Having enjoyed tapas and paella over the years at Don Quijote in Milwaukee, Cafe Ba Ba Reeba and especially Emilio’s Tapas in Chicagoland, we were excited when Manny Salinas and Natalie Pope opened Olde Madrid this past July on Racine’s Historic 6th Street, a dynamic little strip of food and culture that runs west from downtown Racine.
During two visits this month, both on Saturday nights, we found the restaurant packed with lively patrons, people generally in their thirties to fifties wearing slightly upscale casual attire. Olde Madrid has been a big hit, winning several mentions in 2007’s Best of Racine County, including second-place in the Best New Restaurant category.
The room is long and somewhat narrow, with dark hardwood floors, mustard-orange walls trimmed in blue, and track lighting from a tin ceiling painted white. Plants, wrought iron, and mirrors ornament the perimeter. The cozy wooden tables, approximately fifteen in all, are coated with polyurethane, and the colonial-style wooden chairs have comfortable padded seats. With any more seating, the restaurant would feel cramped. The preference of Wisconsin diners to drape their bulky winter coats over their chairs adds to the snugness a little, although there is a coat rack up front. The bar at the rear of the room seats about ten, and wine bottles are displayed in the rack behind it. We could make out faint classical guitar music if we listened very carefully, but the overall ambience is a constant bustle of plates and conversation.
Customers are welcomed with a small basket of baguette slices and a serving of a bland roasted red pepper hummus. Olde Madrid’s bread is an immediate weak point. It has almost no crust, body, or flavor. It’s the sort of bread you might get with a church spaghetti dinner, although perhaps this is authentic to Spain; I don’t know. Someone should run to Panera Bread or at least to Pick ‘n Save for some La Brea baguettes, because it would make an enormous difference.
The menu features 18 hot tapas and 11 cold tapas selections, as well as nine paella variations and six entrées. We have not tried the entrées, sticking just to tapas on our first visit and then sharing a paella on the second which, as the menu advises, requires a fairly quick 25 minutes to prepare.
The paella was not what we had hoped for. At the recommendation of our waitress, we chose the Marisco (“seafood”) Tradicionale ($11.99), billed as “shrimp, squid, scallops, cod and octopus, simmered in a garlic chili broth and seasoned with fresh dill.” It arrived piping hot, in a traditional paella pan (also very hot). However, rather than a fragrant bed of stock-simmered rice atop a deliciously crusty bottom (the socarrat), this paella was more like an oily fried rice mixed with sad vegetables and seafood. Saffron was inconspicuous. The entire dish contained three unremarkable shrimp, supplemented by a few more tiny salad shrimp. We detected no scallops or cod whatsoever. There was some squid, and perhaps some octopus (hard to say), and also five beige bivalves that we took for clams, but which our server identified as mussels. We did not taste garlic or chili, nor find any dill, but there were a few bits of parsley. The small, diced carrots were mushy and perhaps previous frozen, and the drab peas reminded us of the kind sold in cans. I would much rather pay twice the very low price of this dish for better ingredients, properly prepared.
Between our two visits, we also sampled seven hot tapas dishes and one cold one. (It’s February here in Wisconsin).
Because they are based on the previously lamented bread, Baked Goat Cheese ($4.99) and Broiled Pesto Tomatoes ($4.99) both suffered. The goat cheese, here mixed with a marinara sauce, did not have the wild nose that it should, but seemed more like a manicotti filling. The tomatoes, although pink and drab themselves, did pick up good flavor from the broiling and the pesto olive oil.
Salmon Fresco in Mojo Sauce ($7.99) was a dud. The salmon chunks were not fresh enough, the mojo sauce was overpowering and slightly bitter. Much better were the Seville Crab Cakes ($7.99), a simple but tasty preparation of herbed crab meat, bread crumbs, and lime.
Roasted Chicken and Cherries ($5.99) was fine. It’s not difficult to throw some pine nuts, olives, and dried cherries together into a sauce over chicken breast meat, but we did track down and savor every last bit of this item. Cured Ham and Manchego ($6.99), our one cold plate, was a sufficient sample of some prosciutto-like, Spanish-style cured ham and a few slices of Manchego cheese, served with pesto-brushed baguette slices.
One of the tapas selections we loved most was the Bullfighter Beef Skewers ($6.99), a straightforward presentation of beef kebabs, red onions, and bell peppers with a garlic and white wine glaze, served with an orange dipping sauce. The beef was high quality, tender, and deliciously grilled, and the sauce complemented it nicely. Our other favorite was the Spanish Calamari ($6.99), a generous serving of tasty and tender squid rings, deep-fried with the lightest and airiest possible batter, almost like Japanese tempura. We don’t know that we’ve ever had better calamari, and we mostly ignored the marinara dipping sauce to enjoy it as-is.
The wine list at Olde Madrid is concise but adequate, with six whites and 14 reds ranging from $22 to $95 per bottle (for Beaulieu Vineyard Tapestry Reserve), and including a number of Spanish and Argentine options. Most of the wines can also be ordered by the glass ($5.50 to $8.00). We paired a Los Vascos Sauvignon Blanc (Chile) with our seafood paella. Sangria is offered in both red and white variations for $3.50 per glass or $13 per pitcher. We drank the red version with a variety of tapas, and it resembled ordinary commercial sangria from a jug, but with added diced fruit. Authentic sangria would be much better, but few restaurants go to that trouble. There is also a list of 13 well-known beers, ranging from $2.75 to $4.25 per bottle.
For dessert, Olde Madrid serves varying selections ($5.49) from Cheesecakes by Jewels, just down the street to the east. The one Amy was served was a heart-shaped chocolate number, apparently on hand from Valentine’s Day two days before. Plated atop gushes of raspberry-chocolate sauce, it was kind of a sweet, sticky mess. My Orange Zest Flan ($4.99) was clean and refreshing, yet also just rich enough to satisfy.
Service during both of our visits was professional and timely, despite the restaurant being completely full each time. Our waitresses checked on us at appropriate intervals, cleared plates quickly, and answered any questions we had. Ice water, in tall plastic glasses, was available upon request.
Overall, it’s really wonderful to see a young chef-owner (Manny Salinas is only 28) enjoying such success by bringing something creative and out-of-the-ordinary to our nicely developing downtown, and we’ll be excited to watch this warm little restaurant as he fine-tunes things.
For the two of us, our bills for the two evenings, before tip, totaled $61 and $64 including alcohol and tax. Olde Madrid accepts cash or Visa and MasterCard only. They are open weekdays 11-2 for lunch, and 4:30-9 for dinner. Saturday hours are 4:30-10. Their phone number is (262) 619-0940.