In the middle of Madrid's Cava Baja - a street which is home to some of the most traditional tapas bars in the city - Pablo, Javi and José opened a friendly little bar called Casa Lucas on 22 December 1997. Their plan was to serve cocina creativa de mercado - original, well-thought-out dishes made with first-class ingredients from the nearby food market, incorporating techniques and recipes from all over the world. This was a revelation in Madrid, where it was possible to get a little weary of the ubiquitous patatas bravas, boquerones en vinagre and croquetas de jamon.
They were way ahead of their time - it's taken a good 12 years for other establishments to catch up. Now, though, cocina creativa has become the latest thing in Madrid cuisine; and the La Latina district, in particular the Cava Baja, is the cauldron where it's bubbling. For example, today on Casa Lucas's menu you'll find homemade black canneloni filled with seafood and curried vegetables with a queso fresco (a type of crumbly, feta-like Spanish cheese) cream sauce (€12), and in nearby bar/restaurant/cocktail club La Musa Latina, the adventurous can dine on anca de rana marinadas (frogs' legs marinated in soya, lime and ginger).
North of La Latina are more venues which exemplify this trend. In Calle San Mateo, which is between Chueca, the lively gay area, and Malasaña, home of the original Madrid party scene, Olé Lola, a fabulous new bar and restaurant, opened recently. Olé Lola's chef, Jesús Pedranza, says that, unsurprisingly, with the credit crunch, there is not much appetite for the €90 carte de dégustation. "We needed to find a new way of innovating, but inexpensively. So even the Michelin-starred chefs are exploring other cuisines and incorporating their techniques and ingredients into traditional Spanish dishes."
Whatever the whys and wherefores, in the steamy kitchens of Madrid there's a sizzling revolution taking place which may transform Spanish cuisine for good.
One of Olé Lola's three owners, Daniel Castillo, designed its gloriously baroque interior, where framed bullfighters and plañideras (hired mourners) gaze at the friendly, laidback clientele who lounge about on voluptuous velvet sofas - a vision of tradition and modernity living in harmony. This concept extends to the food, where crunchy fried fish and translucent thins of tortilla with coriander peer from artful paper pyramids, with names like Lola se va a los puertos (Lola goes to the ports), a reference to the 1929 Machado Brothers play. This is 21st-century tapas at its most innovative, taking age-old Spanish fare and spinning it into something quite novel, yet beautiful.
• Calle San Mateo, 28 (0034 913 106 695, olelola.com). Metro Tribunal, Alonso Martínez.
Baco y Beto
According to local legend the eponymous, gregarious Beto uses an interesting method to create new spins on well-known recipes: he closes on Sundays so that he has time to translate the fevers of his Saturday night dreams into dishes such as duck breast marinated in tequila and soya milk - not exactly a classic tapas combination. He's also inspired by his Cuban/Costa Rican heritage. Try Beto's patacónes (green plantain puff pastry tarts filled with avocado, served with mashed beans and cheese), and follow that with his sumptuous take on tiramisu.
• Calle de Pelayo, 24 (+915 228 441, bacoybeto.com). Metro Chueca.
The perfect place to sip a beer at the bar and chat to locals. The waiters are super welcoming, and oooh, the salmorejo (€7), like gazpacho, but thicker, creamier, garlickier. It's like being cuddled by Julio Iglesias.
• Calle Humilladero, 5 (+913 669 056). Mtro La Latina.
Located in a little plaza in the heart of Malasaña, near Olé Lola and Baco y Beto, is the summery, spacious Ojala (sister bar to La Musa and La Musa Latina), popular with groups who partake of its para compartir (to share) menu. This stars their mouth-watering €18 degustación de tapas (tuna pasties, salmon ceviche, caramelised chicken, vegetable tempura and cream), a fabulous example of Madrid's new fusion tapas cuisine. Downstairs, there's a beachy cocktail club complete with sandy floor, perfect for dancing barefoot to Spanish funk, ojala cocktail (peach, lemon and vodka) in hand.
• Calle San Andrés 1 (+915 232 747, ojala-restaurante.com) Metro Tribunal, Noviciado.
Only Spanish wine is served in Tempranillo, but you have a choice of 160 different ones (25 available by the glass) with which to complement a tosta de gambas (grilled shrimp on toast, €6). Tempranillo's owner Juan was once a waiter at the Spanish senate, and today you'll find elder and younger statespeople in the congenial crush at the bar. If such close contact isn't your thing, arrive when it opens at 8pm and cross your fingers you get a table.
• Cava Baja. 38 (+91 3641532). Metro La Latina.
Once a week the respected chef Valentín Rubín visits the warm and friendly Casa Lucas and prepares a dish for the customers. He teaches the young, energetic staff to cook it, and then it's on the menu for the week. One recent marvel was quite the creamiest rice in which a raisin has ever nestled. For €5, try the Madrid tapa, a canape spread with tomato confit topped with a mixture of scrambled egg, blood sausage, raisins and pine nuts, and decorated with fried potato sticks - a delectable spin on an old classic. This new-age tapas bar also serves good wine by the glass, holds regular wine tastings and was last year rated one of the top 50 bars in Spain by Metrópoli magazine.
• Cava Baja, 30 (+913 650 804, casalucas.es). Metro La Latina.
The dinky La Concha (the shell) is more like a little London cafe than a Madrid tapas bar. Try their canapé de bacalao ahumado (smoked salt cod, €4) with physalis, olive oil and paprika - a dish fit for a king, or even his cat.
• Cava Baja, 7 (+913 650 551). Metro La Latina.
This La Latina institution serves only pale drinks: beer, white wine, dry sherry. Order a glass of dry, nutty Barbadillo wine or their extraordinarily refreshing cerveza con mosto (beer with grape juice), and enjoy with Almendro 13's celebrated roscas (€8), giant bagels filled with cheese, salmon or jamon serrano, to be shared between two or three friends.
• Almendro, 13 (+913 654 252). Metro La Latina.
La Musa Latina
This colourful cafe/bar/restaurant/club serves tomates verdes fritos (fried green tomatoes with goat's cheese (€7), which should be enjoyed with their delicious Luisa cocktail, a mixture of cava, sugar, brandy, Grand Marnier, angostura bitters and orange juice (€7), or even a Scottish tea (Scotch, black tea and sugar, €7).
• Costanilla San Andrés, 12 (+913 540 255, lamusalatina.com). Metro La Latina.
La Musa Cervecería
Smaller and more intimate than Ojala and La Musa Latina, this is the place to come with someone you fancy. The restaurant upstairs is high-ceilinged and bright, but the cafe-bar below is all secret nooks and crannies. Share a jabalí (wild boar with honey aioli and spicy sausage, €5.50) tapa for best results.
• Calle Manuela Malasaña, 18 (+914487558). Metro San Bernardo/Bilbao.