In January, I had to go to Madrid for work. And when I say work, I mean work. Early in the morning until late at night, and no time to see the city itself. But I wanted to do something memorable, since I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be back, so I decided to go to a couple of really good restaurants and have some typical Spanish food. Since no one eats dinner until late at night in Madrid anyway, this fit into my schedule nicely.
To get started in the right direction, I asked a taxi driver what his favorite restaurants were. “Casa Botin,” he said, “and Casa Lucio,” and a quick search on the internet proved that the taxi driver wasn’t joking around. I decided to hit up Lucio first, due to the following picture I found on their website, which I couldn’t stop dreaming about:
“The young of the European eel is an authentic luxury that Casa Lucio offers only when it is in season,” I memorized from their website. “This dish is the precise amount of oil and hot pepper in order to preserve its rich flavor.” Mmmm, hot pepper. Mmmm, garlic. Mmmm anything that looks like a big plate of pasta but isn’t a big plate of pasta but is really pure protein instead. I hate pasta. I love pure protein. I couldn’t wait.
I couldn’t wait so badly that on the night before I planned to go to Lucio, I went to the little tapas bar across the street, saw that they had a baby-eel-on-toast tapas for 4.50 euros, and ordered one for dinner. It was tired and marginal, but I loved it anyway, and looked forward to how good it would be when properly prepared in a nice restaurant, instead of sitting around for days in a crappy one.
The next night when I got to Lucio, however, I almost wavered. I often dream about food poisoning – it’s an excellent accidental weight loss technique – so when I saw “steak tartar” on the menu, I briefly wondered which would most likely contain salmonella. Probably the steak tartar. Steak tartare, however, I could get in the States, but I’d never even heard of baby eels before now, so baby eels it had to be.
The baby eels, I noticed, were not listed on the menu with a price. If there’s no price on the menu, I know you’re supposed to ask, but 1) I didn’t want the waiter to think I was cheap, 2) the baby eels from the night before were only 4.50, and 3) maybe in Spain (they did invent the Siesta, after all; who knows how far their sleepiness might carry them), if something doesn’t have a price, it’s the same price as the item above it. The price of the item above the baby eels was 28 euros, which was the average price for most things on the menu. Even if that seemed kind of expensive, I’d known that this experience wasn’t going to be cheap, and I was just going to have to live with whatever it was.
When the waiter brought out the eels, he sort of sizzled them around in some sort of portable cooking receptacle before placing it on the table in front of me. The ritual was impressive, and I tried to remember what he was doing so I could recreate this wonderful dining experience for my parents the next time I went home. The only thing that wasn’t impressive was the size of the plate (small) and the amount of baby eels (even smaller), and my first thought was, “Crap, I’m going to be really hungry after this.”
What little there was, however, was delicious. Like the best plate of el dente pasta imaginable only it wasn’t pasta but tender baby eels. I savored all three bites in about two minutes flat. Not because I wolfed it down, but because it doesn’t take a long time to eat two minutes-worth of food. When I’m finished, the waiter asks if I want coffee or dessert. I say no, so I’m a little surprised when he comes back with a delightful plate of tiny cream puffs and exquisite candied nuts. I’m still hungry, so I eat them all.
While waiting for my check, I play a quick little game of “guess how much the bill will be,” where I guess the absolute highest amount I think it could possibly be, as a way of bracing myself, so when I actually get the bill, no matter what it is, I’m prepared. Seventy euros, I’m guessing. Sixty most likely, but I can live with seventy.
Nope! Not 60 euros, not 70 euros, but 112 euros! 112 EU! That’s 157.45 USD, I later learn, when I get the US version of the bill. That’s grocery money for a week! In all fairness to the baby eels, I also had the seafood soup, which itself was 18 EU, but still. I’d never spent so much on a meal in my life, and to make matters worse, I didn’t have any cash on me, was paying with a credit card, and in Spain, they don’t let you add a tip to a credit card payment, at least not at this restaurant.
And, I know tipping in Spain is not as big a deal as it is in the US, and you’re not even expected to do more than throw in the extra change, but somehow, when your bill is 112 EU, you feel cheap not leaving anything, and frankly, a little obligated. I rifle around in my pockets, rustle up about 5 euros in change, hide it under the check to buy myself some time, and then walk out of the restaurant as fast as I can, head down, not looking at anyone, thinking, “Just get out of here quick, they’ll never see you again.”
I’m about thirty feet down the street, thinking I’ve successfully escaped the humiliation of being a cheap American, when I hear feet running behind me, and someone calling, “Miss, miss!” I kind of duck. Did someone just throw a bomb? Is this my two-second warning? Am I about to be blown to bits like it happens to tourists in foreign countries all the time on CNN? No. Worse. It’s the maître d, or the owner or someone. CRAP! I knew 5 euros just wasn’t enough! “I’m sorry about the tip,” I blabble when he catches up to me. “I couldn’t put a tip on the credit card, and that was all the cash I had …”
“No, no!” he says. “I wasn’t talking about the tip. People don’t tip in Spain. It’s just, I want to make sure everything was ok. I want to make sure all of our guests have a good experience, and I wasn’t sure that you had. I also own this pub here across the street,” he said, pointing at the pub across the street, “Would you like a drink or something?”
What, had he seen the look on my face when faced with a $157.54 restaurant bill? Did he feel bad that he’d charged me that much money and I was still hungry? Suddenly, the magical plate of puff pastry and candied nuts made sense. The entire establishment might be secretly laughing at the only person who ordered the ridiculously-priced baby eels all season, but they were still nice enough to feel guilty about it.
I convinced him that everything was fine, told him the restaurant was great, thanked him for his offer anyway, and laughed about my stupidity all the way back to the hotel. A $157.54 restaurant bill. How STUPID could I be? Who orders a seasonal delicacy without asking about the price? I deserve a $157.54 bill, for my stupidity alone. In fact, there should be a stupid tax, and it should be exactly $157.54.
Around 3:30 the next morning, I wake up feeling TERRIBLE. Food poisoning always seems like such a great idea until I actually have it (which is not nearly enough, I add in retrospect). I lay there for a half hour, waiting to become sicker, and then make it to the bathroom just in the nick of time. Two violent thrusts, and out comes $157.54 worth of baby eels and seafood soup with the force of a fire hose, and all I can think of is, “Crap, what a waste of money,” but actually, I’m not too upset about it. I always like how my clothes fit after a rousing bout of food poisoning. I briefly consider fishing the eels out of the toilet, returning them to the restaurant, and demanding a refund on principle, or at least warning them about their contaminated stash of eels because probably not everyone likes being food poisoned as much as I do, but I’m so sick and weak the entire day, I can’t get out of bed.
At around 5 PM, I finally force myself out of the room, and walk the three miles to Museo del Prado because I can’t go to Madrid and at least get SOMETHING out of it that sticks. Fortunately, they no longer charge admission after 5PM so I feel like I’ve at least recouped a little of the money I flushed down the toilet the night before. However, it’s really hard to appreciate masterpieces when I’m about two seconds away from repurposing them with my own artistic inclinations, and since I’ll never be able afford the restoration charges they’d surely hit me with, I decide it would just be better for everyone involved if I studied the paintings later online, to see what I missed.
I sit down one of the stone benches with my head between my legs for about 20 minutes like my parents made me do when I was little and carsick, and as soon as I feel a moment of quiet, I get outside as fast as I can.