Where to Find the Best Paella in Spain

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This epic Spanish rice specialty is not what you think it is

Authentic paella valenciana

 

I discovered the restaurant almost 30 years ago, on the recommendation of a friend. In those days, it looked like a slightly dingy working-man's bar with an only marginally cheerier back dining room. The paella, absolutely traditional, sat on a table in the hall, partially covered by a large dish towel. These days, the place looks bright and neat, almost contemporary, and the paella is backstage.

The menu when I first visited offered only one paella and a handful of appetizers and desserts. The choice of first and last courses is still small (baby cuttlefish with favas or shredded salt cod with garlic and red peppers are among the former; the latter include tarts of almonds and of ricotta-like cheese), but the paella menu has been expanded to include a vegetable paella; an arroz caldoso, or soupy rice made with the same ingredients as paella valenciana; and fideuà, which is basically paella made with short pasta pieces instead of rice.

It's paella valenciana itself that draws me to Restaurante Levante, though. Vidal's paella (below) is earthy and hearty. The saffron-rich rice is slightly softer than al dente, except for the bottom crust, the

much-appreciated socarrat, which is nutty, dark brown, and pleasantly chewy. The rabbit and chicken, small pieces of both, still on the bone, are full of flavor. (Vidal doesn't usually add snails.) The vegetables seem to melt into the rice. Eating it, I'm reminded of something Paul Prudhomme once said about Cajun food, to the effect that every biteful tasted a little different. And every different biteful is just plain delicious. (Photo courtesy of Restaurante Levante)

(If you don't plan a trip to Valencia any time soon, you still have a chance to taste Vidal's paella: José Andrés imports him every year to cook at his Jaleo paella festivals in the Washington, DC area and in Las Vegas.)

Other places to try authentic paella valenciana in and around Valencia include:

Casa Roberto, Calle Maestro Gozalbo 19, Valencia, (34) 936 951 361 — A wide variety of rice dishes in an upscale setting.

La Matandeta, Carretera Alfafar-Saler, Km. 4, Alfafar, (34) 962 112 184 — Rustic paellas in an old farmhouse in the Albufera, the marshes where Valencian rice grows.

Le Pepica, Paseo Neptuno 6, (34) 963 710 366 — An local institution on the waterfront, around since the late 19th century (Hemingway used to eat here), with a contemporary-minded chef who nonetheless does paella the old-fashioned way.