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Celebrating the New Year and Enjoying the Old at the Palace Hotel in Madrid

After all the hoopla over the start of the new millennium last year, we were surprised to discover that in Madrid, this momentous marker belongs to the start of 2001 which gave guests at the Palace Hotel's New Year's Eve party -- the hottest ticket in town -- great cause for celebration.  As the final minute of 2000 ticked away, each masked partygoer downed twelve grapes successively in time to a gong, and then let loose a joyous shout of "Feliz Ano!"

There followed a release of confetti, a cacophony of noisemakers, and many passionate embraces, some (and we speak from personal experience) from complete strangers. Through the next hours, the band played, the revelers in ball gowns and tuxedos danced across the marble floor, and everyone wished one another the happiest of new years.  It was certainly the happiest New Year we'd ever witnessed and the most beautiful as well. The party was held in the famed Jardin de Invierno, the fabulous circular lobby of the Palace that is surrounded by Baroque pillars and topped with a huge dome of blue and gold glass panes, swirled with images of ribbons and garlands of roses.

The Palace Hotel is one of the loveliest of the Belle Epoque structures that came up during the early decades of the last century. With its white curved façade and elaborate ornamentation, it is a landmark in the heart of Madrid and witness to the dramatic events of Spain's twentieth century history -- even being converted into a hospital during wartime. What an appropriate place it was to celebrate the new millennium, the democracy Spain has become, and the peaceful future it will hopefully enjoy.

All eyes were on the future that glorious New Year's Eve 2000--2001, but a few days later when we returned to have dinner at the Palace’s La Cupola, time turned around and we felt transported back to a day when the twentieth century was still new.

La Cupola, named for the aforementioned dome just outside the restaurant, is richly decorated and spacious, bespeaking the luxury and leisure of the Gilded Age. Its entrance is a pair of elaborate and massive wrought iron doors of the kind seen on the balconies of the old palaces that still remain in the Salamanca section of Madrid. Within, the walls are covered in gold damask and hung with Renaissance-type paintings. The floor is carpeted with a red and gold floral design, and the ceiling is ornate plasterwork. Seated in plush chairs before a gleaming table of inlaid wood, we could easily imagine we were back in old Spain.

A Table for Two in La Cupola - Photo by Harvey Frommer
A Table for Two in La Cupola - Photo by Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge

Angel Sastre, who has been maitre d’ and sommelier at La Cupola for nine years, guided us through a dinner that seemed like a scene in an Edith Wharton novel, except for the fact that Angel's old world graciousness combined with a contemporary sense of humor. His original ambition was to be a bullfighter, he told us. Then he thought to be a chemist. But finally, he decided to follow in his father's footsteps and enter the gastronomic world. He's been happy ever since, particularly as he said, "I am in the one of the best places in Madrid."

A basket of little rolls and a dish of butter sprinkled with poppy seeds was set before us followed by a delectable "amuse bouche" -- a pate made of cod fish and salmon, a little fennel, olive oil and white truffles. Already Angel was looking like an angel to us, and so we listened attentively as he began describing the varied dishes on La Cupola’s extensive menu. But no sooner did he mention a Mediterranean fish soup, when the soup lover among us broke in: “Can I have some?”

It was a spicy seafood broth made with whitefish, codfish, hake, red mullet, and mussels. Meanwhile, his partner was presented with what looked like an exotic plant. Actually it was a crown of asparagus tips and a single lobster tail set on a base of white cheese, dressed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and topped with a spoonful of Beluga caviar, a delight to the palate as much as the eye.

As sommelier, Angel manages La Cupola’s enormous wine cellar that stores 30,000 bottles of mostly Spanish but also French and Californian wines. To accompany our first course, he suggested a Spanish Chardonnay fermented in oak barrels. “Fifteen, twenty years ago, the whites wines were typically fermented in oak barrels," he told us. "Then the trend changed. Steel vats came into use as the taste was for more aromatic wines. But now we are entering a new phase away from the steel vats and back to the barrels.” The Chardonnay he recommended came from Somontano in the Pyrenees; the domain is Mont de Siera.  Crisp and dry with a distinctive woody flavor, it was an excellent choice.

La Cupola serves a great variety of game, poultry, lamb, and beef representing cuisine from all parts of Spain.  The wild boar and goat were too exotic for our tastes. We were tempted to try the beef sliced in layers and wrapped in arugula with black olives and mushrooms. But true to form, we settled on selections from the sea.

“Hake is a specialty of the northern part of Spain from cold waters of the Cantabrian Sea,” Angel had told us. “Cod also comes from this area.” And so we dined on the tenderest hake artfully presented on a milky glass plate and breaded cod sautéed with lots of garlic, seasoned with saffron, served with prawns and squid ink. For this course we drank a deep, rich Rioja: Monte Cillo Grand Reserve 1997 and determined to find it back home.

One of us vowed to skip dessert but all will power fled in the face of crème caramel with slices of quince and Catalonian cream with raspberries. These dishes concluded a memorable dinner in an atmosphere of old world grace and elegance.

We left the Palace Hotel and walked into the wintry night.  Before us was the grand Baroque Neptune Plaza, where the god of the deep, pitchfork in hand, stands in a chariot drawn by seahorses amidst splashing fountains. Three world-class museums: the Prado, Thyssen, and Reina Sofia were in walking distance, two of them literally steps away. It occurred to us that as Madrid looks ahead to a brand new century and millennium, it so well conserves the artistic and aesthetic splendors of its past. Surely the Palace Hotel and its La Cupola restaurant are emblematic of this blending of the richness of yesterday with the promise of tomorrow. 

The Westin Palace
Plaza de las Cortes, 7
28014 Madrid, Spain
Restaurant: La Cupola

Phone: 34-91 360 72 22

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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