Eating Around Valencia
Papa Hemingway, Paella and More Pure Culinary Joy
by John Mariani
the minds of Americans, the dish most associated with Spain's
region of Valencia is probably paella, an open-air meal in one big
platter, cooked over a wood fire until the rice sticks to the bottom
and gets crispy, which is considered one of the best parts of a
paella. Gastronomic purists say the original paella was made only
with eels from Albufera, Valencia's saltwater lagoon, but today
a wide variety of ingredients, from seafood to chicken and rabbit,
find their way into a wide variety of paellas.
Whether you’re craving said paella, want a counter full of tapas for nibbling with a cold Mahou beer or a dry fino Sherry or desire some of the region's fine seafood, here’s where to go:
This was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite, and nothing has changed. Recall his notes from The Dangerous Summer: “Dinner at Pepica's was wonderful. It was a big, clean, open-air place and everything was cooked in plain sight. You could pick out what you wanted to have grilled or broiled and the seafood and the Valencian rice dishes were the best on the beach. You could hear the sea breaking on the beach and the lights shone on the wet sand.” Hemingway ate heartily and was very fond of the Balaguer family that still owns the restaurant and remembers Papa’s good appetite for food and drink.
After mass, locals flock to feast here, though no proper lunch begins much before 2 p.m. in the afternoon in Valencia. In order to get good seating at an outdoor table looking over the beach and sea, shoot for a 1:30 p.m. reservation. La Rosa has a vast menu and a fairly good wine list, with a number of excellent Valencian wines priced at $10-$18, while Riojas and Priorats cost far more. Opt for fried pork skins called chicharrones instead of a banal salad of pink tomatoes, shredded carrots and mediocre ham. Paella is mandatory. The lightly seasoned dish comes steaming in a big, concave pan; a version with rabbit and chicken has green beans and snails added to the mix. The meal with wine, water, service and tax, comes to less than $50.
This is an excellent starting point for your education in Valencian cuisine. Bright and cheery, it’s welcoming to locals and foreigners alike. The moderately-sized dining room has wood beams, white moulding, painted-tile wainscoting, peach walls and brass chandeliers. Food-related paintings festoon the walls, including one with a scene of paella being cooked in the countryside. The food here is seriously traditional, beginning with a very pleasing arrangement of grilled zucchini, asparagus, tomatoes, eggplant, onions and mushrooms dressed with a well-rendered romesco sauce of almonds, peppers, onions, tomato, garlic and olive oil. Fat, fresh shrimp arrive piping hot and gilded with garlic and oil. Monkfish, on the other hand, is better naked, without its gummy white sauce.
A marked evolution of the local cuisine with modern flair in presentation can be found at Tasca Josue, situated in a busy, youthful neighborhood packed with young people who like to go out and stay out very late. The staff doesn’t speak English, but that doesn’t stop chef-owner, Jesus Ribes, from standing in his open kitchen and happily explaining what’s good that night. Just nod and say "o.k." to whatever he suggests. His recommendations might include an appetizer of a bright-tasting salad of thinly sliced octopus, zucchini, red onion, tomato and a gloss of olive oil. Or try a "shooter" with puréed red pepper and garlic and a single shrimp on the side; then embark on a lovely plate of octopus with macadamias, asparagus, carrots, zucchini and a slick of squid ink sauce. Tagliarine pasta of calamari is tossed with string beans and zucchini, with a paprika-infused mayonnaise. For a main course, sea bass comes with assorted sautéed mushrooms and pine nuts; a filet mignon gets accompaniment from haystack potatoes and delicious shreds of Spanish ham. For dessert, melon soup with yogurt sorbet is a perfect way to end the fairly light meal—or you could just go extreme and polish the whole experience off with a brownie smothered in chocolate ice cream, white chocolate sauce and passion fruit. Dinner comes to about $70, with wine, service and tax.
A hip young crowd goes with the flow: Canned contemporary pop alternates with enchanting classical music played by a string quartet. The menu is equally eclectic and changes often. Chef Mariano Fernandez and his three women cooks share some of the experimentalism of Ferran Adrià. They favor tasting menus here, and if you are adventurous and not tied to tradition, L'Ambigù should fit the bill. The presentations dazzle: The Mediterranean salad, in a star pattern, is made from a purée of yellow tomato and olive oil with a little scoop of avocado ice cream. It’s a striking way to start off the meal. The raspberry vinegar-anchovy soup sounds horrible but tastes amazing, like a cold gazpacho, bracing and tart. Less successful is the "Mar y Montagna" (sea and mountain), which combines pork, squid and octopus formed into a kind of torta with a curried green salad and shrimp sauce. To give you an idea of Valencians’ way with rice, Fernandez provides you with four versions: squid; octopus and asparagus; chicken and rabbit; and cauliflower and cod. Succulent pork cheeks with raisins, chorizo, and a potato pancake pale only by comparison with the rest of the meal. End up with a superb and fascinating orange mousse adorned with a crispy orange slice and little jellied orange squares. A tasting menu here runs about $50.
Rural "El Envero"
This charming restaurant sits outside of a little hill town in Estenas near Utiel, set on a winding street seemingly in the middle of nowhere. There are only three rooms here, tiny but cozy, rustic with stone walls. The dining room is just as minuscule, with a small fireplace and only about half a dozen well-set tables. Pure sunlight pours through the window and casts a golden glow. There is a menu of seven appetizers, three meats and five desserts, and the delicious food is prepared simply. Begin with a carpaccio of beef, and bacalao (salt cod) that tingles with dried peppers. There is also a delightful dish of sweetbreads with trumpet mushrooms. The real strength of the cooking, however, is the array of meats cooked over a wood fire—something the Spanish do as well or better than any people on earth. Feast on acorn-fed pork, or velvety cochinillo (suckling pig). Baby lamb is perfectly juicy, fatted and richly flavorful with a faint smokiness imparted from the slow cooking. The tenderloin of beef with liver is equally delightful. Entrées range from $15-$19. Add a bottle of Valencian Bobal from a producer such as Dominio de la Vega, and you might want to stay on for days in this small corner of Spain.
Valencia’s situation on the sea makes the bounty of the Mediterranean readily available. Some of the best seafood restaurants are in the vacation city of Alicante, which sprawls around the deep water harbor dotted with some of the largest yachts in European waters. Watch them ply those waters at the 45-year-old restaurant Dársena, a huge place with indoor and outdoor seating and an ebullient host-owner, Don Antonio Agustin Pérez, who seems to regard everyone as an old friend. He’s deferential to all the women, with a firm handshake for all the men. He bounds about his restaurant with obvious glee, as he should: He's very successful. Graze at the long, tempting tapas bar here where you might eat your fill for the day or night. You’ll find dozens of crustaceans and mollusks glistening on ice, and whole fish are admirably displayed for you to see in all their pristine freshness. The menu is vast beyond all that, and rice dishes and paellas teem with ingredients straight from the morning’s catch. Go with several friends and order a variety of rice dishes with shrimp, anchovies, langoustines, squid or any of a score of other ingredients. Drink the wines of Alicante (which are very good and amazingly cheap), look out on the water and revel that you are in one of Spain’s most beautiful spots.
Images by Galina Stepanoff-Dargery
(Updated: 09/13/10 NW)