Authentic Paella at Tarsan i Jane. Does It Matter?


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.

Grilled llangonissa, kale, andoni egg, potato

Grilled llangonissa, kale, andoni egg, potato

Yellowtail escabeche, oysters, pineapple chamomille

Escolar escabeche, oysters, pineapple chamomille

Beet and cherry gazpacho, pistachios, citrus

Beet and cherry gazpacho, pistachios, citrus

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.

Paella de verdures i almejes

Paella de verdures i almejes

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
206.557.7059

Ataula: Sublime Call ‘To the Table’ (Portland, OR)


I’ll say it right off. Ataula is the best tapas restaurant my wife and I have ever been to. Not only was the food consistently sublime but the wait staff was above reproach and the tab less than we expected to pay for such quality. Ataula is somewhat hidden away on a quiet side street of Portland’s Alphabet District and one might think that it, with its smallish place, might be regarded as a neighborhood restaurant, except that the kitchen, headed by Chef José Chesa, turns out carefully prepared and artfully presented dishes that caused a wider clientele to take notice. Open for only two years, it already is one of Portland’s best restaurants.

The menu is short, divided into three categories: tapas, per picar (finger foods), and paellas + rossejats. The last group is clearly more substantial (rossejat is similar to paella except that rice, vermicelli or both are browned before cooking), but the essential distinction between the first two categories wasn’t so clear, despite our waitress’ explanation.

To keep on the lighter side, we ordered just three tapas/picar items and a bottle of verdejo.

Nuestras bravas arrived at the table first, the chef’s take on classic patatas bravas. Five cubes were served on a wooden plank, topped with brava sauce and drizzled with milk alioli and parsley sauce. The exteriors were nicely crispy and the centers, perfectly done. My wife was the first to notice that the potato didn’t just yield to the bite in a solid piece as one would expect, but flaked like fish. Our waitress later revealed the labor that goes into making this dish. A potato is sliced thin with a mandoline, then put back together, cooked sous-vide, cut into cubes and fried. The sauce added a fresh tomato-paprika contrast. Outstanding. (☆☆☆☆)

Nuestras bravas

Nuestras bravas

Next came tomaquet, a salad of heirloom and cherry tomatoes, pickled piparras chiles, cucumber, olives, sea beans (agretti), dill, drizzled with a wonderful vinaigrette made with fruity arbequina olive oil. Salads of this perfection are rare. (☆☆☆☆)

Tomiquet

Tomiquet

One of the evening’s specials was thinly sliced, dry-cured bellota ham, which the chef was carving as we first sat down. Drizzled with olive oil, it was served with tomato sauce-slathered bread, not a baguette but softer, possibly coca bread which appears in other menu items. The premium ham was intensely flavored, drier than prosciutto, made from pigs that ideally forage in oak forests and feast on acorns. (☆☆☆☆)

Bellota

Bellota

In true Spanish tapas fashion, the portion sizes were reasonable (translation: we weren’t stuffed). What I’m leading up to is that we felt we had room to tackle one more item, for me maybe wondering if we could be dazzled yet again. Fried eggplant (berenjena) was another masterpiece from the kitchen, lightly crispy on the outside, velvety inside, with virtually no trace of oil, dusted with a Moroccan spice with cumin hints, and served with a thick romesco sauce. They were impossibly airy. (☆☆☆☆)

berenjena (fried eggplant)

berenjena (fried eggplant)

One of the waiters, who must double as sommelier, steered us to a fine bottle of Martinsancho verdejo, which went down easily with the entrées. So easily that the two of us polished off the whole bottle. It’s a good thing that we took the Tri-Met back to Gresham. Memories of our experience will linger for a long time.

ataula

Ataula
1818 NW 23rd Pl
Portland, OR 97210
503.894.8904
Hours: 4:30-10pm, Tu-Sa

La Bodega Restauranté (Vancouver, BC)


The venerable La Bodega has been serving Spanish cuisine since 1971. In a city that doesn’t have many Spanish restaurants, the quality of the food remains good, though nothing we had could be described as extraordinary. The place is dark, as seems to be the case in most Spanish restaurants we’ve ever been. A good way to start the meal is a refreshing sangria; La Bodega’s is nice. We confined ourselves to a salad and tapas: prawns in sizzling garlic sauce, chorizo casera, and pisto Anadaluz.

Pisto Andaluz

Pisto Andaluz

Chorizo casera

Chorizo casera

Prawns in sizzling garlic oil

Prawns in sizzling garlic oil

Ensalada verde

Ensalada verde

Sangria

Sangria

La Bodega Restaurante & Tapa Bar
1277 Howe Street
Vancouver, BC V6Z 1R3, Canada
+1.604.684.8814