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Cigar Aficionado

Zalacain, Madrid

Cigar friendly hardly sums up the open attitude toward cigars that permeates Spanish culture. As in no other Western society, the pleasures of a great smoke are considered sacrosanct in Spain. There are tobacco shops on nearly every corner in bustling downtown Madrid; each carries a wide selection of the best cigars available. This is also true of the many upscale eateries, particularly Zalacaín, Madrid's only three-star Michelin Guide-rated restaurant, where it is customary to offer the amply stocked humidor to female as well as male patrons.

Zalacaín received the coveted three-star rating in 1982, only nine years after it opened its doors. It has since become a temple to a new style of Spanish cuisine that uses traditional ingredients to create dishes with an international flair. The unassuming entrance to the restaurant, located on the ground floor of a posh apartment block in one of the city's more stylish residential areas, belies the luxurious interior. Inside, a suite of intimate rooms, straddling a wide central hall, recedes into the near distance. The claret-colored walls, artfully appointed tables and soft lighting create an elegant atmosphere. As in any Spanish restaurant, the peak dinner hour is late, and by 10:30 p.m. the ambience is lively, with conversations spiced with English, French, German, Italian and Japanese, as well as Spanish.

The Navarrese-born chef Benjamín Urdaín, who describes his food as "Spanish continental," came to Madrid to open Zalacaín more than 22 years ago. His menu mixes the exotic with the unpretentious, featuring such specialties as chilled cream of wild mushroom soup with caviar in gelatin and a simple oxtail stew with thyme. "The important thing is that the ingredients be of high quality and absolutely as fresh as possible," says the soft-spoken Urdaín of his cooking philosophy. Pride in his basic materials is evident in the trattoria-style display of foods that greets guests in the antechamber, including an assortment of fresh and smoked fish, unplucked pheasants and partridges, lobster, crabs, oysters, caviar, foie gras, aged cheeses and whole country hams.

Despite the obvious attention given to atmosphere at Zalacaín, the focus here is squarely where it belongs: on the food. On one evening, the wide-ranging menu included a dozen choices of appetizers and almost as many in the fish, foul, meat and dessert categories. A random selection produced appetizers of lamb and duck sweetbreads with shrimp in a light white-wine sauce, warm wild partridge and pheasant salad in a creamy vinaigrette and wild mushroom foie gras lasagna, followed by main courses of Spanish scallops in an Albariño wine sauce and roast lamb cutlets in a Sherry and lamb kidney sauce. The portions were huge and the dishes rich almost to a fault.

There is no faulting Zalacaín's wine list. It is probably the most comprehensive offering of Spanish wines in the world. The big surprise is the low cost of the wines, most of which list for below retail prices. The Vega Sicilia 1968 Gran Reserva, a world-class wine that is virtually unavailable on the retail market, is listed at a reasonable $125. A Valdepeñas Ibor is a modest $8. A request for assistance from the sommelier yielded a 1993 Conte de Valdemar Rioja Blanca ($14) and a 1987 Torres Gran Coronas Mas La Plata single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($30), which were exceptionally well matched to the appetizers, scallops and lamb.

The staff, like the sommelier, is efficient if somewhat reserved. Yet they are so numerous that at times the waiters seem like a covey of white doves fluttering about the tables. They are eager to please and will happily split dishes, pace the meal to suit your particular style and meet any special requests you may have.

Have no fear if you're too full to sample one of the sumptuous cakes or tarts for dessert. A tray of chocolate truffles, palmiers and almond biscuits will arrive with the coffee. Meanwhile, sit back and enjoy a Carlos I or Duque de Alba brandy and a cigar. Maître d' José Luis Jimenez has made it his business to know about cigars. "Cigars are like women," he says. "The best of them are strong flavored and mature, yet full of subtle intricacies."

The humidor that Jimenez offered late one evening was exclusively Cuban: a full selection of Cohibas and Davidoffs, Montecristo coronas and torpedoes and Rey del Mundo demitasses. No one will mind if you smoke before, during and after dinner at Zalacaín. The ventilation system is excellent. So closely does the restaurant identify itself as cigar friendly that its menu cover features a New Yorker-style cartoon depicting a well-sated gentleman lingering over a cigar and brandy.

A word to the wise: if you're making a quick trip to Madrid and want to sample the delights at Zalacaín, better plan ahead. The restaurant is always full.

Alvarez de Baena, 4-6, Madrid
Phone: 34-1-561-4840
Lunch and dinner: about $80 to $150 per person with wine