Fine Art and Fine
Dining at Madrid's Villa Real
It was the Roman philosopher Seneca who said “Wise
people know how to be among things which exalt their intellect,” but it
is the Spanish hotelier Jordi Clos Llombart who has taken this adage as a
personal mission. By moving
works from his private collection of art to his collection of hotels, he
allows guests the opportunity to exalt their intellects as well their
Jordi Clos is the president of the Derby Hotels
Collection, six unique properties in Barcelona and Madrid. We discovered
one of them, Madrid’s Villa Real as a result of a dinner engagement at
one of its restaurants. Villa Real means royal villa and indeed the name
suits the building which looks like a nineteenth century Spanish palace.
Its seven story sand-stone and white façade is studded with balconies
framed with wrought-iron fences which look down on a statue of Cortez
dominating the plaza below. From the upper floors, all of Madrid spreads
out, the broad boulevards and fountain-filled plazas, the jumbled rooftops
where little towers are ornamented with Baroque design and topped with a
single figure precipitously standing on a steeple’s peak.
The Villa Real sits in the artistic center of Madrid;
its grand trio of museums: the Prado, Thyssen-Bornemezia, and Reina Sofia
are mere minutes away. Yet the hotel is a miniature museum of its own with
eighty works of art that range from classical to
modern times. It does not take long to get the idea.
You enter the creamy marble lobby and immediately come
face-to-torso (sorry, no head) with a life-sized, toga-clad male from
ancient Rome. You turn the corner into East 47, the Villa Real’s eclectic
restaurant which serves dishes like steak tartar and sashimi, and are
greeted with two Andy Warhol takes on Marilyn Monroe. (The restaurant is
named for East 47th Street in New York City where the pop
artist once had a studio.)
Move onto the lounge, and you will be mesmerized, as
we were, by a huge mosaic in shades of gray, beige, pink and yellow. Its
abstract design is suggestive of Modigliani,
but it was created between the first and third centuries.
This room of travertine floors and walls is furnished in Bauhaus
leather sofas and chairs and filled with spectacular antiquities, many of
them mosaics depicting animals or geometric patterns. Go on to the
breakfast room beyond and wonder at a 2,300-year old Greek urn of the sort
that Socrates and Plato might have seen, of the sort that might have moved
John Keats to write “Ode to Beauty.”
The urn was spellbinding, and it took some effort to
break away, but a table was being held for us in Europa, the Mediterranean
restaurant upstairs. And so
we moved onto a room with a very different kind of atmosphere. Here
everything was starkly modern from the gleaming rosewood floor to the cool
white halogen lights recessed in the low ceiling, to the gray suede and
teakwood chairs, to the coarse linen blinds on the windows, even to the
pure white china rimmed with black. The
mood was pristine and subdued so that attention was drawn to the
black-framed graphics and lithographs on the walls by the renowned
contemporary artist, Barcelona-born Antoni Tapies.
It was time for dinner, a different kind of artistry.
So smitten were we by the art, we had forgotten we were hungry.
But all it took was some rustic crusty bread cut into little pieces
and served with olive oil, and a poached egg served on a red potato chip
for our appetites to be revived. The
waiter suggested we try a Rued A Superior 1999, a white wine from
Valladolid, a city northwest of Segovia.
It was dry with just a hint of fruit and a good accompaniment to
the thick and creamy potato soup served with a dollop of Beluga caviar,
and dish of scallops resting on a bed of thinly sliced celery, green
pepper, carrots, and zucchini. One
of us then had poached cod fish served with Egyptian humus – a novel
combination, moreso for its being spiced with cumin, the other risotto
with duck in a brown sauce. Both
were beautifully presented and flavorful.
Desserts were divine: an airy rice pudding on top of
mango soup for one, white and black melted chocolate over a very rich
Catalan cream pudding foam for the other. We each had a glass of
Catalonian champagne which was fruity and foamy and tried, but were
unable, to resist the traditional Spanish sweets: hazelnuts, coffee beans
covered with powdered cocoa, a kind of halvah, little squares of marzipan.
The calories must have reached four figures, but who was counting?
Felix Garcia, the general manager of the Villa Real,
told us that since Jordi Clos purchased the hotel in 1996, it has been
completely renovated. It also moved up from the four to the five star
category. Now they are now hoping to get a gastronomic rating for the
restaurants. From our
perspective, Europa has already earned the highest of ratings.
Chef Joachim Felippe’s preparations were both inventive and
delicious. Presentations were in keeping with the aesthetics of the place;
service was friendly and fluid. And
to dine in the company of Tapies’s art was more than one could bargain
“The Villa Real is a special kind of place,” says
Felix Garcia who started out in the hotel business as a teenage bell boy,
went on to study law, and ended up working at the Villa Real in 1989.
“All our employees begin their career in the industry with us so we can
train them to adopt our style. To us, there are no VIPs. Everyone is
treated the same. Everyone gets a gift from the management when they
arrive. We deliver the newspaper of your choice to your room, the New
York Times, the newspaper from Barcelona, Valencia, whatever you like.
Our clientele is 30% Spanish, 50% American and the rest European and South
American, but Americans are very important to us. This is the kind of
hotel they like. It’s like a jewel.”
Hotel Villa Real
Plaza de las Cortes, 10
2801 4 Madrid, Spain
Phone: 34 91 420 37 67
Photos by Harvey Frommer
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights