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Madrid Restaurant 

Paella and tapas turn up at an unlikely Lakeview den

click to enlarge Chef/proprietor Juan Hernandez's paella is a fixture on Madrid's - menu - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

There aren't many areas where an upscale Spanish restaurant could begin slinging paella in a former convenience store and still seem to fit right in. Fortunately for the second incarnation of Madrid Restaurant, post-Katrina Lakeview is one of those areas.

  Amid a residential landscape jumping from gleaming new construction to painstaking renovations to lingering abandonment, Madrid native and restaurant chef/owner Juan Hernandez has staged his comeback at the site of the former Milne Mini Mart. Lakeview went wild for his place when it first opened in May. For months, it was difficult to get in, and the restaurant had a hard time keeping up. The pace has mellowed now, though on nearly every visit during these past few months, I shared the dining room with gregarious tables of Madrid fans, whose enthusiasm helped make up for the low-ceiling, fresh-drywall ambience. There's no doubt this place is fitting in with its neighbors.

  Most parties fill their tables with pans of that ideal shared dinner dish, paella. Restaurants offering paella tend to sell more of it than any other entree. You'd think they would all become specialists, but I've encountered more dried-out, underseasoned or scrawny renditions around town than versions that entice me to return. Madrid, however, will see me coming back for more. The paella is done in the classical way without flourish, and that works very well. Throughout, the rice is suffused not just with aromatic saffron but the essence of seafood, chicken and dense bits of chorizo.

  Hernandez has had plenty of practice with the dish. Through most of the 1990s, he ran a Magazine Street restaurant called Paella and later opened the first Madrid in Kenner. A business partner left after Katrina, and Hernandez eventually closed up shop.

  The menu at the new Madrid is largely the same as before, though it is shorter. Hernandez makes flawless Spanish tortillas by the book, which means they are large omelets with potatoes and onions. Fidelity to tradition aside, I still wish it had a sauce or some different flavors whipped in. In fact, a few sheets of the excellent Serrano ham he uses for another tapas plate — garlic-laden toasts with thick cuts of smoky Valdeon cheese — would fit the bill perfectly.

  Squid cooked in its own ink sounds like a showstopper but fell flat. The calamari was chopped so finely it was hard to distinguish from the rice, onions and peppers, and the provocatively dark, cloaking ink sauce didn't make much of an impression. Garlic shrimp delivered all they promised, and clams and fish stock gave the thick fish soup a powerful flavor.

  Halibut was featured in the most intricate of the entrees, my favorite dish apart from the paella. It had a firm sheath on the exterior, salty Serrano over the top, a light seafood broth underneath and a dollop of garum, a pungent paste of anchovies, olives and herbs. The braised rabbit leg with a stew-like gravy tastes like a deeper flavored version of smothered chicken. Hernandez's seafood pasta would be right at home at any Creole Italian restaurant, except his spicy yet unmuddled tomato sauce would outclass most house red gravies.

  Madrid is no tapas bar, and in fact the restaurant does not yet have a liquor license, so don't forget to bring your own for now.

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