by Nick Harman - Sunday July 14, 2019 11:07 am
Rice is firmly the star at this new restaurant from a man adorned with more Michelin stars than most
I first had paella in 1973. I was fifteen and an unwilling participant in yet another family holiday to the sizzling Costas.
In those days, British hotel guests were traditionally fed a comforting diet of British food morning, noon and night. Anything ‘foreign’ would, it was felt, lead to a riot and front-page Sun headlines.
Paella was the exception - a special theme evening with waiters squeezed into flamenco costumes and sullenly serving overcooked rice with shellfish that guaranteed stomach troubles the next day.
Paella was, in fact, a bit of a joke. The only Spanish food a Brit could name with any certainty.
Well, as you probably know by now, Quique Dacosta is here to finally change all of that.
Dacosta, the QD of Arros QD, has five restaurants in the paella belt of Spain - Valencia and Alicante - runs a Michelin-starred restaurant, and wrote the book on rice - literally - with Arroces Contemporáneos (Contemporary Rices). So, if anyone can push paella to the UK, he can.
His London paella palace is a big, black, glossy temple dedicated to the seed and is about as far from a rural rice restaurant as it could possibly be. Although large lumps of ancient tree bark attached to the ceiling do add a certain rustic air.
Although big, it’s packed; we’re too early for our reservation, so we’re wafted upstairs to a cool bar where we try to blend in with the moneyed crowd. The bar stools don’t rotate, so clambering laboriously up onto one I make an even bigger spectacle of myself than usual.
Cocktails are called for and we check out one of the five bar snacks, also available on the menu downstairs, the ‘cheese stones’.
These really show off the Michelin side of Dacosta and hark back to the Spanish culinary summer, now over, when Spanish creative cuisine ruled the world and we ate out of test tubes and pretended to enjoy it.
They really do look like shiny black pebbles and are filled with parmesan and manchego cream, with the graphite gloss coming from a cocoa butter skin. Absolute belters of flavour these - the exterior ice cold, the centre at room temperature.
We eat two each, which is enough really, because delicious as they are the richness soon overpowers.
Downstairs to the main event and we walk past the open kitchen.
Here in addition to a wall of roaring wood fires, where the paellas are started off, there is a line of specialised gas trivets designed to perfectly heat paella pans for the final cook. These are apparently computer-controlled. Let’s hope they don’t become sentient.
We order some more of the Michelin-starred starters to kick off. A superb ‘truffle bomb’ is a cracklingly crisp parcel of fluffy potato and truffle ‘spaghetti’ that you have to eat in one bite to get the full effect, as well as save on your dry-cleaning bills.
Iberian pork, ‘mojo verde’ sauce skewers are perfectly done, the meat correctly pink under its crusty exterior and so still good and moist. Quality pork like this can be safely eaten at less than the usual interior temperature.
Kale citrus salad, mixed Valencian citruses, three tomatoes dressing, cashew nuts, was a bit more divisive. Kale is controversial; it may be good for you, but it can be tough and get caught in your teeth. Well, caught in mine anyway.
Here it had been well shredded and the citrus acids had softened it up a bit. A dish that felt very wholesome and fresh, but not one I think I’d order again.
Unlike the next dish, a stone bass ceviche, dried corn, kaffir lime, tiger milk, which was wonderful; the squeaky-fresh fish firm from its citrus ‘cook’ and contrasting well with the crunchy corn.
We had to restrain ourselves from drinking off the tiger milk. Don’t worry, no tigers were abused; it is in fact lime juice, sliced onions, chillies, salt, pepper and the fish juices. It’s very, very good.
One last starter - scallops, tiradito, aji amarillo, dill sauce. Tiradito means the raw fish is shaped, here into noodles. Unlike the bass the scallops are not ‘cooked’ but served with the sauce added at the last minute.
The yellow pepper, the amarillo, was skilfully plated to contrast with the dill sauce. A beautiful dish to both look at and eat.
And so, to the fat lady singing, the paella. Obviously, these big boys are to share between two, although you could get three servings out of it at a small stretch.
The popular choice is Paella Valenciana - rabbit, chicken, garrafo bean, rosemary, traditional aioli, but I’d actually had one of those not so long ago cooked by a Spanish rice grower in his little house using locally shot rabbit. So, I felt I needed something different.
We picked the Mediterranean - cuttlefish, tiger prawns, monkfish, ńoras aioli - , which came to the table dramatically large and putting out a nose-twitching aroma.
You have to drag your special wooden paella spoon from centre to rim to gather up your rice; this has the purpose of scraping up the sought after crispy rice (the socarrat) on the bottom, without damaging the pan.
I have to say I didn’t think the socarrat was actually all that crispy though, it was hard to distinguish from the rice above it, in fact. That said, it was otherwise excellent, every grain of rice perfectly cooked and packed with the flavours of the sea and topped with a breath of woodsmoke.
Not a lot of fish, but that is really not an issue as the star of paella is supposed to be the rice. The prawns were remarkably sweet all the same and the monkfish meaty. Stirring in the aioli made for a pungent, garlicky mouthful each time; nora chillies are from Valencia and are not too hot.
We had some grilled baby gem lettuces - it’s remarkable how grilling, and a tickle of chili, brings out a whole new and wondrous side to lettuce - and some sliced cauliflower which, despite a plethora of interesting flavours over it, remained a bit cauliflowery. I still think smothering it in cheese sauce is the kindest thing you can do to a cauliflower.
We shared a dessert, a rather fun one called a ‘Giant cookie, macadamia nuts, araguani chocolate, vanilla ice cream’, you smash the frisbee-sized cookie to get at the hidden depths beneath and spoon up the gooey greatness.
I must mention wine because the cheerful sommelier recommended something unusual, an organic ‘fizzy’ - Colet Navazo 2014 Extra Brut Classic Penedes which was rather like a bubbly fino sherry. Absolutely wonderful stuff.
By the way, if you don’t want a full-on paella then there are ‘Contemporary Rice’ dishes. cooked in small rectangular ‘Chapas’ pans that come in small or large sizes as well as wood and charcoal grilled meat and fish dishes.There are also meat and fish dishes from the wood grill.
I’m sure they’re very nice too, but have them on your second visit, for now come for what must be the best paella in town.
Paella elevated away from its shady 70s past and restored to glory. Y viva Espana!