Gazpacho with red prawns and melon ribbons was also good.  The nearly raw prawns gave an excellent sweetness, though the dish was not as complete as the ajoblanco.

Further adding to the whole experience is the sense of theatre surrounding the meal.  This is never overbearing, but enhances what's on the plate by presenting it with a feeling of ceremony.  Staff come over with a basil plant and snip leaves into your olive oil, for instance.  The excellent burratta with grated freeze dried tomatos and truffle oil is brought to the table whole with a beautiful pile of red flakes on top before our waitress splits it into four and drizzles it with the oil.  This dish was a wonderful mix of smooth milky cheese with sweet sour tomato, which because of the proccess they had gone through did not get in the way of the cheeses smooth texture.  The truffle oil helped round off the flavours by providin earthy notes in the background, though it was not allowed to dominate.  All of this demonstrates a level of thought and planning surrounding the dishes, both in terms of the flavours and textures, but also presention and service that makes the total experience a pleasure.

Not all the dishes were as successful.  The chicken wings were average at best.  Vaguely Chinese influenced they didn't deliver in terms of flavour.  According to my lunch companion who had been there several times before this is true of many of the main courses, which fail to deliver the same impact as the starters.  My octopus, however, was fantastic.  A generous portion of fantastically fully flavoured octupus came charred and caremalised from the grill with excellent new potatoes (there should have been more) and a loose poached egg, which added a nice fat content.  This dish was generous in its portioning, and this seems the rule here.  The soups are suitable for one person, but anyone choosing to start with the burrata to themself will struggle to eat more.  The best way to order here is to share starters, before moving on.

I liked Pan De Lujo a great deal, its modern and stylish without losing sight of the need to prepare excellent food with good ingredients.  The service is excellent, the place is lively.  There's really not much to fault at all.  Best of all is that this all comes at excellent value.  A three course meal with an extra starter to share (a fantastic scallop ceviche, not on the menu but available on request), and two glasses of cava cost €92.  This left me uncomfortably full, but very happy.

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