Pronounced "Dee-Ver-SO" and not "Diver Ex-Oh" the way this amateur said it, David Muñoz's artful, whimsical restaurant produced occasionally magical moments and exceptional food, but overall felt uneven and hectic. Plates were streaked and dirty, staff was badly undertrained, and English skills were minimal to non-existent. I can't recommend.
Opened in 2007, Muñoz took influence from several Asian restaurants he worked for in London to craft a fusion Spanish-Asian menu with a (very large) twist of Spanish-style absurdity and theatricality. In 2010, they won their first star, got their second in 2012, and in 2013 became the eighth Spanish restaurant to earn three, the highest. They've held onto that rank ever since.
MADRID, SPAIN, FEBRUARY 2017
PRICE PAID: $495PP (INCL. WATER, WINE, TAX, TIP- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL RATING: 6.0/10
The entrance makes quite a statement; circus-like, and meant to inspire childish wonderment, the entrance and lobby feature brightly-colored spinning umbrellas, silvery ants marching up the stairs, twinkling "stars" in the ceiling, and miniature sculptures of flying pigs that harken back to the restaurant's website, which you see on the right.
SPEAKING OF WHICH, I need to call them out for what I feel is some underhandedness. Here's a line from that reservations page:
Which makes it seem like everyone (rich, poor, or otherwise) must go through the calendar page a click away to select a date (hint: they're usually entirely sold out). The "Democratic Process" they describe is a theoretical leveling of the playing-field.
I say theoretically because it's false.
The restaurant is part of a hotel in Madrid called the NH Eurobuilding (which I had never heard of before) that is co-located with the restaurant. After many hours of travel-site research and one-on-one messaging with some folks who have been there, I found a secret back door to getting a reservation at DiverXO.
Simply call the hotel and ask to speak to a guest coordinator. Ask them for a "VIP room," which is code for a premium room with a guaranteed seat at DiverXO. Magically, on the night you choose to get an (overpriced) hotel room, you will also get a table at the restaurant. Email me at threestarblog at gmail.com and I can help you further.
Returning to the experience, we were led up the stairs into a room full of heavy, shrouded curtains. A comically large ice cream sculpture hovered somewhat creepily in the corner. One of these shrouds contained our table... And I must admit, the effect was pretty awesome.
As we sit, a member of service silently walks up, lights the candles, and disappears back outside the heavy draperies without saying a word. Also cool.
We were offered a sparkling wine aperitif by a member of staff who immediately disappears behind the curtain. Moments later, another member of staff arrives and asks the same question. Bizarre, and likely not part of the theatrics.
Eventually, we receive some glasses of Juvé & Camps Gran Reserva Brut, made from a blend of Chardonnay, Xarel-Lo (a grape grown almost exclusively in Spain and that mostly winds up in Cava), Macabeo, also known as Viura, which is a white grape commonly found in Rioja, and lastly Parellada. Those last three are the grapes most commonly found in Cava, and the Chardonnary gives it a fuller body and more aging potential. Cava, interestingly, is a controlled appellation that can come from 8 different regions of Spain, but in reality 90% comes from Catalonia, and over 75% of it from the much tinier region of San Sadurní d’Anoia in Penedès, where the blend originates.
This particular bottle is a fantastic evening-starter; aged for 3 years on the lees to give it a focused, brioche-y flavor with a strong floral/citrus aroma,
Quirk and well-lit charm pervade. Lots of tiny details- like etched spoons and LED spotlighting- are everywhere. A thoughtfully designed space.
The restaurant offers two menus- a shorter “XOW” menu at €185, and a longer and more adventurous menu at €225. We went with the longer of the two. This may have been an error.
A series of small courses along the theme of “A Visit to Mexico,” (actually, the menu says “Viva Mexico, Cabrones!!! <sic>” which actually means something like “Long Live Mexico, Dicks!!!” so I guess either one makes sense.
First bites were a green molé sauce with avocado, fennel, green tomato, and steamed octopus. Very soft texture overall; the octopus is very tender and delicious. The textures and flavors of the molé sauce and avocado went together quite well. 8/10.
Next in the small series of introductory bites, a crunchy oxtail sandwich with black molé, which is simply unbelievably delicious. The molé sauce is executed perfectly, with what can only be described as flavors of barbecue mixed with pure joy. 10/10.
Last of the first small bites; a taco with Mexican truffle and a white foam cloud made of palo cortado (sherry). A great meeting of textures; the very light and airy foam and the hard crunchy shell of the taco are a delightful, small snack. 9/10.
Next some hot and sour soup with spider crab, mushrooms, and fish roe that literally explodes! The dish is mildly spicy and peppery, which gives it a wintery, wholesome feel. The dish itself looks like Cousin Itt from the Addams’ Family. 8/10.
This next dish is titled: “Build your own suckling pig.” The pig is a little burnt and dry. Off to the side are components of steamed white asparagus “vichyssoisse,” toasted buffalo’s milk butter, red Japanese rice, yuzu, and homemade sriracha. It’s a bit messy to attempt to assemble all components at once. 5/10.
This next dish was titled: “Hold our hand”... An egg bite that is served warm and practically explodes upon biting into it; the mushroom tastes almost like pasta. 8/10. An oyster sauce, chives, and small dollop of chicken really bring it together.
An extraordinarily beautiful presentation of tuna belly, sea urchin, and bacon ice cream with bottarga and beetroot slices. Every piece is rich, earthy, delicious, and perfectly paired. The sea urchin and tuna are incredibly fresh; quite the feat for a city hundreds of miles from any coast and not known for their cold-chain logistics. 10/10.
In one of many odd and individually forgettable but collectively poor service experiences, they brought a napkin for me but not for my dining partner. Odd. And, they served dirty plates. Double odd.
The dish was a prawn “Spicy Bolognese” with red shrimp carpaccio, black truffle, “karashi sumiso,” (Sweet Japanese mustard) and its own grilled head.
This was followed by a tortured, long series of specific instructions- eat the bolognese first, then the prawn , then use the napkin (the one they had failed to bring). The prawn had excellent flavors of barbecue, perfectly cooked. 8/10 overall despite the chicanery.
At this point in the meal, they hefted over an enormous glass lazy susan to begin the dim sum-inspired part of the menu. An authentic, artful touch for a series called “Typical Chinese from Madrizzzz” that only had one small problem: it was fucking filthy. A huge streak of uncleaned oil extended like a gigantic clock hand from the center. When I pointed it out to the service, their response was, "don't worry, you don't eat off the glass." Awesome, perfect, thanks, that was my only concern.
First, a soup, titled “WontonXO,” was a delightful and colorful combination of guinea fowl dumpling, shiitake mushroom, peas, and a bright ginseng-infused broth. The peas absolutely crack with freshness. 10/10.
Next, a “PekingXO Duck” with suckling pig ear, hoisin sauce made from blackberries, caviar from Riofrio (one of the only ecologically responsible makers in the world, I might add) in a steamed blini. Unfortunately, the blini overpowers the caviar with its doughy flavor and texture, and the fruity elements of the hoisin sauce are tuned out also. Fresh. lively, ocean-y caviar, though. 7/10.
Steaming with liquid nitrogen, we were next brought “Char-Siu Bao” which, interestingly, was presented as “our version of a whopper from Burger King.” Steeped in sheep’s milk, the sauce actually totally nails it. 9/10.
Last but not least, the restaurant’s take on Lemon Chicken with sweet and sour citrus flavors paired elegantly with passion fruit. 8/10.
Duck Royale, with an arrestingly green sauce made of gochujang green mustard (actually a Korean condiment, moving away from the Chinese theme) plated around a tower of roasted duck with a bundle of duck tongues above and to the right. 9/10, a perfectly cooked fatty bird that is heightened by the spicy sauce.
Grilled squid is almost never my favorite, and this course falls neatly in line with that bias. Paired with rice vermicelli and soya cream, the entire thing is surrounded by an enormous (perhaps too enormous) bed of white truffles that match the flavors of the squid (fishy, salty) in a questionable way. 6/10.
A nigiri with paella sauce made from the “kokotxa,” the fleshy underpart of the jaw of a local fish and considered a delicacy of Basque cuisine. Lovely orange of bergamot for color. Served with a smoldering smoky branch that is removed right as it’s being served; a lovely touch. 8/10.
As we approach the main courses of the evening, thrush cooked in its own juices and plated in a gorgeous keffir lime paste made with tomburi and lemon puree, accompanied with coconut rice and even more instructions on how it should be eaten. Overall, the creamy sauce goes perfectly with the thrush, and WOW, so coconut-y 9/10.
Monkfish toasted with maple syrup, jalapeno chili, gazpacho, and coconut. Another coconut dish is an odd choice (perhaps a bit much), but the monkfish is well-cooked and exceptionally fresh for this landlocked city. The soup on the upper left has a distinct vanilla flavor, and we are told to dip by hand. 8/10.
Perfect color offsets here. On the left, essentially a roasted lamb with sauce made from oloroso sherry (an oxidatively-aged sherry from the South of Spain). Somehow, the whole thing has the flavor of cheetos. The liquid salad on the right is heavily flavored with shiso, which is an equally-good flavor juxtaposition. 9/10.
Man, this place really feeds you. Next, some roasted skate with violet potatoes. Black garlic butter and a kimchi sauce add a note of fat and spice to the dish. 8/10.
As the final final main course, oxtail Strogonoff with achiote (a spice that gives it the redish/orangish color) and radish chantilly. Rich, a touch tangy and spicy, this dish really delivered as a final main. 9/10.
This place’s bill for odd, custom ceramics must be through the roof. A “Pink panther tail” with rhubarb, pink pepper, sheep’s milk, and caramel is the first dessert. There are some pop rocks at the bottom, which feel like overkill. 7/10.
This dish, titled “Does Frozen Cotton Candy Exist?” is made from violet flowers, coconut milk, and lemongrass. There’s a decidedly sweet green apple flavor buried within as well. A very good palate-cleanser. 8/10.
Direct from your nightmares, here comes this dish. They never explained what it was, but it was quite bland.
The real high point of dessert - croissant ice cream with black sesame and papaya sweet-and-sour ketchup. Sweet, sour, salty, all at the same time. A fantastic balance. 10/10.
Very, very lastly, a guava cream pie with thai basil, lychees, and chocolate cookie powder. Not flavorless but not terribly sweet. 6/10. The guava pie tasted a lot like bubble gum.