Cafe Madrid - Salt Lake City, Utah

Cafe Madrid
2080 East 3900 South
Salt Lake City, UT 84124
(Murray/Holladay area)

Date of Visit: Saturday, May 10, 2008
Time: Dinner - 6:30 PM
Server: Raul R.
Number of Diners: 6

Food Quality: 8
Service: 6*
Ambiance: 7

*Average of 7 and 5 - see below for details

Cafe Madrid is a Spanish restaurant, and they serve full entrees in addition to the appetizers/tapas for which Spanish cuisine has become known. Tapas are derived from a mid-afternoon snack with wine taken by the king, and subsequently by field workers. Originally a small meal to sustain you through the afternoon, it has evolved into a style of dining on many small plates.

The Menu...
While only limited to two pages, the menu has quite a few choices. At top there's a notice that genuine Seafood Paella or Tortilla Espanola require 24 hours notice, and should be considered for your next visit. There are a couple of soups and salads, and about 10 each cold and hot appetizers or Tapas, with about half a dozen entrees at the end. Prices for Tapas ranged between $8.50 and $12.50, while entrees were $26 - $29. The wine list is long and impressive, covering all price points, and is full of Spanish wines with several choices by the glass. At the bottom of the menu was a rather strange notice: "Parties with checks split more than twice will have a 16% service fee added." This seemed odd to me, that they would charge a flat gratuity under these circumstances. But since our three couples would split the bill twice (into three equal parts), I figured we would not be affected. More on this later...

The room is quite small, with about a dozen tables - half of which could seat 6 or more. There was also a handful of tables outside. We had arrived about 15 minutes early, and took a seat outside to await our friends. After about 30 seconds a young man (nametag Raul) came out of the back and noticed us. "Did you talk to the people inside?" he inquired. We explained that we were early and awaiting friends. He suggested that we should come inside, led the way, found the registration, and seated us immediately. Soon all 6 water glasses were filled and six menus were distributed. We passed the time drinking water and studying the menu while our friends joined us.

At some point during the evening you must decide whether to do all Tapas, or do a few Tapas and entrees. Raul, who turned out to be our waiter, suggested that certain groups of Tapas go well together and provided a couple of examples. After studying the menu and the wine list, we decided that he knew more about it than we did. So we placed our meal in his hands. He wanted to know if we wanted all Tapas or some entrees. "When do we have to decide?" I asked. He went with it and said we would start small and go from there.

What we had with menu descriptions...

At Raul's suggestion, we opened with:

Calamares Fritos – “Rabas” $9
Juicy and inviting, our Calamari is unlike any you have tasted before
(2 orders) Pimientos Piquillo Rellenos de Pescado $12.50
Authentic Piquillo Peppers, oven roasted with tempting white wine & Seafood Stuffing
Meat Paella - a special appetizer (price not disclosed) $19
Described as paella with sausage, mussels, calamari, chicken, and pork

We also asked Raul to recommend a wine. He chose for us a Spanish white, which he described as "Summer in a bottle." Pazo Pondal 2005 Albarino $34

After the Tapas we decided to go for entrees. Raul had several recommendations, including an Osso Buco (literally "bone hole") not on the menu, and his favorite was the Chilean Sea Bass. In our party of six, two chose the beef tenderloin, and the rest all chose Sea Bass.

Solomillo de Buey al Queso Picon de Tresviso $ 29
Grilled Beef Tenderloin generously topped with an authentic Roquefort Cheese Sauce
Lubina en Salsa de Gambas $29
Fresh Sea Bass served with Caramelized Onions in a creamy Shrimp Sauce

All entrees are served with salad and your choice of: Fried Potatoes, Baby Red Potatoes, or Rice with Pine Nuts and Raisins. Our party was diverse enough to order all three, of which the thin, fried potatoes were the most interesting.

Starting from the top, the Albarino white wine was very nice - crisp, cool, unoaked, tasting of light fruit, slightly tart, with an off-dry finish. It went well with all the foods. The Piquillo peppers were delicious, four portions to each plate, and smothered in a tomato cream sauce. Raul brought us extra bread and encouraged us not to be shy about soaking up the sauce. We weren't shy at all. The Calamari rings were lightly fried, served with fresh lemon and mayonnaise, and were delicate and delicious. The Paella came in a generous portion. Seasoned rice with hidden gems of meat, sausage, and seafood - everyone was delighted with it. The wine paired especially well with the Paella.

Given our dinner choices, a second bottle of Albarino was ordered, and we turned again to Raul to recommend a red for the beef eaters. He asked discreetly about how much we were willing to pay, suggesting $50 and acquiescing to $40. He returned with a bottle of Marqués de Cáceres Crianza Rioja $32. If you have ever had Spanish wine, it was likely this one, and you'll certainly recognize the label pictured here. I have consumed many bottles of it, and it is a fine, midrange wine, well balanced and smoothly finished. Made from 85% Temperanillo grapes, it's a restaurant standard and a very safe recommendation. And, like a decent Merlot, it's also a bit - unexciting. I asked Raul if he had a more interesting Temperanillo, and he reappeared instantly with a bottle of 2003 Loriñon Rioja Crianza $32. It was also 85% Temperanillo with 5% each of Granacha, Graciano, and Mazuelo. It was also delightfully unrefined with a big cherry nose - aged in American oak for 14 months to take the edge off, it was lush, dark as ink, fruity, smoky, and sweet - with a dark cherry, dry finish. It was an excellent, complex pairing for the beef.

The beef tenderloin was generous, tender, and wonderfully balanced by the Roquefort sauce. It should be noted that real Roquefort cheese is made from sheep's milk, and has a flavor character unlike the more common blue cheeses. It is also much more expensive and a delight to encounter as an ingredient in a beef dish. The tenderloins were perched upon two disks of potato and garnished with squash, asparagus, and carrots. All were cooked to perfection and devoured by our beef-eaters, though one allowed others to sample hers...

The Chilean Sea Bass was also a taste treat, served on a bed of mashed potato with a generous portion of tomato cream sauce, two tender shrimp, sweet caramelized onions, and a short sprig of rosemary. The sides of potatoes or rice were served in separate dishes, and we made good use of them to soak up the excess sauce. The Albarino continued to serve us well in complementing the dish.

Feeling satiated and not over-full, we perused the dessert menu. To coffee all around we added flan, lemon mousse, and rice pudding. The flan was cool, firm, and excellent, as was the rice pudding dusted with cinnamon. The lemon mousse was topped with walnuts, and was much thicker than expected. It reminded one diner of her mother's home-made lemon ice-box pie filling made with fresh lemons. It was a veritable explosion of lemon, and quite delightful.

Given the prompt and attentive service Raul was providing, you may be surprised at the reduced service scoring above. The problems started when the bill arrived. For our party of six it came to a very reasonable $348 but it had a gratuity pre-included of $64.60, or 18.55%. Very odd because the service was better than 18% worth, and it's unusual to see service added for parties of six. It had 22 lines of itemized expenses and seemed at a glance to be complete. One of my eagle-eyed dining companions noted that we had only been charged for one bottle of white. Raul quickly made the modification and returned with the new bill: $385 with $71.40 (18.55%) again pre-added. We each tossed a credit card in (3 total) and Raul became visibly upset. He explained that the menu clearly stated there would be a service fee charged should the bill be split more than two ways - an interesting interpretation of the actual language, but understandable. I pointed to the "Gratuity Added" line and said, "It's already there."

Raul explained that was a gratuity, and the service fee for the extra credit card would be 16% IN ADDITION TO the pre-added gratuity! He suggested that perhaps one party could pay cash, and he would split the rest between two cards. One couple drained their collective collections of cash to make this happen. Even so entire staff had to fuss with the bill for about 15 minutes afterward. They returned with two bills, evenly split and exactly correct, both pre-charged to the two cards. No opportunity (or inclination on our parts) to increase the gratuity. It's not really fair to blame Raul for this ridiculous hassle dictated by management policy, and he at least thanked us (discreetly) for catching the wine error.

The whole episode became a wet blanket tossed on an otherwise good time for no good reason. It seemed very "un-American" treatment, so perhaps that's a tribute to the restaurant's authenticity. It is also certainly a strong de-motivator for future visits, especially for medium to large groups. There are enough competing places in the region with good food and without such hassles. Perhaps this explains why the restaurant was only three-quarters full at 8PM on a Saturday night?

Highs: Ingredient quality, creative dishes, friendly staff and service, good wine selection and prices, reasonable overall cost for the quality
Lows: Annoying payment policy deflated an otherwise enjoyable experience, undisclosed disproportionate pricing between menu items and specials

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

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