Returning to La Casa del Abuelo

{Madrid, 2006}
In the East Village, a few blocks away from us and next door to Motorino, sits a little tapas bar called Pata Negra. We tried it for the first time a few weeks ago, drawn by the offer of gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce). Despite being a pretty common Spanish-menu item, this dish will always seem particularly special. Just after we were engaged, we flew to Germany to be with Aron’s family for Christmas; from there, we took a quick trip to Madrid to ring in the new year. Our first stop, before picking up our grapes and cava (and wigs) for midnight, was La Casa del Abuelo–a taberna opened in 1906 and since reknowned for its flame-cooked racions of gambas al ajillo and sweet red wine.You could smell the garlic immediately, and we crowded with many others into the tiny space and pressed ourselves up to marble bar as eager to dip bread into the sizzling dishes of garlic, oil, and herbs, as we were to taste the shrimp. And at 2 euro a glass, we didn’t hold back on the house wine, which was almost like dessert. In fact, though we loved it so much that we returned for more on subsequent days and even brought a bottle back home,  the sweetness was just too much without the context of Spain and its rich, garlicky gambas.

   {Madrid, 2006}
It’s funny: By most standards, Pata Negra would be considered tiny–it is a small space, even for New York–but it seemed ample compared to the little taberna we visited in Madrid, where so many stopped in for a bit of seafood as a part of a crawl, and where the tiled floor grows littered with the remnants of crowds in passing. Still, with only 9 or so tables, Pata Negra couldn’t be called roomy. We went early to assure a spot and found ourselves sharing the space with Eric Asimov, a writer for the drink section of the Times, who was tasting Sherry and being interviewed. As it turned out, he and the owner, Mateo, are buddies; Mateo was there, suggesting wines and telling us about the wonderful jamóns on his menu, including the namesake pata negra, and another variety of the famous acorn-fed Jamón ibérico. Those varieties were a bit expensive for us on this particular night (a plate of pata negra is $40)–when we wanted an array of items, particularly the gambas–but we did order a plate of the house Serrano ham and it was absolutely delicious. 

In fact, while the gambas were good, the ham was really the standout dish and I could easily see returning simply to make a meal of noshing on ham and sipping rich Riojas. This time, we each started with a glass of sherry and a selection of patitas (little toasts or brochettes with toppings like sweet quince paste and salty goat cheese). Next, with wine, we had the plate of ham, the garlicky shrimp, and a spanish tortilla (a kind of omelet pressed with potatoes). 
As I said, the ham was really the best. But this was maybe the closest we’ve come yet to getting back to that little bar in Madrid.

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