Turning on the Spanish charm Restaurant: Madrid re-emerges as Cafe Madrid, and it's worth a visit for a grand time or a simple meal.

May 03, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

Some 25 years ago, a Spanish restaurant called the Madrid, the first of the Tio Pepe wannabes, opened on 33rd Street. It closed 11 years ago. Who would have thought it would reappear in 1998 as the Cafe Madrid in Fells Point?

When I heard about the reopening, I was skeptical. But dinner there recently won me over -- unlike the original Madrid, Cafe Madrid isn't trying to be anything else but a good Spanish restaurant in its own right. And for the most part, it succeeds.

The new location is where M. Gettier used to be. The romantic dining room looks much the same, although a few Spanish touches have been added. Dark wood paneling, deep green wallpaper, an antique sideboard, sconces and candlelight give it a charming period air.

This time round, owner Jose Gutierrez, otherwise known as Chef Pepe, has joined forces with veteran maitre d'hotel Antonio Aybar. They run their restaurant with theatrical flourish and great amounts of Latin charm. We didn't actually get our hands kissed, but the whole evening had that sort of feel to it.

A cynic might say that my two friends and I looked like plump pigeons ready for the plucking - three women obviously on expense account or celebrating an occasion. But I like to think that our waiter and the chef wanted us to experience the best the restaurant had to offer. And to do that, of course, we had to spend a little money.

The Cafe Madrid's specialty is tapas. Could they bring us a selection? Yes, they could (cost, not mentioned, $10 per person). Dishes begin to appear: first, a cold plate of delicious little squares of potato-based frittata, white asparagus, tomatoes, olives and hearts of palm in vinaigrette. Yum. Then small hot dishes, each better than the last: plump shrimp in an aromatic garlic sauce; dainty meatballs with an unusual and very good mint sauce; tender mussels in garlic, wine and parsley; slices of chorizo with an enticing tomato-based sauce; and artichoke hearts cooked with onion and sherry.

Would we like sparkling white sangria with our tapas? Yes? Our server will open a bottle of champagne to make it. Only one of us wants a glass of sangria? The waiter will still open the champagne.

How about a veal chop for our main course? "I will fix you the best veal chop in America!" says Chef Pepe with boundless enthusiasm. Well, you can't turn that down, even though it's not on the menu and we can only guess they won't be giving it away. And it is a very fine veal chop, tender and pink with sauteed mushrooms and a dark, complex sauce.

But the star of the show is cazuela pescador - a medley of shrimp, calamari, scallops and tender chunks of fish in a blush-pink sauce as delicate as it is rich. Its shallow white bowl is garnished with paper-thin slices of pale green cucumber, making the dish as beautiful as it is good.

Roast duck is decent enough, but it doesn't have the wonderful crisp skin you sometimes get. The flavorful orange-cognac sauce, though, almost makes up for the duck's flaws.

Side dishes seem something of an afterthought. Neither the rice nor the mixed vegetables cooked with potatoes interests us.

Cafe Madrid has flaming baked Alaska for two - exactly the sort of dessert that this evening should end with. But we weren't ready to commit ourselves at the beginning of the meal, and it must be ordered in advance. Instead, our waiter promises to "take care of us." He brings us a dessert sampler with custard and pieces of roll cake and, my favorite, a fabulous bread pudding made with oranges and orange liqueur.

Needless to say, we spend a bit of money here. More than a bit. But the good thing about the Cafe Madrid is that you don't have to. A selection of tapas, bread and a bottle of wine would be an excellent light meal - more than enough to satisfy most people if they weren't starving.

Cafe Madrid

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 505 S. Broadway

Hours: Open every day for dinner

Prices: Appetizers: $4.95-$10. Entrees: $13.75-$23.95; major credit cards

Call: 410-276-7700

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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