MADRID, SPAIN. With Africa at such a close distance, Spain has witnessed a surge in immigrants from the continent, and their gastronomy is popping up all over Madrid, too. So much so that Al-Jaima, an Arabian restaurant in Chueca, has registered a trademark for this type of food: “La Cocina del desierto,” meaning “the cuisine of the desert.”
Al-Jaima: La Cocina del Desierto is part of a trio of Arabian establishments in Madrid’s gay neighborhood. Its big brother goes by the name of Arabia. Run by the same owners, both restaurants share the same menu, served in a similarly cozy environment.
The exterior of the restaurant is kept in a white-washed décor, typical of Morocco and its neighboring countries. A thick, wooden door creaks as you push it open. With a thump, it will fall shut, and you’ll have to push aside a series of rug-like curtains to enter the dimly lit interior. Welcome to Arabia.
Should you arrive without a reservation, you might have to say goodbye again in just a couple of minutes. But if the waitress allows you to stay, you’re in for a night of Arabian delights (Editor’s Note: MADbudget recommends coming here for dinner rather than lunch. Lounging here until late at night is more enticing in terms of the true Arabian feel).
The best spots are on the floor; after all, if you come to an Arabian restaurant, the point is to dine sitting on rugs and leaning back on cushions. If you do prefer a more formal feel, there are normal tables, too.
No matter whether you’re sitting low or high, you’ll get to savor the same foods. A slice of pita bread (0.60 Euros) will automatically come to your rescue. Taste it on its own, or dip it in one of the sauces or purées once you’ve ordered. (Remember that the Bedouin nomads didn’t have cutlery, so stuffing a pita was the way to serve yourself).
The restaurant comes with an extensive list of appetizers and main dishes. If you’re a fan of hummus, try the puré de garbanzos al sésamo (chickpea purée with sesame; 5.20 Euros). Falafel fans should head straight for those; Arabia fills them with cilantro and onion, as well as a delicious tomato sauce that’s not too thick, not too thin (5.60 Euros, includes three falafels). For a fresh salad, try the berenjenas, pimientos asados y tomate (eggplant, bell pepper and tomato salad; 5.60 Euros).
As for the main dishes, there’s tagines, couscous, chicken, meat and even pasta. A conventional option is the cuscus tradicional con verduras y carne (traditional couscous with vegetables and meat; can be ordered without the meat; 9.40 Euros). It’ll come served in a bowl topped with a typical clay hat. The accompanying vegetable broth can be drizzled on top to taste, giving the couscous some spice and texture.
As for dessert, there’s hojaldres (puff pastries) and sémolas (semolina) of different flavors to choose from, one sweeter than the other. If you like it sugary, go for the version with honey, if not, try the sémola con nuez (semolina with nuts).
Time goes by slowly when you’re lounging back with drum music. You can savor every bite, and make it your version of Arabian nights, in Madrid.
Calle Piamonte 12
Tel. +34 91 532 53 21
Metro: Chueca (L5)
Lunch: opens at 1.30 p.m. (Sat, Sun)
Dinner: opens at 9 p.m. (Tues-Sun)
Editor’s Note: The owners of Arabia run three establishments.
For an even cozier feel, head to Arabia’s little sister: AL-JAIMA COCINA DEL DESIERTO Calle Barbieri 1, 28004 Madrid. Tel. +34 91 523 11 42 Metro: Chueca (L5)
For cocktails, continue at: KIM BU MBU Calle Colmenares 7 28004 Madrid Tel. +34 91 521 26 81 Metro: Chueca (L5)
All three establishments are within walking distance of one another.