Three pieces created in Kabuki mark the different paths of Madrileño sushi’s creative development. Photo by Joaquín Secall.
Madrid Reinvents Sushi
It all began seven years ago in Kabuki. A daring chef put truffle pâté and scallion in a nigiri of Atlantic halibut. He unwittingly began a revolution which has turned Madrid into a capital of Japanese fusion.
El País: Madrid reinventa el ‘sushi’
Carmen Pérez-Lanzac reporting from Madrid October 28, 2011
In the summer of 2010, Luis Arévalo locked himself up for three months in a local restaurant in Fuenlabrada and set about the difficult task of starting a luxury restaurant from scratch, the first to be 100% under his control. After his professional formation in Japanese restaurants in Peru, Chile, and Spain, the sushiman had realized the dream of every aspiring chef: two investors had offered to help him open a local restaurant. “The only thing that matters to us is the bottom line,” they said. Arévalo, a 42-year old who hails from Iquitos in the Peruvian jungle, now remembers those days while cleaning an enormous piece of fish belly (the prized toro) behind the bar of Nikei 225, his luxury restaurant (15 Castellana Street). “The first two weeks, my creativity was blocked. Then I realized that the key was my memories of what I had eaten during my life.”
Arévalo took typically Peruvian flavors – kebabs and heart brochettes, yellow pepper, Huancaína sauce – and began to combine them with sushi. “With the help of a table, I crossed different sauces with different seafood. That’s how I learned that Huancaína sauce doesn’t go with salmon, but it does go with scallops, and Atlantic halibut was perfect for marinated kebabs.” From the luck of the laboratory came, among other discoveries, a dozen nigiris which have contributed to the success of the restaurant. This chef who arrived in Spain by bus from France to get around customs and who worked without papers (“until Saint Zapatero gave them to me”) behind the bars of various Japanese restaurants is now “one of the best nikkei (Japanese-Peruvian fusion) cooks in the world,” according to gastronomic critic José Carlos Capel.
Every day more palates know the pleasure of a traditional nigiri (literally “fistfuls”), the bite-sized combination of a piece of raw fish (or seafood) on a ball of rice (prepared with vinegar, sugar, and salt) which when eaten provokes an explosion of contrasts that forces a diner to close his eyes in pure delight. In Madrid, in addition to the widespread popularity of traditional sushi, which is at an all-time high, there is a second generation of creative chefs that would scandalize many Japanese. Recognized sushimen who were born far from Asia are reinventing the product here in their own fashion. “They don’t have any mental barriers; they are more free and adventurous,” says Roger Ortuño, publicist and author of the web site comerjapones.com (“Eat Japanese”), which receives more than 56,000 unique visitors per month.
In addition to restaurants where one can find sushi with touches of fusion, like the U.S.-inspired makis (rolls) at Miyama (5 Flor Baja and 45 Castellana), the temaki (hand-rolled sushi) with Mexican spice at Minabo (8 Caracas), one must add another group of restaurants that have converted the city into a paradise for diners who like to experiment: the two Kabuki (2 Presidente Carmona and 6 Velázquez), the two 99 Sushi Bars (4 Hermosilla and 99 Ponzano), Nikkei 225 (15 Castellana), and Soy (58 Viriato). They are first class restaurants at which, even if one shows great self-control, it’s difficult to spend less than 50 euros per head.
To understand this trend, one must return to 2003, to the Kabuki on Presidente Carmona Street. There, the sushiman Ricardo Sanz, who had already added touches of olive oil and Maldon salt to sashimi (raw fish), made a leap of faith. Inspired by the classic rusk canapé with butter and imitation caviar, he created a nigiri of Atlantic halibut with truffle pâté and scallion. “It was a bombshell,” recalls Chef David Arauz, who then worked for Kabuki, “a novel nigiri that has now gone worldwide.”
After this success, Sanz continued inventing. Inspired by the cojonudos of Burgos (a tapa with quail egg and chorizo) and the huevo roto with truffle which his friend Abraham García was serving in Viridiana, he created a nigiri with fried quail egg and truffle pâté. After that, in self-homage (he’d run a hamburger shop for 22 years), he invented a nigiri using wagyu (Japanese beef) hamburger with tomato and onion.
Eight years have passed, and the creations of this restaurant have been shamelessly copied in dozens of restaurants. Sanz, for his part, has not stopped innovating with his favorite dishes as reference. He has turned the grouper with suckling pig typical to Mallorca into a nigiri of grouper with Iberian bacon. Madrileño stew inspired gunkan (nigiri wrapped in seaweed) with bone marrow and huevos rotos with ham, bull tartar, quail egg, and Canary potato.
All this experimentation is not unanimously approved of. Pedro Espina of Soy, the only one of the aforementioned chefs to train in Japan, has a more traditional perspective. His story is worth telling. He hails from a town in Murcia and competed in martial arts in the smallest weight class, which obligated him to stay under 58 kilograms. “I suffered much – like anorexics, poor things – everywhere but Japan, where I ate and didn’t gain weight. That ended my depression. I was amazed, and I became an apprentice at a local restaurant.”
Espina does not consider himself a sushiman but rather an itamae. It’s something different. Each nigiri should have its reiki (spirit). You should live in an almost spiritual state,” he explained. “The ingredients have a cycle of life, and you take them in your hand and take them to the next cycle.” Espina tries to make the most of the best Spanish resources in order to realize his creations, but he is not in favor of certain mixes: “cooking is like music. Before composing, you must master the theory. A nigiri is a fusion of ingredients, a fiesta of feelings, but there had to be a harmony. I hope my companions forgive me, but I don’t agree with certain mixes which are bad for the body. We’ve run a lot.”
In addition to Ricardo Sanz of Kabuki, others who trained with him have put their own stamps on the nigiri: in addition to Arévalo, there is the Madrileño David Arauz (age 34), who began to create his own as manager of the 99 Sushi Bar in Hermosilla. Among other creations, he made a gunkan of salt cod brandade and kaffir lime on a wafer of yolk and sesame. “We all like to add our own personal touch, to make one more,” he says in defense of his desire to experiment. “Sushi is being reinvented everywhere, but for some reason not at the same pace as in Madrid. Here we’re more perseverant.”
Sanz’s latest creations (which netted the Kabuki Wellington the first Michelin star for a Spanish Japanese restaurant) give the lie to the impulsiveness of his mind: for example nigiris of barbecued organic vegetables and of bull with grated tomato and crunchy rice bathed in coffee and milk, an homage to the pa amb tomàquet which he likes to dip in his coffee cup at breakfast. Albert Raurich, a disciple of Ferran Adrià and the only Spaniard who runs a luxury Japanese restaurant in Barcelona (Dos Palillos), broke into laughter when he heard of Sanz’s latest invention: “Ricardo is going to the madhouse!” he says. “[But seriously,] he’s a great sushiman who’s very level-headed. If anyone else made it, it would be a catastrophe, but I trust his judgment,” he concedes. Sanz, for his part, struggles to theorize about his success: “When I spend a day behind the bar, it’s difficult to have a sense of perspective. The reality is that I’m basically alone,” he says. “There isn’t a road to tell me which way to go. I believe in my instinct. What I see is that Madrid is one of the European cities with the highest quality Japanese cuisine. It’s astonishing. And it’s such a curious touristic draw that I don’t understand why it hasn’t been exploited more.”