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Compliments to the Chef

Jose Gutierrez Offers a Different Flavor in Spanish Town

Uli Loskot

Café Madrid

This location is closed

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 10/30/2002

Does a restaurant critic have a lot of power? Apparently I can control the weather because every time I go out to review some place it rains. This is the most generous explanation I have for why we were the only ones dining at Café Madrid on a recent pouring evening. The staff-to-diner ratio being about even, we became the rather intimate guests of the restaurant's proprietor, Jose Gutierrez, a garrulous Madrileno who likes to be known as Chef Pepe. Worse things can happen than having the chef take an interest in your table, and Chef Pepe proved to be a considerate and entertaining host and was not, thankfully, too much of a hoverer. When something like this happens, I always half expect someone's daughter to play the recorder for our entertainment.

Some time ago--the Reagan years--Chef Pepe operated a Spanish restaurant, the Madrid, out of the Blackstone Apartments, which the Silk Road Café occupied until recently. In a city where one restaurant, Tio Pepe, has for decades completely dominated a cuisine category, the Madrid and the fondly remembered Torremolinos, enjoyed some success by positioning themselves as more casual--and affordable--alternatives to the famed grottoes of East Franklin Street. A few years ago, the prodigal Pepe returned, this time to Fells Point, where his restaurant anchors the southern end of the evolving Spanish Town neighborhood. Only three blocks south on Broadway from that intense, somewhat inscrutable concentration of South and Central American restaurants, groceries, and rotisserias, Café Madrid feels worlds away from them--with its slightly faded European formality, the comfort level here has been adjusted for the Continental traveler. Except for the bullfighting paintings, not much about the blandly handsome dining room has changed, it looks like, from the regime of its previous tenant, the French restaurant M. Gettier.

The first of several pitchers of sangría arrived as we bantered with Chef Pepe, but our complaints about the sangría's lack of bite, its "wetness," were made out of his earshot--or so we thought, because the next batch had been noticeably brandied up a bit for us.

Salad for five started the meal. Cold crunchy lettuce tossed with hearts of palm in an onion-pimento dressing and served "Basque-style" (i.e., from one big bowl), the salad was a promising start. Listed on the weekly specials menu as the Palmito ($5.95), it's worth asking after.

Among the five tapas that came next, the shrimp in garlic sauce ($8.95) was the most successful, the shrimp themselves fresh and flavorful, the sherry-flavored sauce the favorite of the table's bread-moppers. (The soft bread itself was disappointing, unworthy of the accompanying garlic butter). Also admired were the mejillones Barcelona ($8.75), plump mussels in a seductive marinara sauce, and a serving of firm Spanish tortillas (not listed on the menu), the traditional Spanish frittatalike preparation of egg and potato.

Two appetizers, listed on the specials menu, were less well received. Chorizo and mushrooms in garlic sauce ($8.75) looked and tasted too much like a pizza topping, and the sauce accompanying a plateful of meatballs ($7.95), although not badly prepared, was simply too sweet for our collective taste.

With a menu of main courses ranging from Cornish hen and sweetbreads to vegetarian paella, we made selections, with some prodding from Chef Pepe, from the area between--traditional preparations of shellfish and meats. A lovely paella Alicantina ($22.95) came equipped with shrimps, mussels, and good, chewy squid, all holding together without the rice running to gumminess or soupiness. The zarzuela à la Placido Domingo ($21.95) collected in a garlicky stew many of the paella's same fresh shellfish ingredients.

Chef Pepe succeeded with two specials, a baby rack of lamb ($25) and a sea bass in a garlic pimento sauce ($18.75), mostly by staying out of their way. The lamb's natural flavors came through, enhanced by sherry and garlic; the sea bass stayed sweet and flaky. A fifth entrée, an unlisted duck breast the chef bestowed upon us, was tasty but tough.

Dessert, an assortment of flan, spanish roll cakes, and eclairlike pastries, was greedily devoured, washed down with strong espresso, coffee, and reminisces about better examples of each enjoyed elsewhere. Chef Pepe was toasted with Gran Duque D'Alba brandy, and promises were made to return for more of his proudly prepared, savory food and wily charm.

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