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The first Arzábal, all six tables of it, became so popular after its opening in 2009 on the far side of the Retiro Park, that its owners, Ivan Morales and Alvaro Castellanos, decided to expand by opening a second restaurant, bigger but otherwise alike in look and feel to the first, one building down from the original. In both, a wall of wine bottles, including those of the ironically named house wine, Terrible (it’s actually quite good), constitutes the primary design feature. Arzábal, in both its incarnations, is so cozily warm that the minimalist setting seems like mere backdrop to a scene of intense conviviality.
Meals start with a wooden tub of good butter (a rarity in Spain) brought to the table to be scooped out with tiny knives and spread across decent bread (ditto). There are two menus, one purportedly for the bar and the other for tables, but most diners ignore the distinction and order from both.
A plate of croquetas, their crust light and crisp, their béchamel redolent with Ibérico ham, are among the city’s best, as is the salmorejo, the gazpacho-like emulsion made here from the ripest tomatoes. This is not innovative food, just traditional tapas made modern by the quality of their ingredients and the light hand brought to their preparations.
Many dishes are pushed toward extraordinary by the addition of a single, unexpected ingredient. A skillet of fried eggs, for example — the most basic of Madrid tapas — is made memorable by a shower of black truffle. The same goes for the amusingly named Self-Important Potatoes, a dish of simple fried spuds that get a boost — and a jolt of deliciousness — from the addition of tiny prawns. And roasted cod, which comes to the table with a golden gratinée, gets an infusion of serious earthiness from a black olive tapenade.
Arzábal, Doctor Castelo, 2, and Avenida Menendez Pelayo, 13; (34-91) 557-2691; arzabal.com. Average dinner for two with wine, about 70 euros.
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