The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: The world’s best paella, and a chef who loves going off-menu
Vir travels to Spain and Portugal, where he eats a paella unlike any he’s ever tasted, catches up with a chef who insists on going off-menu, and visits a grand palace right out of Game of Thrones.vir sanghvi Updated: Aug 05, 2017 10:35 IST
The Sintra Palace, which reminded Vir of Dorne in Game of Thrones.
This is the third year in a row that I have been to Spain. And I will keep going back. Some of this has to do with the vibe. Madrid lacks the hipness quotient of Barcelona but is a lively, if stately, city with wonderful museums, great parks and friendly people.
While the city has its share of Michelin starred restaurants (most of them quite boring), the best meal I had last year was at a dive called Asturianos in a working class area. There was no pretension and no poncing around. The mother made the food and the sons served. There was a little room at the back (the main dining area) and an even smaller one in the front where the bar was.
This time we sat near the bar and ordered far too much food: Chorizo cooked in cider, an earthy traditional bean stew, prawns sautéed with garlic in olive oil and lots more, all washed down with the modest Spanish wine the restaurant chose for us.
We were the only out-of-towners (let alone, non-Spanish people) in the room so our relative familiarity with the restaurant (they remembered us from last year; I doubt if another Indian has eaten there in the intervening period) and the food earned us many stares from regulars at other tables.
Finally, a very nice man from the next table came over and asked where we were from. I said we were from India but he had already guessed that much. Then, he asked the question he really wanted to ask: how had we heard of the restaurant?
When I told him this was our second visit and that I no longer remembered who had sent me here last year, he warmed to us. And soon his table began sending over their favourite dishes. I sent them a bottle of champagne in return , then another one and as the evening progressed all of us got quite merry. (Fortunately, they all spoke English to varying degrees).
My new friends asked if I had been to Samm. I said I’d never heard of it. “You must go”, they said. “The best paella in Madrid. They don’t speak English at the restaurant.So we’ll book you a table ourselves”. Which they did.
And that is how, the following day, we found ourselves on the highway speeding towards the suburb where Samm is located. When we got there, we were a little surprised to discover that it was actually quite fancy (and not as modest as Asturianos) and full of well-dressed locals, all of whom seemed to know the staff.
Except us. We knew nobody and we spoke no Spanish. So the staff mimed to us that they were fully booked, so sorry etc. I held my ground and they finally pulled out the chef who spoke fluent English. I explained that our friends had made a booking and he said he would check.
This was easy enough. Because the restaurant was so much in demand, they had put little pieces of paper on each table with the name of the person who had booked it. And there, to my relief, was a table with my name on it. (My new friends at Auturianos had been sober enough to manage that, thank God!)
The chef told us that 95% of the guests came for only one dish, a seafood paella. This was made to order and would take time so we should have a starter. He recommended a salad with homemade mayonnaise.
The salad was fine. But the paella was the star of the show. I’ve eaten paella before (it is virtually the national dish of Spain, a favourite in such touristy areas as Valencia),but never like this. A server brought the pan in which the paella had been cooked, showed it to us and then, began to scrape the rice from the bottom.
I knew that this kind of paella (there is another wetter version) should be a little moist at the top of the pan but dry enough to have a nutty texture at the very bottom. No paella I had ever eaten before, however, had fully lived up to that description.
This one did. And how!It was superb and even my wife, who is not overly fond of strong seafood flavours, liked it enough for us to polish off the pan.
This time I stayed at the new and trendy Gran Meliá Palacio de los Duques, a smart design hotel carved out of a Duke’s palace and a monastery and decorated as a tribute to the painter Velazquez.The staff were well-meaning and the public areas were beautiful.
But I am now at that stage of my life where small, dark hotel rooms, no matter how trendy, annoy the hell out of me. However,if you are young, on your own, like the dark and have only hand baggage, then the hotel is worth checking out.
I divided my time between Spain and Portugal this time. And it was Portugal that was the real discovery.
I stayed at Penha Longa, one of the most amazing resorts I have seen. It is about 25 minutes from the centre of Lisbon but might as well be in another time zone. Located in the middle of a protected forest, the hotel is built over a vast area that includes several structures including a church that is many centuries old. It is run by Ritz-Carlton so obviously, the luxury levels are first rate but the service in Portugal is in a class apart from the rest of Europe.
Among Penha Longa’s many restaurants is LAB (one Michelin star) part of the empire of Spanish chef Sergi Arola who has two Michelin stars at his Madrid flagship.
I know Arola’s food a little from the time he ran a restaurant at the JW Marriott in Mumbai. We had dinner together (which I wrote about at the time) when the restaurant first opened but Arola now has such a far flung global empire that I doubted that he had very much to do with LAB.
Imagine my surprise then, when the very first person I saw at the restaurant was Arola himself! He was cooking himself that day and as the restaurant has only just over 20 covers, he oversaw the food for every table.
There is an a la carte section at LAB and there are tasting menus. And then there is what the manager described as the Menu Loco, a mad enterprise where you eat every single dish on the menu.
So, naturally, we ordered the mad menu and ate 18 courses or more.
It was made worse by Arola’s insistence on cooking off-menu dishes that were personal favourites of his. So, while everything on the menu was great, the real treats were the dishes that Arola made for us. One of them, a sea-food pot au feu, a hommage to Michel Guerard (who invented it), was outstanding and especially memorable.
Penha Longa is next to the Estoril coast (Cascais, Sintra and Estoril itself) one of the most beautiful parts of Southern Europe, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
We had three days there and I was conflicted about whether to take in the beauty of the sea and the little villages by the ocean or to go and see the many historical sites in that area.
In the event, we found a happy balance. We went to the magnificent Sintra Palace, which looked nothing like North European palaces but seemed straight out of Dorne in Game of Thrones. The other historical areas were astonishing too.
But then,so were the towns and villages themselves. We walked by the ocean , covering the coastline from Estoril to Sintra, ate fresh oysters by the sea wondered through the up and down streets of the villages, tried Portugal’s famous Santini ice-cream (it’s okay; you can do much better in Italy) and discovered why Portugal may be the pastry capital of the world.
My tip, if you ever go to Sintra, is Piriquita, in the centre of town for good custard tarts (though not in the league of Lisbon’s Belem) and brilliant Travesseiros (warm sugar coated pastry pillows filled with almonds and egg yolk).
But whatever you want --- good, cheap pastries, a stunning ( and entirely free) view of the coast or two Michelin star meals --- you will find that Portugal has it all. It is not as trendy as Spain.But is beautiful and friendly.