When I lived in Los Angeles more years ago than I care to count, I had paella for the first time at a Spanish restaurant in West Hollywood called La Masia (now long gone). I had it there maybe three times. My great fondness for it could very well have been embellished by the passage of time. It was a delicious combination of shellfish, chicken, chorizo, vegetables and rice flavored with earthy, musty saffron. This was the specialty of Valencia and La Masia’s paella was as authentic as I was going to get outside of Spain.
Or was it?
There are those, especially Valencians, who campaign against what they consider inauthentic paella. Chef Perfecte Rocher is one of them, having grown up in Valencia where his grandfather had a successful namesake paella restaurant called Tarsan and the traditional ingredients of paella Valenciana were rabbit, snails and beans cooked over wood-burning fires. Even when Rocher took his culinary skills far and wide, with stints in highly regarded European and American kitchens and having received much praise for his imaginative cooking and impressive technique, when it comes to the paella of his homeland, he chooses not to stray far from his roots. The paellas that have grown in popularity outside of Spain with their soft, plentiful rice and plethora of ingredients are anathema. At smoke.oil.salt in Los Angeles, he decided to set things aright. For him, it was a mission to restore authenticity to a dish that had lost its way. He made paella in the traditional manner, using Bomba rice and just a handful of ingredients, none of which would surprise a Valencian or Catalan. Cooked over an unpredictable wood-burning fire, the rice must be given careful attention. The paella was so good that Jonathan Gold sang its praises.
Unexpectedly, he and fiancée Alia Zaine suddenly left Southern California and eventually moved to Seattle to open Tarsan i Jane in the space formerly occupied by Tray Kitchen. The official opening was May 5. The food would be Valencian-Catalan with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients. Paella would be served only on Sundays, 11am-3pm, as part of a five-course, fixed-price meal. There is no menu as everything is based on an omakase concept of placing trust in the chef (dolç de xef).
Four of us went on a Sunday last month to have paella. On entering the restaurant, I immediately caught the enticing aromas of wood smoke. The open kitchen behind a long counter was where Chef Rocher was standing over a wood-fired grill, flames lapping up the perimeter of a paella pan. We were handed two printed sheets of paper, one an advocacy for authentic paella, the other a menu of the five courses we were about to have.
Every course impressed us. Before the paella arrived, the combination of beets and cherries surprised us with the possibilities of gazpacho (on the menu, gaspatxo). Hiding underneath what appeared to be a shredded kale salad and two kinds of housemade grilled llangonisa were a poached egg and potato cubes reminiscent of patatas bravas. Both wonderful.
But, let’s get to the paella. TIJ’s paella changes according to what’s fresh, so one can’t count on having the same ingredients as someone else did the week before. Ours featured clams, unshelled fava beans, chanterelles and artichoke hearts. The pan is wide enough to give the impression of substantial portion size, even for four people. But, the first scoop exposed the shallow depth of the rice, only a few grains high. The result is that none of the other ingredients is entirely submerged in the rice, not even the beans. The rice sticking to the pan bottom was slightly crusty without being burnt (socarrat), a characteristic that paelleros strive for. Perfectly cooked rice requires their utmost attention. This was an outstanding paella (☆☆☆☆), the likes of which I’d never had before, redolent of wood smoke, earthy, salty. Here were rice with substantial chew, briny clams almost raw, vegetables providing their own interesting textures and flavors.
I’ve enjoyed many paellas before, doubtless some that would make a Valencian cringe. Does authenticity matter? To me, probably not. But, I’ve been now educated to what a classic paella is like, and the one crafted at Tarsan i Jane is outstanding.
Tarsan i Jane
4012 Leary Way NW
Seattle, WA 98107