I last wrote about CafÃ© Madrid two years ago, in the spring of 2004. There wasn’t much about the restaurant and its food and service that I didn’t enjoy back then. But in more recent months, the words “CafÃ© Madrid” seem to roll off the tongues of many trusted informants whenever the topic of Salt Lake’s “special” restaurants is broached. Still, I didn’t see any compelling reason to re-review the place. I’d already sung its praises. But a lengthy Saturday night supper at CafÃ© Madrid a while back changed my mind.
I usually write follow-up reviews after a restaurant has changed chefs, remodeled or warranted a second chance after an initial hazing in this column. None of those factors were in play at CafÃ© Madrid. Celebrated Spanish chef Nacho Basurto is still the brains behind the creative flavors at CafÃ© Madrid. Gabriela and Todd McAfee still own and operate the restaurant and have since late in ’03. The service staff is virtually unchanged from that time, with Gabriela’s brother J.C. Pino and her daughter Andrea heading up a superb service staff.
Still, it’s hard to pinpoint how it is that a restaurant like CafÃ© Madrid can dish up meals that are not only completely satisfying but that so often turn into magical dining experiences. I think it begins with scale. I certainly enjoy the experience of “going big” in roomy restaurants like Butterfly, Ghidotti’s or Fleming’s. But all things being equal, my preference is to dine in smaller eateries like Martine, Cucina Toscana, Chenez, Michelangelo, Mazza, Em’s or the brand new Franck’s restaurant in Holladay.
Much of the time, the philosophy “less is more” applies. Obviously, quality control in both the kitchen and dining room is easier to keep in check in small restaurants than large ones. But while I tend to gravitate toward more intimate establishments, they have their downsides. Service can be slow, usually due to a small kitchen and staff. And, as in the case at CafÃ© Madrid, a cramped space can get quite noisy on a crowded evening. Also, while in warm weather patrons can linger on benches outside the restaurant or wait on the patio, in winter there’s no place to hang out and wait for a table at a restaurant like CafÃ© Madrid. All the space is taken up with tables, an overstuffed coat rack, small service bar and kitchen.
Yet dodging servers while waiting for a CafÃ© Madrid table and the occasional necessity of shouting across the table to dining companions to be heard are aspects of a restaurant that can make it special. In a nutshell, the reason I gravitate to places like CafÃ© Madrid is that they are unique'they ooze personality. CafÃ© Madrid is not a cookie-cutter restaurant designed by committees, market surveys and focus groups. So dining at the restaurant'which has a high percentage of repeat customers'typically begins with a hug from Gabriela or Pino, and Todd’s warm handshake, rather than a stoic check-in at a hostess stand. And while on the one hand, the dÃ©cor remains more or less the same from year to year, with minor upgrades here and there, it also changes routinely enough thanks to an ever-rotating gallery show. Pino is a wonderfully talented and increasingly successful artist, and his works pepper the walls at CafÃ© Madrid, giving it a personal accent missing from many restaurants.
Ultimately though, what I love about CafÃ© Madrid is what I love about other small restaurants. At CafÃ© Madrid, Mazza, Cucina Toscana and others, there is an “our home is your home” hospitality that can turn a good dining experience into an exceptional and memorable one. Whether it’s Ali Sabbah sharing his knowledge of Lebanese wines at Massa, Walter Nassi offering a roguish kiss of a lady’s hand and a warm Italian bearhug for her partner at Cucina Toscana or CafÃ© Madrid’s Pino instructing a table of newcomers to “sit and relax, you’re in our house â€¦ we’re going to party!â€'the best restaurants offer not only great food, but can envelop customers in a kind of welcoming warmth that just can’t be faked.
Indeed, there seems to be a fiesta going on at every CafÃ© Madrid table. A glass of wine turns into a bottle and then into three. One order of tapas leads to a second, then a third. And you bargain with your dining companions for the last piquillo pepper ($12), plump with a sensational seafood stuffing, offering them the remaining bites of Spanish sausage (butifarritas) with Black Mission fig sauce ($11) in exchange for that perfect pepper. Glancing down at a dish of tomato and roasted-pepper sauce leftover from the sautÃ©ed black mussels and splashes of cream sauce that accompanied the bacon-wrapped shrimp ($10.50), your server insists that you use bread to sponge up every last savory drop. Because after all, “Our house is your house.”
By the time you’ve passed around the succulent ossobucco ($25) and polished off one more glass of Spanish Rioja, you and your party are cooked. But Pino tempts the table with what turns out to be the best flan we’ve ever tasted and since we’ve already gone whole hog, the suggestion “Maybe an after-dinner drink?” takes hold as well. At 11:15 p.m., we realize we’ve been at CafÃ© Madrid for nearly four hours. But then, what’s the rush? Their house is our house.