By Bill Gerdes
The first thing I need to state is that Viva Madrid is better than 98 percent of the restaurant I review in these pages, better than the generic burger joint with the seasoned “fun” fires, better then that simply average Thai place, and even better than that new Mexican joint with the awesome chips. Today, Viva Madrid is still one of the best options in the Inland Empire when you want to eat at a restaurant where they take food and dining seriously.
And yet restaurants have life spans and enter periods of decline, much the same way countries do. Viva Madrid is declining. This first became noticeable when I took some friends there last fall. Expecting them to love it, they didn’t, which was not only awkward but also troubling. It felt a bit like a new relationship where you introduce your new girlfriend to you friends and family and they’re not that excited. Isn’t she great? Isn’t she great? That’s how I felt about Viva Madrid.
Certainly there’s no decline to the ambience of the place. It’s still got the same décor, more Goya but with a touch of Dali. And it still has armored knights, bullfighting posters and an old metal ship. It still feels at the top of its game, and if the service ranges from enthusiastic to diffident, more diffident than enthusiastic, well that pretty well mirrors the service in Spain itself. They’ve still got a nice wine list. They still got a great, if often crowded, bar to sample said wine list in. And Viva is still a relatively cheap night out for fine dining. We had six tapas and a glass of vino tinto each and got out of there for around 50 bucks.
No, everything is still great but some of the menu has gone downhill. Not all of it but some. One key to judging a Spanish restaurant is their olives. Are they skimping? Buying cheaper stuff? I was a little shocked when we ordered the Quesos Espanoles tapa to see the three rather meager slices of Manchego cheese accompanied by the sort of black olives we used to stick on our fingers as kids on Thanksgiving. The Pan Ajillo, Spanish garlic bread, was better, although the liberal heaping of raw garlic slices brought to mind Javier Barden in the film Jamon, Jamon, where Barden’s character chews raw garlic cloves as he has sex with Penelope Cruz.
Then the food got better and reminded me of just why I loved Viva Madrid in the first place. The Manchego con Membrillo plate is a classic representation of how Spanish cuisine can match salty (cheese or ham) with sweet, in this case a tasty quince paste. Another quite lovely tapa is the Calamari con Chorizo, tasty calamari stuffed with a Mexican-style, soft chorizo, the six of which sit in a savory tomato and herb sauce that has just a bit of heat. The Datiles con Bacon, bacon wrapped dates, were tasty if a bit dry, while the Empanadas con Pollo, were simply tasty, maybe the hit of the meal for us.
So how is Viva Madrid managing its decline? Probably better than most countries and far better than the Spanish economy. Viva still offers up a nice dining environment and gives a great introduction to most regions of Spanish cuisine. Viva Madrid (lame olives aside) is still a destination restaurant.
Viva Madrid, 225 Yale Ave., Claremont, (909) 624-5500; www.vivamadrid.com. Sun-Sat, 5pm-11pm. MC, V.