Photo by Patricia Esteve
I had heard various things about Elche: that it was a classic from the Sixties, that it was resting on its laurels, that it was full of tourists, that the waiters were rude but also that it was one of the best places in town for rice. The thought of finding the perfect arròs negre won out and I decided to try it anyway.
Elche certainly has the feel of a classic: comfortable and smartish without trying too hard. The seats are chunky and plush, the fittings are chunky and wooden, the waiters are chunky and jaded. On our lunchtime visit there were no tourists at all, but mainly ladies dressed like Carmela Soprano shelling their prawns with a knife and fork and paunchy old guys eating alone with big pinkie rings and Marca for company.
Similarly, there’s absolutely nothing avant-garde or adventurous about the food here—just traditional, heavy dishes that leave you feeling like you’ve swallowed a Hadron collider. Naturally, fried foods dominate the starters so we went with the flow and ordered a selection of fregits. This can often be a horror house of UFOs (Unidentified Fried Objects) but Elche’s were well above average and are best described in terms of what they were not: the bunyols (cod fritters) were not empty balls of doughy batter; the calamar (squid) rings did not have the texture of cable insulation; the ham croquetes were not tubes of floury paste. The prawns had been coated in some kind of nasty orange food colouring but the flesh inside was actually tender and sweet with a good bite. The only disappointment were the xipirons (baby squid), which were rubbery, cold and not salty enough. We washed it all down with a Martivillí Verdejo from Rueda (€14), which is perfect for cutting through fried food with its fresh aromas of green fruit and citrus and that typical long bitter finish that comes from Verdejo grapes.
The rice menu was fairly short and had a few tempting options such as rice with cod and porcini, or rice with chicken and sausage topped with a crust of egg au gratin. But we were not to be distracted and went straight for the arròs negre d’Elx with baby squid and artichokes (€14.50 per person). After the waiter’s weary flourish of a paella pan the size of the Millennium Falcon, we were served with two glistening black mountains of rice and promptly tucked in.
In some restaurants, ordering black rice can be like ordering a salt lick—chefs often ignore the fact that squid ink is already quite salty on its own—but here it was just right. Elche’s black rice is one of those slow-release wow factor dishes. The more you have the more you want, and the mouth-feel is so deliciously unctuous and silky that it’s hard not to keep forking it in until the plate is empty. And that is exactly what we did. In short, it’s a carbohydrate coma waiting to happen. A gourmet sedative that gave us a post-rice condition of slurred speech, a staggering gait and slow reflexes.
The dessert menu read well—crème caramel with frozen candy floss sauce or cinnamon sorbet with wild strawberries and white chocolate—but the idea of dessert was anathema at that stage. So in summary, the rice is certainly very accomplished but with no socorrat (the coveted crunchy bit on the bottom of the paella pan), it stops short of giving you a foodgasm and besides, the pricing is just a little too grabby. The search for the perfect arròs goes on…