Why bluefin tuna feeds the menagerie at Casa de Fieras

- Chefs

A logbook by Sensei Hiroshi Umi.

In autumn and spring in particular, the mild climate makes a pleasurable stroll through Madrid’s Retiro Park particularly appealing. With every measured step, keeping a close eye on the landscape of life, one always comes across some new botanical and mannerist discovery in this oasis at the heart of Madrid.

A pleasure which is heightened even further by the gastronomic findings that surround this city garden and rise up to meet us. Such as Casa de Fieras. In the more laid-back, tapas-focused part of Calle Menéndez Pelayo, this gastro bar is open for business every day, courtesy of its surprising and globe-trotting chef John Eghosa Akhiobare. Born in Nigeria, and now approaching the age of fifty, he skilfully and engagingly runs a social venue, with a bar serving beer, vermouth, fine wine, and even better conversation.

In culinary terms, aside from the more traditional essentials, notable features include our beloved Fuentes bluefin tuna, which has become a real hallmark of a venue with plenty of history and walls stripped bare. “Our regulars order it a lot, it’s at the heart of our menu. And those who don’t already know it are really amazed. Like this diced, spicy bluefin tuna on lime, with a touch of yakiniku sauce and kimchi, a little sesame and a hint of truffle, which is eaten the same way you would with oysters. You have to bite and scrape a little of the lime pulp off, to give it that extra dash of acidity,” explains Eghosa, who arrived in Spain from his native Lagos in the early 1990s.

From VIPs to Casa de Fieras. A real odyssey

“My first port of call was Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. I came because a friend was organising a dance and folklore festival. And when that ended, I just tried to get by. I didn’t know how to cook, I didn’t know the language or anything. Not a thing. I sorted my papers out when my visa expired and set to work stuffing envelopes, before ending up at a VIPs fast-food restaurant on Sexta Avenida, in Pozuelo, Madrid. That was a really abrupt change. I was washing dishes and the like, but gradually I began to work my way up. I was there 15 years, and ended up in charge of the kitchen,” he recounts, a constant glint in his eyes.

After his time at the franchise eatery, he slogged away at a couple of Italian restaurants and a pizzeria by the Bernabéu stadium, at the old Rancho Texano on the Barcelona road – “communions, weddings, events… it went bust” –, at a restaurant called Verduras del Reino in the Gran Vía district… Until he met Rafael López del Hierro, the businessman who opened Casa de Fieras in 2016, in what was an old leather tannery. It was here that John found his happy place, and a chance to spread some culinary good vibes.

Fuentes bluefin tuna, star of the menu

He admits that despite his rather unexpected professional career, he loves cooking, and would be happy “serving food to any royal family”. And that bluefin tuna “is a marvel, so tasty and profound. We deal with Fuentes through Cominport. When I first arrived here there were a few things on the menu, but I extended that. It’s a fundamental element for me, and the best thing on offer. On Sundays I often run out because of the demand we have. There have been times when I’ve got through as much as 30 kilos in a week”.

As we continue chatting, a magnificent marinated bluefin tuna tataki is brought to the table, with ponzu sauce, wasabi mayonnaise, and “pico de gallo relish with onion, tomato and mango, along with three types of sesame, served with wakame and flaked bonito. It’s a real knockout”. More diced tuna, this time on a bed of scrumptious guacamole; the traditional tartar, cut by knife, “mixed with beaten egg, soy, wasabi, roe – the texture is out of this world”. Within this repertoire of tuna, the recipe most typical of Madrid would be the tuna belly casserole with fried eggs, potato, spring onions and truffle mayonnaise, “perfect to share, with a load of Omega 3, which is so healthy –  it puts a smile on your face”.

And then to round out the culinary options on offer, there are Cantabrian anchovies, creamy croquettes, cheeses, Cadiz-style pork crackling, cured beef, Russian salad, artichokes, spare rib brioche, beef cheek ravioli… and outstanding tripe, of course.

The original Casa de Fieras

As history tells us, the Casa de Fieras in Madrid’s Buen Retiro, or ‘Wild Animal House’, was the name given to a zoo in the Herrero Palacios Gardens, alongside the Puerta de Sainz de Baranda (now Avenida Menéndez Pelayo, where the restaurant stands). It opened its doors in 1774, populated with exotic birds, ocelots, macaws, snakes, parrots, gazelles, llamas, elephants, macaques…

A number of black and white photos on one of the restaurant’s walls provide a decorative record of that picturesque menagerie. John Oghasa now updates the concept, free of cages and captivity. “Casa de Fieras, that’s us through and through – a bunch of wild animals”.