Here area a few notes on my 4-day visit to this lovely city; budget constraints were firmly in place and will be reflected in both the choice of restaurants and the choice of dishes, especially at Ca' Sento:
We were warmly welcomed at this tiny establishment, which consists of a long bar with a few tables on the opposite, window, wall. In fact, our presence appeared to be the subject of much discussion, and although the proprietors told us that they had welcomed foreigners from “other parts of Spain and New Zealand” during the America’s Cup, we were certainly the only non-locals at Casa Jomi on that evening.
The menu is chalked on a blackboard, and we asked for guidance in ordering. Although I speak Spanish well and have traveled a bit in Spain, there were many offerings that I had never sampled. The menu was dominated by fish and seafood, including many types of preserved seafood that were new to me. I was familiar with mojama, since this pressed and salt-cured tuna has been a staple of at least one Spanish restaurant in New York that I like very much. (Casa Mono on Irving Place). And of course, bottarga, the Italian version made with tuna or mullet, is now widely available here in the US. But I never imagined that mojama was but one example of the vast wonderland of preserved fish that forms an integral part of the pantry along the Mediterranean Levante and in parts of coastal Andalucia. (During the many hours we would spend in Valencia's absolutely astounding Mercado Central, we never failed to marvel at the number of stands devoted to these products)
Our tapas dinner on that first evening consisted of the following, accompanied by an inexpensive white wine, Tierra de Cadiz Blanco Estero, made from the Palomino grape, that complemented the seafood:
Patatas Bravas..this was the first of many orders of this pan-Spanish bar staple that we would consume during our trip. (The prize for the best goes to: Tapac24 in Barcelona, but Casa Jomi's version was very, very good). They are essentially chunks of fried potato topped with garlic mayonnaise and a piquant tomato sauce, spiked with pimenton or smoked Spanish paprika.
Here is a recipe from one of Valencia’s landmark restaurants, Casa Montana:
Sepionet.. This was but one of the multitude of squid dishes that would grace our table in the next 10 days. The squid in Spain, which goes by various names, is a favorite of mine. Those served in restaurants are usually miniscule compared to their US (and Chinese) counterparts and these tiny and tender critters,, smaller than my thumb, were no exception. Grilled to a slight char and topped with a garlicky bland of olive oil and parsley, these were wonderful. I was so happy to be back in Spain!
Champignones. A medley of mixed mushrooms, grilled and very tasty.
Platter of preserved fish that included: Caballa con humo, or mackerel with smoke, which is somehow different than smoked mackerel, or so it was explained to me that evening; Caballa Oreada, or mackerel dried in the sun; yet another version of mackerel which I cannot remember now; and Arenque, or herring. Much time was taken to explain to us the proper order in which to eat these strongly flavored morsels.
I must have shown (somewhat exaggerated) enthusiasm, because the next thing we knew, a plate bearing various forms of mojama—including mojama of tuna, mojama of tuna eggs, and mojama of eggs of hake—appeared at our table, and we were again instructed in the order in which to eat, beginning with the mildest in taste, and ending with the most boldly flavored.
More on this delicacy, whose finer examples can command astonishingly high prices at the market; sold in vacuum packs, it keeps for a long time and makes an excellent gift to carry home.
To conclude our meal, we were presented with complimentary desserts, the house special of chocolate-dipped pastry cups filled with luscious Pedro Ximenez sherry.
The total with wine and water, came to a relatively modest 36 euro for two of us. The taxis (the restaurant called us one after dinner) cost about 12 euro each way. The restaurant is located in a neighborhood that many would call somewhat dicey; we (two females) were urged to take a taxi.
http://www.casajomi.com/index.html (turn down volume before clicking!)
Open at 8pm for dinner; closed Mondays. C/Castillo de Pop, #13, Barrio de Natzaret.
Bar La Pilareta is the reincarnation of Bar El Pilar, a quintessential tapas bar that has stood on this corner near Plaza Tossal for more than 70 years. The focus inside this pink-tiled room is mussels, specifically the celebrated clochina mussels native to the seas near Valencia. Our taxi driver the previous night had spent almost the entire return trip singing the praises of these delicate morsels and we were somewhat dismayed to learn that they were not in season, as they were still in their reproductive season, and we would have to make do with larger and less coveted mussels from Galicia. But this is Spain, and they know their seafood, so we had little fear.
After ordering two glasses of Malaga dulce, one of the house wines, we sampled one order of mussels, served in a slightly spicy broth in a terra cotta cazuela (6.60). I thought the dish wsas a bit pallid, although we did relish the atmosphere inside the bar. An order of grilled chipirones, or small squid (7.10euro) , was more satisfying. I certainly would recommend La Pilareta for the atmosphere, and the staff were most welcoming. An added plus is that they are open from 12pm to 12am without a break.
Tasca Angel is a miniscule hole-in-the-wall bar renowned for sardines. By the time we entered, about 9pm, patrons were packed in lie you guessed it, sardines! We were given a free tapa of habas con menta (beans flavored with mint) with our drinks: One cana, or small beer, and one Boabdilla white wine.
Next: an order of grilled sardines. And finally, a mixed platter of grilled mushrooms and grilled Padron peppers (green peppers from Galicia) that was quite wonderful. I am a big fan of these peppers, which are often on offer at bars throughout Spain.
Total tab: 15 euro or two.
LA MATANDETA, near Alfafar,outside the city
I had pored over what seems like dozens of reviews of rice restaurants in the Valencian hinterlands before coming up with this one, which was had received mostly good reviews on various Spanish-language online sites. La Matandeta had also been featured in the PBS series, “Spain: On the Road Again.”
There were two specific rice dishes that I wanted to sample and, reading that these should be ordered in advance, I delegated this chore to the hotel. Unfortunately, the hotel did not communicate my wishes correctly to the restaurant, so we did not get to try the particular dishes that I craved. But I am being persnickety here, as I tend to get when the subject turns to food.
Before I continue, I should mention that while paella is perhaps the dish that is most closely associated with Valencia, and indeed all of Spain, paella is but one of a repertoire of “arroces,” or rices, that include not only paella, which is considered a dry rice dish, but also meloso, or creamy, rice dishes, and caldoso, or brothy rice dishes, that are prepared in a pot instead of a pan.
We were seated at an outdoor table on the restaurant’s terrace, surrounded by the fields of rice, which were still brown in February. We began with a shared order of coca de hojaldre con morcilla y cebolla (3 euro), a flaky pastry of Arabic origin sprinkled with morcilla, or blood sausage, and onions. Excellent! My addiction to coca, a layered bread found throughout the Levante and Catalonia, would rise to dangerous levels as the trip progressed.
Soon after, the two paellera pans were placed before us:
One bore black rice with squid, a seafood paella typical of the region, the other a land-based paella incorporating chicken, rabbit, and duck along with flat green beans. Both of these were paellas for two and were priced at 24 euro each. Although both of these were certainly flavorful, I was disappointed that neither one bore the famous soccarat, or the golden caramelized rice crust at the bottom that is said to be a hallmark of the best paellas. Not did we detect a notable aroma of saffron in the land-based paella. I did raise the soccarat issue with the owner of the restaurant, but was not entirely satisfied with his explanation. I would continue this discussion the following night with the chef/owner of Ca' Sento, who concurred that the soccarat crust is an integral element in a first-rate paella and that professional chef who cannot achieve one is being "lazy."
The total for three people was 66 euros, with drinks and water. I would not recommend, based on my own experience.
Even a few minutes after 9pm, our appointed reservation time, we found the door firmly shut and locked. When the door finally swung open about 15 minutes later, we were ushered into a gleaming white-on-white dining space with about 8 tables and an open kitchen at the rear. There is little decoration to speak of save the stark angles of the origami-folded walls; the focus here would be strictly on the plate.
Ca' Sento has evolved considerably from its origins as a simple fisherman’s tavern. Chef Aleixandre is an El Bulli alumnus renowned for his creative use of impeccable local seafood; in fact, Spanish newspaper El Pais
lauded his seafood as the best in the Mediterranean.
Reports of Chef Aleixandre's Arroz a la Plancha that had lured us here and, very conscious of the final tab, we decided to share an order of this signature dish as the main course on the tasting menu.
With our meal, we drank a fruity and inexpensive Rueda Verdejo.
We were offered 6 varieties of bread. I tried three of them, and each one astounded: flaky, multi-layered hojaldre; olive oil bread; and apricot bread.
And then the parade of tastes began:
Bunuelo de bacalao, or pillowy salt cod croquettes, accompanied by the frothiest ailoli I had ever tasted.
Cornete de Yuca y txangurro, or miniature cones of yucca brimming with spider crab
Anchoa con Jugo de Pimiento y Berenjena Asado, house-cured anchovy from L’Escala, hallowed Catalan anchovy territory. One simple, exquisite filet.
Ostra con granizado de Manzana, Oyster with slivered green apple and an apple foam, that enhanced the brininess of the oyster
Fardos de Calamar Envueltos en Tocino Iberico. This dish sent me over the top, with its juxtaposition of tender squid and salty Iberian bacon, a radical example of the traditional “mar i muntanya” (sea and mountain, represented by seafood and meat) pairing of classic Catalan cookery.
Easily the best dish of the trip so far.
For the main course, the kitchen deftly split one order of Ca Sento’s famed black paella. A courageous reinvention of the classic Valencian dish, this was folded on top of itself, so that the seared rice crust, the elusive-until-now socorrat sat both beneath and on top of the meltingly creamy rice. And to gild the lily, one perfect red prawn from Denia, considered among the world’s best, perched on top of the jet-black rice. Simply put, this was a masterpiece of culinary imagination and skill and a dish that I will never forget.
With water, wine, and one martini, the bill for this feast totalled a very reasonable 104 euro for two of us.