Photo by Richard Owens
People have written entire books on the search for the best paella. Indeed I’ve often considered it myself as I’ve gone from one historically celebrated place to another, often feeling like I’m missing something.
Of course, as is true of so many of Spain’s communal dishes, it’s the kind of thing you’ll eat best in the bosom of somebody’s home and family, ideally cooked over vine cuttings with a certain wind blowing through your hair and all the rest of it.
But in my travels, I went to La Pepica on the beach in Valencia, which is probably the most famous paella joint in Spain, a favourite of bullfighters and Hemingway, but for me the rice was so salty it was pretty much inedible and the place has become a Disneyland of a restaurant. I scoured Xàtiva, the unofficial home of arroz in the Valencian region, and found nothing to get wildly excited about, and then finally spent a day traversing the obscure villages of the Albufera, an estuary and natural park on the Gulf of Valencia, where at last I found paella as it should be: taut, plump grains of rice deeply infused with the flavours of sea and river and mountain, and nothing else has quite lived up to it quite since.
In Barcelona, Can Majo has always been reliable, Kaiku’s smoked rice with ceps and artichokes is a thing of beauty and I enjoy Villoro for its heaving great cauldrons of ricey things in a no-nonsense, Andaluz atmosphere. But I wasn’t sure what to expect of Pez Vela, a new arm of the ever-expanding Tragaluz Group tucked into the foundations of the W Hotel.
Tragaluz are known for great design, careful service and quality food, granted, but I’ve come to place paella in a box in my brain among other elusive art forms that come along once in a blue moon. Rare is the occasion you hear people whooping for joy or waxing lyrical into their column inches of the food pages, or grabbing your hand and urging “You MUST go. It’s really, really great.” But if I could take your hands in mine and say that of Pez Vela, I would.
It was a lovely, sunny Sunday afternoon when I visited, and since Barcelona in October is still bathed in golden, balmy sunshine, go for lunch rather than dinner to make the most of it. I liked everything about it from their contemporary interpretation of a chiringuito—the space is open on one side, which makes it feel outdoorsy all the way through—with poured concrete floors and rough planks of timber nailed to the walls, the ample tables and comfortable armchairs made for lolling about in, the huge bowl of tender salad leaves, dressed with a light hand and plonked in the middle of the table for all to share, and the rich, creamy turrón ice-cream sandwiches that came at the end.
But it was the rice that was the showstopper. The large paellera (paella pan) filled with the thinnest layer of plump, bomba grains didn’t look like it could feed a hungry foursome, but as it turns out, therein is the secret to a great paella. For each yielding grain had fully absorbed the rich seafood stock so as to be bursting with flavour and the socarrat—the much-desired crunchy, caramelised underside of the paella—had formed in abundance. There was none of the stodgy clagginess that comes from overcooking the rice—bomba needs 20 minutes tops—just deeply flavoured, nutty-textured rice liberally studded with the cuttlefish, prawns and clams that formed the basis of the stock. It didn’t just satisfy, it defeated us in that classically British way where, with barely a spoonful left, we pushed it around between us, each too polite to take the final mouthful, groaning, “No, no, I’m full. Couldn’t possibly.
Pez Vela—Paseo del Mare Nostrum 19-21 (Barceloneta). Tel. 93 221 6317. www.grupotragaluz.com
Open: Mon-Fri, 1 to 3.45pm; Sat-Sun, 1-4.30pm; Mon-Thur & Sun, 8-11.30pm; Fri & Sat, 8pm-12.30am. Menu of salad, paella and dessert plus glass of wine, €35.
Tara’s rating: ✪✪✪✪