As soon as we get inside Arzábal Ponzano, we feel the cozy atmosphere. And it's not because it's inside a hotel—it's because of the decor, the warm lighting, the friendly staff... It's also because of aroma from the food, always made from the quality ingredients that local suppliers provide to Iván Morales and Álvaro Castellanos, which is the way things are done at Arzábal, a chain of charming locales in Madrid.
Laura Gil.- How was Arzábal initially launched?
Álvaro Castellanos.- We started in 2009 with a very small restaurant in the Retiro neighborhood, with just five people working in a 62 m2 space.
We focused on a model which featured a large bar, wines available by the glass, and a food offering serving products with a twist, and we quickly moved from that location to the locale that's most representative of the group, on the corner of Menéndez Pelayo and Doctor Castelo Streets. Within a year and a half, there were around 40 of us working there. From that moment, we continued to move forward, creating new spaces until ending up where we are now, in the NH Chamberí Hotel.
L. G.- How did you start out in the hospitality sector?
Iván Morales.- We began as waiters, but almost immediately we took on managerial positions, from a very early age.
L. G.- What would you highlight about Arzábal?
A. C.- We have always worked with seasonal products and dishes which, given demand, are fixtures on the menu, such as potato stew with Dublin Bay prawns and croquettes made with sheep's milk. I also believe Arzábal has stood out on Madrid's food scene because it's a restaurant that always serves seasonal products.
L. G.- Do you give priority to national products, or do you use international products as well?
I. M.- Although you can buy ingredients from all over the world, we remain focused on Spanish products. The area of influence is important for us, as is defending small producers, farmers, harvesters, the woman who packages the cockles... But at the end of the day, we have everything we need.
L. G.- Do you have suppliers that you trust?
A. C.- Yes, but in this regard, we make things quite difficult. We source each food individually, from its producer. Sometimes, the person that brings us calçots doesn't bring us asparagus or artichokes, even though he also produces them. We look at the demographic and climatic characteristics of each area with a view to offering our customers the best product.
L. G.- What are the qualities you value most in your suppliers?
A. C.- We try to work with small suppliers, because they usually focus on a more specific product, which is often of superior quality. We try to make it so that our distributor is not just a supplier, but is part of our business model, so as to add value to the product he's selling us.
L. G.- How do you view the hospitality sector at present?
I. M.- It's complicated, because there are many factors which determine whether a restaurant is good or bad, or more specifically, whether or not its food is discerning so to speak—if there are "brave" dishes on the menu. I would say that, thankfully, I like very few restaurants.
It's clear that there must be variety, and it's true that high-quality products can't come cheap. We have to be able to go out and choose.
For us, since we do this for a living and we're on the other side of the counter, it's a tough question and our perception surely isn't the same as that of most consumers.
L. G.- Which of your dishes would you recommend?
A. C.- All of them, but our croquettes in particular are amazing. Now that it's vegetable season, I would also recommend the artichokes. We clean them and then we fry them in olive oil and a bit of salt. It's a must-try dish at Arzábal.
I. M.- I would also recommend the croquettes. I would describe us as searching for a more special product, like using sheep's milk to make the bechamel sauce, using DO ham, which we hand carve, and spending four and a half hours to make the dough.
L. G.- What kinds of restaurants do you usually go to?
A. C.- I like restaurants where you can eat well and where the cooking is "honest". I like variety, from Michelin-star venues to neighborhood or more modern restaurants.
I. M.- I would say we're always ready to have a good time, and we always go out with a view to enjoying ourselves, so most restaurants have it easy with us.
L. G.- Do you plan to open a restaurant outside Madrid?
A. C.- We would love to. It's always a possibility, but in 2017 we're going to continue working on the restaurants we already have with a view to doing what we do even better. There's a lot of demand in Madrid, so we must continue to work hard to remain connected to our customers.