Araia is in the central Trafalgar area of Madrid. It opened in August 2022, just off a pretty little green in a semi pedestrianised area, set up by owner Pedro Aijon, who had lived for five years in New York and spoke flawless English. Araia has a quirky, or possibly irritating, depending on your viewpoint, backstory about imagining being on a lost and mythical Mediterranean island. Their website talks a great deal about this but omits pesky details like who the head chef is. There is a long essay about the philosophy of the person who designed the ceramics, and a further breathless interview with their florist. It goes on. There is an interview with their coffee supplier (Hugo of “Cafe te Ando”) and also with the person who selects the music playing in the dining room. Search high and low, though, and you won’t find a word about the person doing the cooking. Perhaps he disappeared like the legendary island that the restaurant is supposedly based on. There are at least some dishes listed, and we were indeed in the Mediterranean food-wise with dishes like spicy grilled octopus with walnuts and tahini. The dining room had five tables plus a few additional seats, with tall black chairs and pleasant background music. The lighting was very dark, the tables lit with candles, and there were a few low-wattage ceiling spotlights too. The menu was accessed via a QR code, as was the wine list, as it changes very regularly. After some investigation, it turned out that the head chef was a Ukrainian gentleman called Artem Berdnykou.
The mostly natural wine list strays beyond Spain to other Mediterranean wines such as the Croatian Vinas Mora Kaamen II at €68 compared to its retail price of €64, and Bodegas Cota 45 UBE de Uberrima Miraflores Vino de la Tierra de Cadiz at €42 compared to its retail price of €21. Karman Rioja 2021 was €24 for a wine that you can find in the high street for €8. I drank a very good German Spatburgunder called Ziereisen Talrain 2020, which was €46 compared to its shop price of €21.
The menu was eclectic. I started with haydari, a dish of cooked yellow cherry tomatoes from Salt Boi de Llobregat in Catalonia near Barcelona. The tomatoes came with Greek Kalamata olives and ajo confitado (candied garlic) and a vinaigrette of kvas, a fermented cereal, along with some soft bread. The tomatoes had surprisingly good flavour given it was the absolute end of the season even in the warm climate of the Mediterreanean, and the combination of ingredients worked nicely (14/20).
Tuna pastrami came with pickled pepper from Navarra and was a simple but enjoyable dish. The gentle spice from the pepper managed to lift the flavour of the tuna, which might otherwise have been too rich despite the processing of the tuna. I believe that the very best way to serve tuna is completely raw and unadorned except maybe for some wasabi, but this was still a pleasant dish (13/20).
My main course was quite an unusual dish. Tandoori monkfish with cauliflower had gentle Indian spices. The fish was cooked very well, entirely avoiding the numerous minefields of textural error that can easily happen with monkfish. The fillet of fish had excellent texture and just a touch of spice, with small pieces of cauliflower completing the dish. Perhaps an extra firm element to provide a contrasting texture may have been beneficial, but as it stands this was a good dish (14/20).
Dessert was creme brûlée made with stracciatella cheese and a garnish of pomegranate seeds. The custard was good, the disc on top was crisp but easily cut through, and the pomegranate seeds provided freshness to counteract the sweetness of the core dish (14/20). The restaurant coffee machine was out of action so the owner popped out across the street to get me a coffee. This was devotion above and beyond the call of duty.
The bill came to €101 (£91) just for me, as I was dining solo. This is pretty close to a realistic cost per person, and indeed you could probably eat for a bit less as I had most of a bottle of wine, with the food element being €72. The owner was the sole waiter, supported by a barman. The former was a natural for hospitality, being genuinely charming. I must admit that when I initially read the website, I was quite anxious about this restaurant but in fact, it was a very enjoyable experience.