The day we finally managed to grab a reservation for one of the few tables for two people at DiverXO, David Munoz’s signature restaurant, we were overwhelmed by joy. The only three Michelin stars restaurant in Madrid calls for a lot of expectations from our side, giving the flamboyant characteristics of his head chef and owner.
We can’t really define David Munoz a rising star any longer. After ten years of training in Madrid and in some of the best Asian restaurants in London, including Hakkasan and Nobu, Mr Munoz felt ready to start his own venue. Back to Spain, he opened DiverXO in 2007, starting a rapid flow of prizes and awards toward his kitchen that culminated with the Stars in 2010, 2012, 2013. With an astounding parabola, David Munoz became one of the youngest chefs in the world to receive the highest Michelin’s honors, at the age of 33. Since 2013, he kept his stars every year, while opening two venues, called StreetXO, with a street-food style concept, in Madrid and in London.
In contrast with most of the world, who like to play on the association of “mad cooking genius,” we would like to use the concept of “pop.” Munoz and his brigade take a dish, fill it with a broad range of flavors, and leave the customer the privilege to taste something never tried before. It’s astonishing. Every preparation keeps popping, new notes and nuances exploding in our mouth. It seems to be neverending, every mouthful a new blast, a new predominant flavor bursting for a split second before leaving a lengthy aftertaste opening the road for the next bite. The initial idea may be familiar, but as in every adventure, we may know our starting point, but we don’t know where we will end.
Two menus are available. The standard one is composed of twenty dishes plus five desserts, while the long one set to a total of 33 servings. We decided on the standard one. We think it may even be too much. This is hardcore dining, it’s complex, and it takes time to analyze what’s happening. It’s hard to keep track of tasting notes and being able to understand what was in our dishes after so many shots being thrown. A shorter tasting menu would actually make us enjoy more the characteristics of each course.
No wine pairing is provided (thanks, as it would be impossible to associate the same wine with multiple courses). The wine list is lengthy, roughly divided into two halves, Spain and “Everything Else.” There is a good mixture between famous brands, from classical Grand Crus Bordeaux to various Barolo, and more elusive and small productions, especially on the Spanish side. Almost every bottle in the menu can be served by the glass, it’s a matter of asking the waiter. Unfortunately, the sommelier service is very much a hit or miss. We had two different people helping with our wine choices. While we started well with a couple of exciting proposals (in particular, a smooth Xarel-lo with beautiful citrus notes), the second waiter looked a bit out of his comfort zone after we asked for a suggestion with specific details. In the end, we think his proposed choice was just his standard answer to a generic request for a glass of red wine.
In general, we were a bit disappointed by the service, as we could identify several errors. The timing of the courses was severely inconsistent. Sometimes we were left with nothing on our tables for 10 minutes, other times we did not even have time to finish our dish before it being removed. It was weird. Sometimes it made sense, sometimes it was a clear timing mistake on their side. They even put us the wrong cutlery, and we had to notify them of the error. The last critic goes to water service. Water is served in huge pelt goblets. They were really good looking, but waiters needed to look into them from atop to check the water level. We had to ask for some water multiple times, and it was just awkward. We would have preferred just to have the bottle on our table so that we could fill our glasses as many times as we would have liked.
Food is organized in sections. Most of the dishes are meant to be served in groups, to compose a series of single “mini-meals.” The influences come from three main regions: Mediterranean Europe, South America, South-East Asia.
There are no common ingredients. Everything is special, unique, unknown. This is part of the philosophy of the kitchen: creating extreme dishes requires the use of extreme raw materials. That’s why we have bottarga, bull tail, naranjilla and so on. There are no “easy” dishes. Everything is complex, created with several layers that open up one after the other.
Standard Tasting Menu
The dinner starts behind a closed curtain. Every table is surrounded by a black drape, creating a physical separation between us and everything else. Inside the tent, table and chairs are white, in a primordial game of light and shadow. A single chandelier sits on the table, illuminating the only two decorations on the table. A skeletal fish, and the napkin. Embroidered on it, “Vanguardia O Morir.” Avant-garde or Death. Not exactly a conventional setup for dinner. Waiters move the curtains from outside, giving quick looks to the tables. And finally, the first dishes arrive. Hidden from the rest of the world, we take a trip to Mexico.
In a sequence called “¡Viva Mexico, Cabrones!” (which can be loosely translated as “Mexico for life, m*****f*****s!”) we have a green mole with fennel and green peas covered with black truffle, a crunchy sandwich with bull tail and black mole, a fried taco filled with huitlacoche, pumpkin flower and palo cortado, and finally a sweet corn and truffle steam brioche. It’s evident there is the specific, voluntary idea to amaze and impress. Particular ingredients and unconventional preparations are the weapons in the hands of Munoz and his brigade to entertain their guests.
The thought level of the dish and the entire menu is top notch. Flavors are perfectly paired inside each course and correlated with the ones that precede and follow it. A grilled and baked red tuna arrives covered with just the right amount of shiso and served together with lime’s pesto fettuccine, quail’s egg, bottarga and lily bulb. On top of that, a small ice cream sandwich with beetroot and bacon. These are highly flavored ingredients, a single mistake in delivering one of the tastes could overcome the full course. And yet nothing like that happened. Flavors are melt together in an indissoluble embrace, they challenge each other and deliver the appropriate notes. It’s multiplanar, multi-sensorial, multi mindful eating. There is nothing like that in the world (save, maybe, Alina in Chicago?) and it may be generations before another chef tries to move the bar of flavors that far again.
After the first set the curtains are opened, and we could admire the room. There are less than 30 seats, with an extraordinarily low amount of tables for two people. It’s easy to see why it is so difficult to get a reservation for two here. The design is a mixture of Luna Park, Alice in Wonderland, and plain craziness.
We have a cotton candy machine, a real-size flying pig wearing Nike shoes bent on a table, an open mouth on the wall. It is also a very bright environment. There are no shadow games, but big light bulbs that allow exploring the whole room without leaving anything hidden.
We can’t realistically speak of each one of the twenty-five dishes we had, even if each one of them had his own story to tell. At the same time, there is the declared intention not allow anything to be “memorable” on its own. The courses are suicide bombs, rockets triggered from the kitchen and meant to explode in guests mouths’ without leaving too much to thoughts and retrospectives. It’s the continuous exploration and challenge that makes dining here a special event, rather than the single signature dish.
Yumcha XO Style is a set of three courses based on dumplings recreating the atmosphere of a “yum cha,” the Cantonese version of brunch. Here we have a guinea fowl and saffron fried dumpling, a calamari-sandwich iron-steamed dumpling, and red wine and braised pigeon dumpling cooked in the traditional bamboo steamer. Each of them has a different cooking technique, each of them willing to explore a different side of the taste palette. The first one has delicate, intriguing flavors, balanced by a robust and crusty dough. The second one, a tribute to the most famous Madrilean food-to-go, the calamari sandwich, has sweet flavors and strong oily notes, while the third one is a reinterpretation of a classical French-style main, with bold structure and strong gamey accents. Each of the three dishes would be good alone, but imperfect. When joined together and served one after the other at a fast pace, it becomes a delightful assortment, where every dumpling has remainders to the previous ones. This is what a multi-structured menu should look like.
There is one incursion in the US. “How does a Whopper taste in DiverXO” is a game based on Burger King’s signature dish. It’s made for laughing, but the analysis is damned serious. Profiling the taste of a Whopper, it becomes clear how spices are the real deal. The entire dish is supported by the use of strong, flavorful herbs to cover the low-quality meat. Munoz starts from this analysis to create its own version of a “burger.” A duck royale, sweet and tender, is covered with a lengthy list of spices, without letting any herb cover any other one. The bun on the side is a salty brioche, delicate and lightly sweet. Next to it, a piece of duck heart, delivering a robust final kick. The final effect is just incredible. Everything works perfectly well, the balance between sweet and sour notes is outstanding, the flavors perfectly combined together and relaunching each other, in a neverending combination of taste.
A final note for the last main on the menu. The twentieth course is stewed Wagyu Beef with achiote, pickled mushrooms, and radish chantilly. After a lengthy exploration, we end up at the furthest spot in the world from Madrid: Japan. Wagyu is, of course, the most celebrated race of cows coming from this region, famous for its perfect fat marbling and its tenderness. The dish is, apparently, incredibly simple. Beef, sauce, a small side. Yet there is a deal of complexity in each one of these components that can’t go unnoticed. Achiote has mildly peppery characteristics, yet here its hotness is more pronounced than usual, supported by some sweeter flavors to balance the sauce. Pickled mushrooms and the radish chantilly deliver the much-needed acid note. The beef has incredible depth, filling the most critical spot on the taste profile. Balance and depth, in a perfect combination.
The sweet side of the menu carries the enlightening name “Animated Cartoon.” It’s a collection of colors, bold forms, intense flavors. It’s a collection of manga, to be rapidly consumed before they expire.
We start with a complex kakigori (shaved ice) based on lime and guava to clean the palate followed by a milk-based cream delivering powerful sweet notes. Follow up, the most elaborate dessert based on coconut ganache and licorice, with blackcurrant and basil playing as a counterweight. Finally, a cotton candy flan to be eaten without touching it with the hands, in one morsel, and a milk mochi.
It’s fast pacing rhythm, desserts are meant to be eaten in a couple of spoonfuls with intense flavors that hit hard on the spot but quickly evaporate, without leaving a notable aftertaste. That’s why we don’t have any chocolate-based dessert. It would ruin the whole idea of the sweet menu that Mr. Munoz is pursuing. It’s all about cold temperatures, sweet, acid.
It’s pop, it’s sexy, it’s fun. That’s the final keyword. Eating at DiverXO is damn fun. It is not without defects, and it does not even pretend to be. David Munoz wants to make you enjoy the food, to fall in love with taste again. He arrived into high dining world as a wrecking ball, in line with his cuisine proposal. Pop.