Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – New York City’s Paella Scene

In a world of fois gras, caviar, and Balthazar, we huddle behind closed doors scraping the burned edges from a brownie pan, searching for the half-popped kernels at the bottom of a bag of popcorn, and licking the beaters after mixing cake batter. While most of us live in snacking shame, there is one dish that embraces the culinary outcasts that we hate to love – paella. This famed dish from the Valencia region of Spain is made of rice traditionally mixed with green vegetables, meat, snails, beans and seasoning in a wide flat cast iron pan. Like the crema that sits atop a good espresso, paella’s excellence is measured by an equally pretentious word: socarrat. Socarrat refers to the heavenly caramelized (read: burnt) bottom layer of the pan. Finally, crunchy burnt little morsels we don’t need to be ashamed to savor. I’ve combed the city for the best paellas and along the way found the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good - Socarrat
Just steps away from the Mediocre Mile, on a block known for the Chelsea boy hangout G Lounge, 19th Street between 7th and 8th is also home to the minute Espana nook Socarrat. Socarrat is a true paellan temple. With a smattering of tapas and eight paella options, this restaurant has one clear identity and mission – something I think is often the key to a restaurant’s success. Socarrat isn’t much more than a long skinny hallway with one equally long high top table where guests sit across from each other next to other diners. After sipping on some wonderfully dry Spanish red and munching on some tapas, the Paella de Carne arrived in one traditional paella pan for two. This version had chunks of pork, chicken & duck, chorizo, mushroom soffrito (a combination of olive oil and chopped vegetables used to start many Spanish dishes, like a French mirepoix).

This paella is one of those dishes of which I daydream. The rice was rich and flavorful without being oily or gummy. The chorizo cast a haze of pleasant heat over the rest of the components and the rice was shockingly al dente. However, what really made my eyes roll into the back of my head, was the restaurants namesake. As we ate our way through the first few layers, our waiter came by and scrapped the bottom of the pan freeing a decadent layer of crunchy, luscious, intensely flavored socarrat. I have never had such perfectly executed paella, including a meal or two in the heart of paella country, Barcelona.

News update: For those with a fear of communal dining, Socarrat is expanding with a new wine bar next door.

Socarrat – 4 Sparkles ****
259 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011

The Bad – Boqueria
Although my luck with celebrity chefs has been less than stellar, it would be remiss to skip a Spanish superstar like Boqueria. Boqueria’s Executive Chef Seamus Mullen is currently on the Food Network for a coveted spot as the newest Iron Chef. Of course, a Friday night visit was so crowded that we could barely make our way to the host stand, but that’s the nature of any New York City hot spot, so I was happy to pay my dues and wait the 45 minutes (which ended up only being about 20 minutes). Again, we munched on some tapas as we waited for our paella. Unfortunately, my sangria never showed – minus one sparkle.

This paella was Paella Valenciana – bomba rice, prawns, mussels, clams, cockles, chorizo, and chicken. This also arrived in a paella pan for two, but was much deeper than that of Socarrat. The shellfish crowning the top of this dish along with the two regal prawns with heads intact made this presentation a wow. However, just like the crown of Miss California, there wasn’t much below. The rice has a similar kick from chorizo, but in this case it seemed to mask the lack of depth of any other flavors. The chicken was sparse and the chorizo heavy handed. The edge were burnt, but they just tasted plain burnt and the bottom slid off the bottom of the pan in a gooey mess that made one think the pan was coated in a healthy layer of PAM. We had half left; I didn’t take it home.

Boqueria – 2 Sparkles **

53 West 19th Street
New York, NY

The Ugly – Poco
Believe it or not, the Lower East Side isn’t my ‘hood, so it was a big journey for me to seek out the paella at Poco. As we settled into our table for five downstairs, we struggled to pretend that this basement was zoned to serve food, but when in Rome… Soon the basement was filled with several other parties and the atmosphere became lively. As usual, we had several drinks and tapas as we awaited this paella. I must admit, these were the best tapas of the three, but that’s another review.

This paella was Valencia – shrimp, octopus, and calamari with saffron rice and chorizo. The paella came in individual cast iron bowls, which I guess were supposed to look like a paella pan, but it was a stretch. The mound of food was more reminiscent of gruel than paella. The rice was mushy and lifeless. The dish was enrobed in some sort of salsa verde that had a character I can only liken to body odor. There wasn’t an ounce of crunch throughout the dish and instead of adding salt; I wanted to add Right Guard.

Poco – 1 Sparkle *
33 Avenue B, at 3rd Street
New York, NY 10009