We have spent 3 very productive days in Valencia. We compensated for the amount of the consumed food with the excessive walking.
1. Levante (Benisano).
In the past I have found paella, tried in multiple locations in Spain and abroad, to be a very disappointing experience. Before giving up on this dish we have decided to give it a chance in the “belly of the beast”. Since Rafael Vidal “does his magic” in Benisano (not in Valencia location of the restaurant) it was a no-brainer where to go. It is about 30 minutes car drive from Valencia. We pre-ordered the paella Valenciana. No English spoken. Senior Vidal is a very pleasant and approachable individual. Initially reserved, once he realized that my command of Spanish is sufficient for meaningful communication, he gave us a tour of the facilities and insight into his selection of ingredients and technics. As for food, appetizers were standard Spanish fare and tasted like nothing special. The paella was nothing I have ever tasted before: full of flavor, with excellent rice texture, good amount of soccarat, smoke overtone from the pre-roasted (I believe) rabbit and fire cooking. He (as well as all the other chefs in Valencia, who I have asked) uses exclusively senia rice. Very flavorful rabbit, somewhat bland chicken, garrofon, green beans. No artichokes. No caracoles. Senior Vidal informed me that he adds them only on preorder. He does not believe that they add much to the flavor of the dish. He stated that his version of the paella can be tried in US in Jose Andreas’s restaurant in Las Vegas. I have been turned into paella admirer, but probably will never eat it outside of Valencia.
Slightly upscale white cloth restaurant in central Valencia. There was a serious sewage stink in the restaurant, which turned few customers of this fully booked place away. We stayed. Nothing wrong with the food, but nothing special either. Restaurants like this are present on every street of NYC. No local felling. Small portion of the suckling pig was delicious. Cured mackerel was very salty and had a lot (!) of bones. Probably would look for a more authentic experience than this restaurant.
1 hour 20 minutes ride along the highway got us to a sleepy resort/ fishing town of Denia, where this 3 Michelin star restaurant is located. The self-taught chef/owner is a bit controversial figure in the Spanish food scene. He was at work and actively participated in service on the day of our visit. It was probably a distress for the staff, but I am always very happy to see a chef of a 3-starred restaurant to be in-house. The same menu for everyone for the season. It is long and extensive. A lot of local ingredients and products are incorporated. My wife and I enjoyed most of it. Highlights - rice dish cooked in rich stock with black truffles, local pumpkin small plate accompanied by fermented pumpkin juice, bottarga in different stages of curing, fantastic steamed local shrimp.
I think it was worth the money and the drive. Definitely a good experience to get familiarized with regional food in upscale setting.
One reservation: On my multiple requests to talk to sommelier about his advice on Priorat wineries to visit he was too busy to talk to me. Highly irregular of 3 Michelin star restaurant!
4. Restaurante Navarro
Very nice restaurant in central Valencia specializing in paella. Open only for lunch, besides Saturday when it is open for dinner as well. Saturday dinner was the timing of our visit. They were reluctant to do paella Valenciana at night despite our preorder, but eventually yielded to my relentless insistence. The paella was delicious. This time it contained caracoles and artichokes. They indeed did not add anything to the taste. The quality of food is very good. Highly recommend it if you do not want to drive to Benisano. I am sure there are more places for paella Valenciana with comparable quality in the city, but at least this one is good for my taste.
5. Casa Carmela
The place is famous for arroz a banda - seafood version of paella. The same seafood stock is used in the restaurant for any of the paellas. The difference is only in the seafood ingredients combinations added to the rice. On the advice of our waiter we took the “out of shell” variety. I have checked out the kitchen where about 20 paellas going in any given time on wood-fed fire. We took a couple of a small seafood appetizers. Our arroz a banda was fantastic. Once again excellent senia rice with proper resistance to the bite and the appropriate amount of socarrat. None of the salty/ fishy aftertaste of “arroz con cosas” from the tourist traps all over Spain. Service was very good - attentive, but not intrusive. No English spoken. Large restaurant, but very popular so reservation is a must. In general it is advisable to pre-reserve paella when going to such restaurants. Otherwise you get in line after all other people pre-ordering it, which may lead to a very long wait…
6. Food crawl with “Delicious Valencia” which we prearranged with lovely multilingual Daria.
Patapuerca Taberna Iberica - our favorite place in the city. The couple owning the restaurant travels their country searching for a small producers with the exquisite products. We tried a lot of staff. Best Belotta Jamon of the trip. Local cured eel. Cheeses from Asturias with asturian sider. Very much enjoyed the food and the hospitality. It is a bit off the tourist track but worth the short cab ride.
La Pilareta - apparently old and popular place in the central Valencia. Tried patatas bravas, morcilla and local breed of mussels (clochinas). Not impressive at all. The server managed to forget 2/3 orders we have placed with almost no other customers in the restaurant. Clochinas were overcooked, tasteless and salty.
Colmado La Lola - for the fried sea anemones. Right by the entrance to the cathedral of Valencia. Small place for mostly drinks, but they serve a number of the Andalusian tapas. The fried anemone has interesting texture. Something I have never tried before. Doubt any culinary awards coming.
Taberna La Senia - in the very central area of old Valencia. Went for sepia al pesto, and pickled anchovies under vermouth and orange sauce. Both good dishes. We were pretty full by than. Would return to try more staff. Delicious artisan red Spanish vermouth.
Finished the night with cocktails at La Manera. Highly recommend.
7. Bar Central in Mercado Central. Easy to find, because it is the only one with chairs. Open for lunch and breakfast. Busy on Saturdays. I bit easier the other days. Excellent food! Tried patatas bravas, roasted pickled pig ears (how can you pass on that!), bocadillo with morcilla. Highly recommend.
Summary: Our experience in Valencia definitely exceeded expectations. We liked it better than Madrid, San Sebastian, Barcelona. The magnificent (and not touristy!) Mercado Central. We were turned into paella lovers from the paella haters.
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