Madrid has a (comparatively) new culinary nirvana: the in-town reincarnation of Coque, opened in August of 2017. After over 40 years, three generations, and two Michelin stars in a small Castilian town about a dozen miles southwest of Madrid, the restaurant's Sandoval brothers — Rafael, Diego, and Mario — have taken center stage in the Spanish capital.
Occupying a rambling, three-floor, nearly 12,000-square-foot corner space designed by Mexican-born architect Jean Porsche, just off the Spanish capital’s sweeping north-south Paseo de la Castellana, Coque is staffed by some 45 sous-chefs and servers, along with chef Mario, sommelier Diego, and maître d’hotel Rafael.
The restaurant is named for the Sandovals’ beloved maternal grandfather, Álvaro “Coque” Huertas, who started the place as a bar and restaurant in 1951, imbuing it with his personality as a passionate hunter and livestock trader with a gift for PR. Coque’s wife, Isidra Martín, had the best kitchen skills of the five daughters of a renowned cook, and between game, livestock, and culinary talent (and a thriving kitchen garden), the family business prospered. The modern-day brothers’ mother, Teresa, worked alongside Isidra from the age of 13 until, after Isidra's untimely death, she took charge of the kitchen at 22. Her husband, Rafael Sandoval, gradually replaced Coque as the maître d’ while Mario and his siblings played happily in the kitchen from an early age.
Mario, who became chef in 1977, credits his roots and the traditional recipes learned from his parents and grandparents as the basis from which he innovates original tastes and textures. “Top ingredients from our own garden or from nearby and well-known producers combined with ‘la cocina de la memoria,’ traditional cooking, plus my own ideas and innovations are what make Coque what it is,” explained Sandoval at the end of a recent multi-course tour-de-force dinner embellished with thought-provoking wine pairings from all over Europe and beyond.
A key ingredient in Sandoval’s cuisine is his partnership with Dr. Marta de Miguel of Madrid's CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, or Superior Council of Scientific Research — the largest public research institution in Spain) with whom he experiments with innovations using such materials as egg whites and vegetable fibers in designing recipes with health as well as taste benefits in mind. Mario’s latest R&D efforts feature the fibers (which he calls “food’s hidden ingredient”) found in various foods (cacao, corn, shrimp heads), which chefs use to “add nuances, emulsify, simulate other ingredients, alter textures, add volume or change the dimension of dishes.” At this year’s Madrid Fusión, Sandoval demonstrated his use of grape fibers to make meringues and of vegetable fibers to decorate dishes with crunchy and colorful wafers.
The new Coque, in the collective opinion of four international restaurant critics gathered there for the occasion, has nothing to envy about any of Spain’s most iconic tables. Arzak, El Celler de Can Roca, Akelare, Mugaritz, Berasategui… Coque may be better than any of them.
Our navigation through Coque’s Q+18 tasting menu began downstairs in the cocktail lounge, where the Coque Club apéritif of Four Roses whiskey, Yzaguirre vermouth, and dry sherry, served over a cactus pear from the Canary Islands, provided a healthy pectin and magnesium antidote to any over-serving about to be committed on the premises. Abalone with lime "pearls," a bite of anti-oxidant polyphenols, and Canary Island papas arrugadas (wrinkled potatoes) with a mojo picón spicy sauce accompanied the cocktail. After a trip to the bodega for a dry sherry poured from overhead in the spectacular traditional style by an expert wielding a venencia, a flexible three-foot rod ending in a small cup, we proceeded to the chapel for a flute of 2009 Dom Pérignon accompanied by Gregorian chant, an Ibérico ham crisp, and a paprika macaron with a creamy, pungent Torta del Casar sheep's milk cheese from Extremadura.
An elevator operated by a young woman equipped with a headset and microphone whisked us up to the kitchen where, at the edge of a stainless steel counter, we found Mahou wheat beer and a pig's foot säam (Korean spring roll). Farther into the kitchen — past a score of sous-chefs in spotless toques and tunics, revolving like excited sea gulls around high-priest Mario — we enjoyed a red-leg partridge taco, near the wood oven awaiting piglets to be roasted.
Finally, in the sala, or dining room, decorated in soothing vegetal tones, we were met by Diego Sandoval and our server, Giorgio, fluent in Italian, English and Spanish. Giorgio looked to be about 19, but he commands, as we were about to find out, encyclopedic knowledge of every dish, recipe, ingredient, cooking time, and temperature we are about to experience.
First came the allegro movement, a selection of lighter offerings paired with white wines. A fragrant consommé of wild hare with wild mushroom foam and a white shrimp with its head succulently fried into a sauce with a froth of carrot were graced by more Dom Pérignon. Stewed saffron milk cap mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus) with a hake pil-pil (an emulsion of olive oil and hake gelatin cooked at low temperature) and both smoked eel and baby eels — red-lining my anguillometer! — on a corn wafer were matched with a 2015 Domaine de la Garenne Mâcon-Azé. Next up was a “Gastrogenómica” of smoked seeds with a range of baby vegetables from asparagus tips to baby carrots and spring peas paired with a crisp but full-bodied 2015 Ruppertsberger Riesling.
The next movement, andante, moved into heartier fare: sherry-pickled pheasant with duck liver with a 2014 oak-aged Parés Baltà Electio Xarel.lo from Catalonia’s Penedés region. A "mar y montaña" (literally "sea and mountain" — i.e., surf ‘n' turf) followed, consisting of giant red crab in a sauce of callos a la madrileña, the classic Madrid tripe stew, with sea urchin roe and pie azul mushrooms (Lepista nuda, known as wood blewit), all accompanied by a smoky Fernando de Castilla Fino en Rama (unfiltered sherry). Then, completing this trio of darker aromas and textures, came Ibérico pork dewlap (neck skin) with roast piquillo pepper, egg yolk, and Mario’s own essence of black truffle, matched with a 2015 Verónica Ortega Bierzo Version Original.
The adagio started with perfectly (barely) cooked red tuna with tamarillo (a small South American fruit also called tree tomato), passion fruit, and grapevine shoots, accompanied by Angelo Gaja's 2014 Ca' Marcanda Promis, a super-Tuscan composed of perfectly tuned merlot, sangiovese, and syrah grapes. Aromatic hare à la royale with goose liver, mole, and wild mushroom followed, paired with an earthy 2012 Château de la Dauphine from Bordeaux's Fronsac region. The final savory offering was wood-oven-roasted piglet with delicate, crunchy skin, matched by a wonderfully balanced, tannic, black currant-flavored 2007 Klein Constantia Anwilka (a blend of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon with a touch of petit verdot) from Stellenbosch in South Africa.
The three-dessert coda — strawberries with orange foam and acidic yogurt, almond cake with cream of thyme and Mahón cheese ice cream, and "textures of chocolate," served with Graham’s 10-Year-Old Tawny Port, 2015 Disznókő 1413 Tokaji, and Gonzalez Byass Noé Pedro Ximénez — provided unexpected refreshment after all that had come before.
Coque was unforgettable. Every detail, from the sous-chefs’ immaculate toques to the waiters' gloves (white for the heated plates, black for the silverware), had been lovingly perfected, while everybody in the building appeared to be completely committed to — and knowledgeable about — every aspect of the Sandoval show.
Coque and Isidra would be proud.
Here are some recommendations for more first-rate dining in Spain and its Iberian neighbor, Portugal.