‘Effortless chic’ is an elusive concept. When it comes to fashion, I am of the opinion that it is a bit of a myth. Some people are experts at faking it: you only need to take a walk around a trendy arrondissement and note the beautifully mussed-up buns and cashmere sweaters perfectly fitted not to fit perfectly to know that Parisian women are the masters of the look. But I don’t think you can be truly effortless and chic at the same time. Unless you are an actual goddess, chic takes effort, even if that effort is devoted to making it look like you made no effort. But if you actually make no effort – take me, throwing a baggy jumper over my pyjamas to go into the kitchen, for example – it is rare to look actually chic. I might look beautiful and radiant and carefree (I do), but not chic in the true sense of the word.
With the appearance of shops, bars and restaurants, I am similarly sceptical. Some places that go for the effortless chic look with super-minimalist decor and a three-option menu are just obnoxious; others are cool, but you always know it’s a very carefully planned kind of cool. As far as I’m concerned, real effortless chic is not a thing.
La Pez Tortilla in Madrid made me question my certainty on this matter. Its Malasaña branch, the original gaffe that’s so popular they’ve opened two more, is barely noticeable even when you’re standing right by it. Go in – if you can squeeze through the masses standing hungrily at the bar – and you’ll find a few framed stills of young Harrison Ford and early Bowie, a blackboard with a handwritten list of the seven kinds of tortilla and seven types of croqueta available, and a retro cinema light-box listing the nine beers served on tap. The diners who can find space take white IKEA plates of tortilla to their marble tabletops and sit on barstools; the wall behind the bar is lined with colourful metal advertisements for beer brands. The waiters, all under 35, blend in with the young, arty crowd in their black T-shirts and jeans. This place is trendy without being pretentious, off-beat without being scruffy, and they get away with the notes of ‘effortless chic’ that might usually make me roll my eyes (the only-just-slightly-off-centre picture frames, the artfully exposed air vents on the ceiling) because the food is so damn good that it sort of seems like they didn’t really care about the way it looks after all.
From the mighty tortilla options, we order the brie, truffle and jamón and the parmesan, basil and dried tomato numbers. I am sorry to let go of the morcilla with caramelised pepper, and will order it with the feta, olive and anchovy next time. There is Tex-Mex beef for the devoted carnivores and classic onion for the purists. They are served with bread, which seems a little over-the-top until you realise how enormous and oozing these slabs of tortilla are. Glossy slops of egg and potato and whatever else come cascading out of the firmer crust before you’ve even taken a bite, making post-event bread mopping absolutely necessary. Their philosophy, credited to ‘un tortillero’ on the website, translates roughly to ‘there are two types of people: those who like their tortilla runny and those who have no fucking clue what’s good for them’. It’s the Spanish equivalent to the polarising scrambled egg debate in Britain, and in both cases I am in total agreement with La Pez Tortilla.
The parmesan one blends three classic ingredients expertly: swirled into the egg, the tangy parmesan is tempered with a nip of sweet basil and then the baby slices of dried tomato zing it back up again. The truffle one is pure extravagance, unapologetic salty jamón and big chunks of creamy brie and pungent truffle soaring over the top. It is not food for the faint of heart. You need a glug of their homemade IPA, cleansing and bright, to bring you back down to earth after every bite. These dishes make me want to punch the people who call tortilla ‘Spanish omelette’ in the face. I don’t know what you’re eating in the mornings, but I mean every offence when I say that this is a million, trillion times better than any omelette I’ve ever had.
For the croquetas, which you can order alone, in twos or as part of a cheesy smorgasbord of eight, we get squid in its ink, gorgonzola with pear and nuts and mushroom and truffle (it’s a big day for truffle). They are how croquetas should be: like a perfectly formed tater tot, crispy on the outside, piping hot and bursting in your mouth with flavourful, melting, tongue-coating goodness. They’re not subtle things; in fact, all the food here is just about the polar opposite of the laid-back decor and, frankly, of the whole concept of ‘effortless chic’ in general. When it comes to good nosh, La Pez Tortilla certainly put the effort in, and they don’t care who knows it. Their food is not chic; it’s messy and brash and explosive. Madrid is a better place for it.