Family-owned and run Combarro is one of Madrid's most celebrated marisquerías, or seafood restaurants, and an obligatory stop for the lovers of the extreme variety of fish, molluscs, crustaceans and Jurassic animals that constitute such an important element of Spain's extraordinary food culture, writes Rodrigo Amaral.
Manuel Domínguez Limeres is the grandson and son of caterers from a small village near Vigo, a Galician town, who found himself out of the business after his parents retired when he was 9. But Manuel had the trade in his blood and once he was old enough he moved to Madrid to study and work.
Soon after he headed to Paris, where he gained invaluable experience working at La Coupole, the legendary brasserie in Montparnasse. On returning to Spain, Manuel founded Combarro in the Tetuán district of Madrid in 1973. Today, it is run by his son, Diego Domínguez Vidal.
"When he came back to Madrid, my father decided to mix the Galician food culture with France's brasserie tradition," says Diego, who started to work in the family restaurant in his teens, waiting and cooking before taking over the management side of the business.
"Our food is based on the quality of our raw materials, which are always fresh, wild products that come from Galician in the same day," he points out. Quite a trip, for instance, for the bogavantes (a kind of lobster) that travel six hours from A Guarda, on the Portuguese border, to the Spanish capital.
"We spend a lot of effort monitoring the quality of the products and assessing the providers, as they are very important to the standards of our food," Diego stresses. That's why father and son remain closely involved in the day-to-day aspects of the business, from creating new dishes and sourcing products to talking to clients in the dining room.
One dish in particular creates a stir. The lamprey is a pre-historic fish that has survived for millions of years before assuming cult status among the lovers of sea-food. The meat is heavy and greasy; indeed, some people say it tastes more like game or oxtail than a fish. Cooking a lamprey is an art, and Combarro is one of the few places where this brutal delicacy is prepared to perfection.
The quality of Galician seafood, be it nécoras (crab), percebes (barnacles), cigala (crayfish), rodaballo (turbot) or many others, is the stuff of legend, but the Domínguez family is not afraid of hurting the feelings of their compatriots by sourcing some of the product elsewhere.
"We know Galician shrimp is not good. It is too red and a bit hard, and not so flavoursome. So we bring our shrimps from Huelva, in Andalucia," Diego explains candidly. "But our seafood is among the best in he world," he quickly adds.
The menu at Combarro and its twin restaurant, Sanxenxo (both named after Galician villages), is not restricted to seafood either. Galician tripe stew, hams, spring lambs and other land-based products are served too.
The family also owns a winery, Valdamor, which produces a white wine made only with Albariños (a grape native to Galicia) which has recently been awarded 90 points by Robert Parker, the much-feared American critic.
Combarro - Reina Mercedes, 12, Madrid, tel.: + 34 91 554 7784.
Sanxenxo - José Ortega y Gasset, 40, Madrid, tel.: + 34 91 577 8272.
Bodega Valdamor - Calle Valdamor, 8, Pontevedra, Spain, tel.: + 34 986 747 111.