Houston’s Maddest Restaurant Scene Captures the River Oaks Crowd With Madrid Mania

Your First Taste Look at MAD

BY Laurann Claridge // 07.28.19

One of the Houston’s most exciting new restaurants is MAD, the wildly imaginative tapas-centric eatery that recently opened in River Oaks District and now boasts a six-week reservations wait list. Partners Ignacio Torras and chef Luis Roger are much acclaimed for their first Spanish restaurant in Houston, BCN Taste & Tradition in Montrose (an innovative interpretation of the fare of Barcelona), which translates authentic Spanish ingredients into thoughtfully crafted dishes that simply astound.

Two years in the making, MAD — named, like BCN, for the airport code of the city that inspired it, Madrid — was part of the grand plan when this duo conceived BCN. Meticulous planning and recipe testing have yielded a 6,000-square-foot space conjured by Barcelona-based designer Lázaro Rosa-Violán — one that has your eyes dancing about a room awash in hues of salmon, midnight blue and red to land on one bright shiny object after another.

Velvet curtains at the entrance beckon you to part them, revealing a 360-degree mirrored bar, glowing planet-like spheres of light encased in a puzzle-like cage of orange Lucite pieces, and a massive Brutalist-inspired relief above the open paella kitchen.

The powers that be invite you to figuratively travel their catchphrase “From MAD to the moon.” The mascot may be a playful bear, but there’s nothing silly about the original Picasso pottery collection Torras lent the space or the golden replicas of the Cassini space probe housed in pristine glass boxes (the collaboratively built spacecraft that once traveled to the ring planet before it met its demise).

GM and sommelier Sébastien Laval oversees the 122-seat dining room (plus bar and patio seating) during dinner and late-night dining. Later this year, lunch service will be added. Secure a table or a seat at the bar and tiptoe through the lengthy menu, jumping from one small plate to another.

Offerings include traditional “Oldies and Goodies,” such as Spanish Ibérico ham served with imported Pan de Cristal flatbread and tomato ($25) and Gulas, purple potato chips topped with sautéed baby eels crowned with a fried quail egg sunny side up, its yoke still quivering ($16). But don’t miss Roger’s sophisticated, modern spin on tapas, where he takes the art of trompe l’oeil to new culinary heights.

He amuses the palate with olivas líquidas, green-colored cocoa-butter orbs resembling manzanilla olives poised on a real olive branch, each “olive” built around a frozen round of olive juice that melts on your tongue, releasing the saline-tinged liquid ($12). Or, try my favorite, the cucurucho de foie, a tiny crisp cone topped with foie gras mousseline and garnished with colorful nonpareil sprinkles ($6).

Luis Roger (Photo by Julie Soefer)
Luis Roger (Photo by Julie Soefer)

You can tell Roger is having a ball in the kitchen when he takes on an American comfort food classic like mac n’ cheese and elevates it with room-temperature penne made with a pork-based gelatin to create a translucent noodle warmed only by a topping of parmesan foam applied tableside ($16). His MAD tomato is a bright red replica of the real deal cloaked in a thin, gelatinous peel and filled with parmesan mousse and pesto, atop a bed of pumpernickel bread crumbs that serves both as a visual metaphor for soil and as a practical way to cut the richness of the dish ($15).

After meandering through the inventive tapas and gin-soaked cocktails (their signature), it’s time to move on to something more substantial, such as the arroz a la leña. Four wood-roasted rice selections are available in two- or four-person portions.

I settled upon the rape option for two, a mélange of saffron-tinged rice with monkfish, prawns, and spinach ($42). Also offered are grilled beef selections, from 16-ounce Iberico de Bellota skirt steak with shishito peppers ($78) to a mighty bone-in rib-eye steak with piquillo peppers ($170), as well as pulpo (Spanish octopus, market price) and a fillet or whole Spanish turbot ($52/$120) caught off the waters of Spain.

Don’t signal for the check before you’ve ordered an Instagram-worthy dessert. MAD’s signature is fresa wannabe, a “Meyer lemon” that’s actually a white-chocolate shell dimpled and colored lemon yellow, filled with a delectable strawberry mousse with lemon-mint compote that a crack releases onto the plate ($14). Reservations required. Dinner served 5 to 10 pm Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 5 pm to 1 am Thursdays through Saturdays.

MAD, River Oaks District, 4444 Westheimer Road, 281.888.2770.

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