With everything from traditional to 'nueva cocina' on the menu, your plate will always be full, says Alex Leith

At the top end of the market there has been an explosion of nueva cocina restaurants offering a completely new concept of food to an increasingly affluent and adventurous public. The cookery revolution in Spain started in the Basque Country in the Eighties, and was pushed even further in the Nineties in Barcelona. Now a number of celebrity chefs are steadily turning Madrid into the place to come for plates of the unexpected.

The latest of such projects is to be found in the new wing of the Reina Sofia art gallery, where Catalan superchef Sergi Arola has opened a restaurant which bears his surname, and offers his trademark style of cooking. It has already earned two Michelin starts. Arola is an apt setting for such a project: the museum houses works by the likes of Picasso, Dalì and Miró; artists intent on challenging your preconceptions of visual perception. Arola does a similar thing with your taste buds.

The setting is white-on-white arch-minimalist, designed by architect Jean Nouvel, and might resemble a school refectory were it not for the curved maroon metallic walls and ceiling, which makes you feel like you're dining inside a designer Starship Enterprise. The waitresses serve you wearing Captain Scarlett-style headsets.

"Cheap and chic" is the by-word of the restaurant, which offers reasonably priced lunches for museum-goers before turning into a more expensive restaurant for bon viveurs at night (where the word "cheap' doesn't seem particularly appropriate). For lunch try chargrilled foie with souffléd potatoes, for dinner go for the menu de degustacion for a full range of Arola's often foamy, always surprising concoctions. Wash down with a choice of 700 wines.

Arola, who learnt his trade in Ferran Adrià's famous El Bulli, has been on the Madrid scene for six years, having opened the celebrated La Broche in the Hotel Miguel Angel in uptown Chamberi in 1999. The minimalist design is all the better to accentuate the crazy colours of the food on offer. You might fancy loin of horse, or scallop carpaccio with green apple purée.

Sergi Santiago, the chef of the noted Michelin three-star restaurant Can Fabes in Sant Celoni, Catalonia, moved onto the Madrid scene in 2000 with a restaurant in the Hotel Hesperia in Chamberi, which he named "Santceloni' after his home town. It's slightly more classical than Arola's establishments, in a minimalist beige and cream setting designed by Pascua Ortega. Santiago bases his ideas on local madrileño staples, jazzed up, of course, with modern cooking methods and combinations. Try the 10-course Gastronomic Menu including mushroom sauté with candied pork dewlap and squid with artichokes, red wine, rocket and parmesan. Sadly the contentious Madrid-Barcelona dish, consisting of lamb tripe and salt cod innards, has been taken off the menu.

One of the pioneers of Madrid's cuisine revolution, the restaurant Divina La Cocina, is still going strong after nine years in Chueca, Madrid's "gaybourhood". Staff glide about in black T-shirts with gold lamé lettering carrying imaginative dishes such as cream of seaweed with trouts eggs and foam of garlic, or antelope steak with foie gras and lychees. The setting is intimate, the light dimmed by orange lampshades; the clientele is a gay/straight mix.

You don't have to spend a fortune to enjoy nueva cocina in Madrid. Ferran Adrià has just opened a new concern which brings prices down and pulls in crowds. Rather clumsily named "Fast Good" the restaurant provides quality fast food at affordable prices, all with the Adrià touch, of course. Gorgonzolaburgers are garnished with rocket, for example, and leeks with crystallised chicken. There are plans for the Fast Good chain to spread over Madrid.

The traditional way to enjoy fast food in Spain is to guzzle a few tapas. Try the rowdy El Tempranillo on Calle Cava Baja if you want traditional fare to the sound of flamenco music. For something more chic head to Joanna La Loca around the corner, which takes a more imaginative approach to tapas making, and changes its offerings daily. Look out for the gulas eels in crepe and take advantage of the wine of the week.

A newly opened tapas bar in Santa Ana in Huertas is worth dropping into. Guau offers imaginative inventions in designer settings (huge mirrors, orange lamp shades, jet black bar; it looks like an Edward Hopper joint updated for the 21st century) and claims to make the best tortilla de patatas in Spain.

So where does this explosion of experimental cooking leave the capital's traditional cuisine scene, consisting of hearty protein-rich fare served on gingham tablecloths? Exactly where it was. Madrid boasts the world's oldest restaurant, Botin, which has been serving roast suckling pig, cooked in a wood-fired oven, for 300 years. Try to get a table in the basement, and ask to see the oven. Another option is Casa Marta, which serves Don Quixote's favourite dish, duelos y quebrantes, a mixture of scrambled eggs, chorizo, bacon and brains - the latter is optional for the squeamish.

La Bola Taberna serves cocido madrileño at lunchtime, thick nourishing stew cooked on wood fires in earthenware pots. Viuda de Vacas, which has been used as an Almodovar location, serves oxtail soup and farmhouse beans: head for the tables on the first floor up the red-linen-draped spiral staircase. All but the swankiest restaurants are obliged to provide a three-course menu del dia option at lunchtime, and these provide the best-value food on offer. There are hundreds of such establishments around - with two on the same street that are a good option after visiting one of the city's major art galleries: El Alambique serves you three courses (a starter such as Roquefort on spinach, a main such as squid in its ink, and a pudding such as creme caramel) and a bottle of wine for €9 (£6.60) in a room full of left-wing posters; and Repórter, over the road, has a beautiful conservatory with internal fig trees, and serves seafood soup and stuffed oxtail, washed down with local wine, for €9.50 (£7.30).

DINNER TIME: WHEN TO BOOK

The Spanish tend to do everything late, and eating is no exception. Arrive at 1pm, and you're likely to be eating on your own, arrive at 8pm and you're likely to be standing outside a locked door. Lunch is usually eaten between 2pm and 4pm. In the evening most restaurants don't serve till 9pm (they usually close the kitchens by midnight).

Spaniards aren't great tippers; simply rounding up a €48 bill to €50 is fine, but five to 10 per cent won't do any harm either.

DINER'S GUIDE

Arola at Museo Reina Sofia, Calle Isabel 52 (Metro Atocha); 00 34 917 741 000.

Santceloni, Hotel Hesperia, Paseo de la Castellana 57 (Metro Ruben Dario); 00 34 91 210 8840.

Fast Good, Calle Padre Damián 23 (Metro Cuzco); 00 34 91 343 0655.

Juanna La Loca, Plaza Puerta de Moros 4 (Metro La Latina); 00 34 91 364 0525.

El Tempranillo, Calle Cava Baja 38 (Metro La Latina), 00 34 91 364 1532.

Guau, Calle del Principe 26 (Metro Antón Martin); 00 34 91 429 7011.

El Sobrino de Botin, Calle Cuchilleros 17 (Metro Sol); 00 34 91 366 4217.

Casa Marta, Calle Santa Clara 10 (Metro Opera); 00 34 91 548 2825.

La Bola Taberna, Calle Bola 5 (Metro Opera); 00 34 91 547 6930.

Viuda de Vacas, Calle Cava Alta (Metro La Latina); 00 34 91 366 1023.

El Alambique, Calle Fucar 7 (Metro Antón Martin); 00 34 91 429 6563.

Repórter, Calle Fucar 6 (Metro Antón Martin); 00 34 91 429 3922.

La Broche, Hotel Miguel Angel, Calle Miguel Angel 29 (Metro Ruben Dario); 00 34 91 339 3437.

Divina la Cocina, Calle Colmenares 13 (Metro Atocha); 00 34 91 531 3765.

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