How One Madrid Chef Is Rewriting the Rules of Fine Dining

Madrid chef David Munoz is rewriting the rules of fine dining. Photograph: Nacho Alegre/Bloomberg Pursuits

Chef David Muñoz won a third Michelin star in November for his restaurant Diverxo (Diverse) -- the only spot in Madrid that boasts this ultimate gastronomic accolade and one of the edgiest eating experiences anywhere in the world right now.

This storefront dining room in a nondescript modern building has a down-the-rabbit-hole décor that includes a flock of black-silk butterflies glued to the wall and ceiling, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Summer 2014 issue.

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Then there’s the menu, which dispenses with the usual florid culinary poetry in favor of bracing names such as Hannibal Lecter -- a reference to the serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs, here represented by smears of tomatillo ketchup on a white-porcelain plate with two translucent hunks of hake and a slow-cooked soft egg yolk that’s pierced when the dish is brought to the table. “It’s meant to look like there’s been a little slaughter,” Muñoz says with a grin.

Madrid’s hottest restaurant is also the only reason you’re likely to find yourself in the city’s rough-and-tumble Tetuán district, a multiethnic neighborhood of high-rise housing, discount stores and specialty groceries that could be the Spanish cousin to New York’s Flushing, Queens.

“We were surprised when we got the third Michelin star, because we’re a little different,” Muñoz, 34, says with guileless understatement. “But sometimes pigs do fly,” he adds, gesturing toward one of eight terra-cotta swine with black-feather wings that are the most obvious feature of the otherwise bare-bones dining room.

Muñoz doesn’t look the part of Spain’s next great chef when he shows up for work on a recent morning sporting a cobalt-blue Nike tracksuit, a low-rise Mohawk and a black nail through one earlobe. But it’s soon clear he means business.

Almost immediately, the Madrileño starts riffing on his passion for Asian cooking and how it inspires the tasting menus he serves at the seven-year-old Diverxo and two-year-old StreetXO, his popular counter-service-only joint on the top floor of the El Corte Inglés department store downtown. (A second StreetXO is set to open in London in July with more outposts planned for Dubai, New York and Singapore.)

“What I love about Asian cooking is that you discover new flavors with each bite. It isn’t focused on animal protein but a continually changing kaleidoscope of tastes and textures,” Muñoz says. “A perfect example is laksa [a Chinese-Malaysian spicy noodle soup]. Since it’s salty, sweet, sour, spicy, crispy and soft, you get new flavors and textures with each spoonful, but they remain parts of a whole. I try to achieve the same effect in every dish I create.”

The son of a food-mad car-insurance salesman, Muñoz became obsessed with cooking at age 11, after his parents took him to Restaurante Viridiana, where chef Abraham García was one of the first to shake up Madrid’s then-stuffy, French-oriented gastronomic scene. “Most kids are fascinated by rock stars or football players, but my idol was Abraham García,” says Muñoz, who’d wait outside the restaurant for a chance to chat with the chef and whose persistence eventually landed him a job in García’s kitchen. “I always knew I wanted to do something really different, though,” Muñoz says, so he headed to London, where he cemented his gastronomic calling during stints in the kitchens of Hakkasan, Nahm and Nobu.

The real genius of Muñoz’s cooking is the way he interprets the Spanish palate through the lens of the Far East. A recent 14-course tasting-menu lunch at Diverxo winked at the idea of fusion with steamed edamame sprinkled with black-olive powder, garnished with shiso leaves and surrounded by dots of black-olive-and-citron crème. But Muñoz’s iconoclastic creativity really started to sizzle with a curried green-coconut-milk soup with tiny clams, scallops and flyingfish eggs and garnished with flash-fried whitebait and a grilled sardine brushed with jalapeño juice.

The pièce de résistance came a few dishes later with a composition as Spanish and adrenaline pumping as a charging bull: a rabbit mignon in a syrupy caramel of Iberian-ham drippings with a smoked-eel petit four.

Only once during the meal was there an element that recalled Spain’s most-famous three-star restaurant, the now-closed temple to molecular gastronomy, El Bulli: a dish of translucent Jerez-Xérès-Sherry–flavored spaghetti with Moroccan-spiced sweetbreads, black-garlic paste and a yuzu granita. An homage to master chef Ferran Adrià? Munoz shrugs. “There are lots of ways to be avant-garde, but I don’t do molecular cooking,” he says. “Diverxo is for people who love to eat.”

To contact the writer responsible for this story: Alexander Lobrano at hungryforparis.editor@gmail.com, @AlecLobrano

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ted Moncreiff at tmoncreiff@bloomberg.net

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