Food & Spirits: Tapas are to Spain what pasta is to Italy, tea is to England, dim sum is to Hong Kong. So what better way to get a taste of España than through an edible tour of the capital city?
Offered by the InterContinental Hotel Madrid, their Concierge "Insiders" program is a guided night of tapeo, which showcases this Spanish pastime while eliminating the first-timer factor. Here you have the opportunity to venture off the tourist trail, visit three or four tapas bars during prime time (8 p.m. to midnight), all the while sampling small plates of regional specialties . . . from octopus in Galicia to pinxos of the Basque country.
No problem if you don't know which tapas bar to tap. Don't worry about what to order. No need to fret over tallying the bill. Your guide (in my case, James Fraser) has the answers and overflows with only-a-local-would-know tips.
A bit about the evening. Beginning in Puerto del Sol, Madrid's Times Square-like center, where congregating is contagious - families meander, singles mingle, women stroll arm-in-arm and men just stroll - we wandered the nearby walkways to immerse into the city's vibrancy, energy and uncompromised enthusiasm for food and drink Madrileño style.
Evening is an important meal time, not because it's the largest (lunch is when Spaniards eat their main meal), but because it's a happening. After-dark dining is enticing, and it is the focal center around which Madrid's social world pivots.
Here's the tapas bar drill. Young and old mix and noise levels are high (good news: few are on cell phones). Elbow your way through the crowd, find a spot and secure your territory. Lean across the bar, size up what others order and point to your preferences. You'll hear an occasional bell ringing, meaning a tip was received.
Tapas guide Fraser suggests waiting to order the tidbits until your drinks arrive to see what complementary tapitas come with your beverage. His tips continue: Pitch forward when eating; tapas tend to drip. Everyone throws rubbish on the floor; in fact, the more rubbish, the better the place. But after visiting some good choices with tidy floors, I suggest following your own instincts as a lively crowd is the best let's-go-in indicator.
~ Visit Museo del Jamón (Ham Museum). You'll spot it by the rows of hooved pig legs swinging from the ceiling. This tapas bar is known for its ham specialties, especially Jamon Iberico de Bellota, pork from a free range black pig raised on an exclusive diet of acorns.
~ Stop at Restaurante Sidreria El Ñeru for its noted cider, the traditional drink of Asturias in northern Spain. Filling your own glass is 90% of the fun. Called escanciar la sidra, try the traditional pouring method by holding the green cider bottle two-to-three feet above your glass and allow the bubbly beverage to splash into your container - at the same time it aerates the cider and improves the taste.
~ Try patatas al pobre (poor man's potatoes) and pimientos de padrón (broiled green peppers) if found on a menu. Note from personal experience: Though the peppers are typically more savory than spicy, the sting of biting into a hot one can be best remedied by eating bread, not drinking a beverage.
~ Order Morcilla de Arroz if you're adventurous. Called black pudding, it is pig's blood with rice.
~ Try Clara con Limón (beer with sparkling lemonade) if in the mood for a light beverage after your third or so tapas stop.
My scorecard reads: Tapas hopping is entertaining, informative, filling and fulfilling and simply the best way to eat your way around Spain without leaving Madrid. What's more, no other hotel presents this opportunity in such delicious depth.
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