I have never seen a restaurant that more clearly reflects the personality of its creator. After a long career in the hospitality world, Cesar Martin shaped his dream, Lakasa, a decade ago. Now, he has reconfigured your way to understand Italian cuisine with Mola Pizza
He greets me with the familiarity of someone who has known you all his life even though he has never met you. Cesar Martin is one of the most respected and beloved chefs in the profession for a reason. This is precisely my first question: “I have been in this for many years, and that gives you many friends along the way. Perhaps it is also because Lakasa has no pretensions of being a luxury restaurant, and this is a place where many people who work in the hospitality industry come. They prefer something more informal when they go out”.
It is curious how Cesar insists on giving the appearance of normality to one of the most special and authentic restaurants in Madrid, which has already earned the name of classic on its own merits. A classic that was the culmination of what he himself describes as a “long and turbulent road”.
A long professional way
His professional career is perfectly reflected in the book Madrid, la nueva movida gastro, published by Alberto Fernández. Cesar went from the Casa de Campo Hospitality School in Madrid to the kitchen of his great mentor, Iñaki Camba, in Arce. In 1996 he opened the first restaurant of his own: Abaceria de la Villa, closed in 2004. After several years working in other people’s restaurants, he would be able to regain the freedom to make his own dream come true with his wife Marina ten years ago.
Good things started to happen. “We were doing great … Until Covid hit. The pandemic paused life for everyone and for us too. Although we are doing better now than two years ago, nothing is the same. The train no longer goes at 100 per hour. Now it goes to 80”, he complains. “There is a feeling of apparent euphoria, but when you work with the public you become an observer, and things are not the same as before. People work differently, live differently, and you must know how to adapt. Perhaps doing a different menu at noon and another at night. We will think about it.”
A very personal restaurant
The Lakasa menu is heterogeneous and very personal. The perfect reflection of Cesar’s career and character. A menu that mixes seafood and game, dishes with an Asian touch and much more classic preparations. A menu that is there to make the diner happy, but also its creator.
“Our restaurant is market or seasonal, but not kilometer 0. If we like a product from France, like the Bouchot mussels, whose season has just started, we bring them”, adds the chef. Lakasa is a cosmopolitan and seasonal restaurant at the same time. In this concept, suppliers are key players. “There are some with whom we have been working for a long time and we talk to them daily. Others are seasonal, like our tuna from Gadira, or the berries that come from Lozoya in the Madrid mountains”, he comments. “Although now we have children and it’s not so easy anymore, my wife Marina and I love exploring when we travel.”
Cesar Martin is not one of those who imprisons himself in his own concept and throws away the key. He enjoys like a child when he introduces something new on the menu: “40 portions come out the first day, because I tell everyone, you have to try this, you have to try this”.
The best beef Wellington in Madrid
As say so gastronomic gurus like Víctor de la Serna. You can try Lakasa´s beef Wellington on request on Mondays and Fridays at noon. This dish has become one of Lakasa’s most memorable.
Cesar himself tells the story of why a traditional English dish became a signature dish at the restaurant: “10 years ago we opened on Saturday and Sunday, and we wanted to make Sundays a little special. We had a cart that we were carrying around the room. One day we came up with the idea of making beef Wellington and it was a revolution. We repeated it and it stayed with us forever”.
More than complicated, César Martín describes this dish as laborious: “It is a dish that entangles you. You have to do a part. Stop. Do again. Mark the sirloin the day before. Let it cool until the next day. The advantage is that today’s ovens are perfect and there is no margin for error. We actually have a button that says Wellington on it,” he says with a smile.
La corvinita pibil, which was another great success with critics and audiences, was on its way to becoming Lakasa’s second great classic, but its owner decided to remove it from the menu before he became tired of the dish.
A tailored wine list
Lakasa can brag of having a very interesting and heterogeneous wine list, which, like the menu, alternates great classics with more risky proposals. “My wife Marina and I started it because we really like wine. We wanted to have a little bit of everything, but without driving you crazy,” he recalls. But over time they began to feel a bit overwhelmed, and they hired a sommelier, who made a spectacular, very powerful list of wines.
However, Cesar thinks that we must never forget that the wine must be in tune with the dishes and the philosophy of the restaurant. “Sometimes it is difficult to make sommeliers understand this. Some tend to make it too personal, and it’s tricky. We are happy with Borja now. He likes different things, but the menu is 100% Lakasa. Everything is coming back to where it should be.”
The chef is very clear about the role of wine: “Twenty years ago you had to have a very large wine list, keeping the wine in the cellar. Now you must be more active, going out, seeing things. Harmonize the menu with seasonal products”, he comments. “We like to break stereotypes, such as that La Mancha wines are not good. This happened 30 years ago. He recognizes that “there are still classic clients who are not very willing to receive advice. It is a process that takes time.”
A light box with some secrets
One of the things that most caught my attention about Lakasa is its timeless and very personal style. “We just wanted something to represent our personalities. The reform was carried out by Julio Touza, who has been a friend for a long time, and he understood us perfectly,” explains the chef. Wood, dark tones, and tons of natural light. And some very comfortable chairs, I would add. “Julio’s projects do not only think about aesthetics, but they are also very functional. For example, he created a corridor so that we can move from one side to the other without going through the restaurant,” he says.
At Lakasa you will find red, plants and books, many books. You can even read Don Quixote de la Mancha between courses. “Each corner of the restaurant tells a story about us, about our favorite books, about our friends. Sometimes they even bring some to us to put here,” he jokes.
The 80-square-meter glass-enclosed kitchen is another of the restaurant’s jewels. Like a watchtower, it constantly connects the preparation of dishes and the room. But curiously, its function is the opposite of what might be expected: “For us it is very important to observe what is happening in the room. People’s faces and their reaction before the dishes. It helps you with the rhythm of the service. It allows for a greater connection.”
Cesar Martin has just converted his second restaurant, the Italian Fokacha, into Mola Pizza: a closer and more affordable concept. “Our idea with Fokacha was to create a Lakasa in Rome. Unfortunately, the idea did not catch on. There was a very knit group, who came very often. Unfortunately, they were not enough for the numbers to work”, he regrets. “But we already had the structure, the wood-fired oven, a very elaborated pizza, so we wanted to take advantage of all this by taking our initial idea down a notch, especially in high-quality Italian suppliers”.
Reflecting on why the concept did not work out as he expected, César comments that it might be very difficult to change the idea that people in Madrid have of an Italian restaurant, especially when it comes to the price.
The long shadow of Lakasa’s success could also be another reason. “Perhaps there were people who thought, to go to Fokacha, I go to the original, which is next door. That is why we want the public that visits Mola Pizza to be completely different”.
A commitment to quality, good work, and that comes from the heart. Like all Cesar Martin’s projects.
Make your reservation to Lakasa here
Make your reservation to Mola Pizza here
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