In his famous essay La Duende, Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca tells the story of a flamenco dancer, well into her 80s, who trounces her younger, prettier competitors in a contest. "Competing against beautiful women and young girls with waists as supple as water," he says, "[she] carried off the prize merely by the act of raising her arms, throwing back her head, and stamping the little platform with a blow of her feet." The old lady had the duende in her blood a roiling, sulphurous spirit, the Muse's evil twin. Lorca describes the duende as "black sounds: behind which there abide, in tenderest intimacy, the volcanoes, the ants, the zephyrs, and the enormous night straining its waist against the Milky Way."
I was thinking about Lorca's lines on a recent Thursday night at Paella Seafood Grill, where two svelte female flamenco dancers, a guitarist, and a drummer playing a wooden box called a cajón were performing for a room crowded with long family tables and many a birthday celebration. The performance had heated up the audience; we'd set down our wine glasses and dropped our paella spoons to clap and shout "¡Olé!"
It was just a few days before Wilma was scheduled to hit, and it looked like Floridians would be seeing a lot more of our own enormous nights, if hurricane predictions for the next decade proved true. There was an air of expectancy and abandon in the air we all knew our octopus in paprika, our mushrooms in wine, our lobster tails and snapper doused with shrimp, our black beans and paella Valenciana, washed down with carafes of sangria, might amount to our last hot meal for some time. It struck me that flamenco dancing is one art that embodies the spirit of our tropical tempests; the explosive nature of hurricanes has a lot in common with the percussive, angular, defiant character of flamenco. Flamenco is chaotic force channeled into precise control; it is blackness contained a gypsy's dream of mysterious, unpredictable violence. And those shouts of ¡Olé!, as Lorca noted, are the "heartfelt exclamations of 'God Alive!'" they're both a plea and a vote of confidence.
As it turned out, that black bowl full of stars, slashed by the scattered pixie dust of a long-forgotten Milky Way, was one of the few serendipitous treasures Wilma left us. I was thinking about that as I navigated blown-out intersections one night two weeks later, trying to find a navigable path back to Paella Grill for a taste of its signature dish. Paella has been open just a little over two years now, occupying a vast, echoing, 4,000-square-foot space in a Pembroke Pines strip mall, decorated with tables of red, yellow, and green referencing either the Spanish flag or the colors of paella itself great round paella pans and smoked meats hanging from walls near an open kitchen, and slowly rotating ceiling fans. Owner Rolando Blanco, who was born in Cuba to Spanish parents and grew up in Boston, has been in the restaurant business for 35 years he started out running discos in the late '70s and '80s, made his way to Miami, owned a supper club in Chile, and finally returned to South Florida to open a series of restaurants including La Minutera in Hialeah. Things were slow, he says, for the first year with Paella, but judging from our Thursday-night visit and our early supper on a subsequent Sunday evening, the idea has really caught on. When we pulled up around 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, the outdoor seats were full; inside, three long banquet tables were occupied by extended families, and dark-haired waiters were running plates from the open kitchen to dozens of customers waiting for the night's 9 p.m. show. It's an eclectic group of diners ranging from mixed-race couples to "girls' night out," from multigenerational Hispanic families to studly-looking guys stretching their legs at outdoor tables over a beer.
Blanco reopened Paella on November 2, a week after the storm, in time for the weekly Paella-for-Two special. Thursday's Flamenco night is a big draw, but the $49.99 Paella-for-two on Wednesdays, which includes a half-carafe of sangria and dessert, brings in the crowds too. As do the many tapas offerings. Blanco plans to have his liquor license, a remodeled stage, and a full tapas bar up and running by Thanksgiving. "We'll have Peruvian ceviche with octopus, shrimp, tilapia, mussels," he says. "We'll have tortillas español, omelets with potatoes and Galician sausages, tripe. You'll be able to sit at the bar and have little plates of everything with your drinks."
Tapas comes from the word for lid; presumably, Spaniards placed slices of grilled bread with ham on top of their wine glasses. They did this either (a) to thwart flies intent on dive-bombing the wine, (b) because it wasn't legal to serve wine without food, or (c) because it made the glass easier to carry, depending on which culinary historian you believe. Anyway, there were lots of tapas specials at Paella the night we went, and no flies at all, so we ordered a bunch of the tapas. I doubt if they would have balanced well on a glass of wine, but they were uniformly delicious they did balance interesting flavors and textures, like sweet paprika with the acidic tomato, dense chewiness of octopus with melt-in-your-mouth potatoes. Among our favorites: the garbanzo frito ($7.95), a spicy, belly-warming concoction of chick peas, chopped Serano ham, paprika, Spanish sausage, tomatoes, and red onions. The Galician specialty, pulpo à la gallega, a street food served widely in northeastern Spain, was terrific too: very tender, small, grilled octopi tossed in olive oil, red wine, potatoes, and paprika. Both of these were great for sopping up with the small loaves of crusty bread brought bustling out from a hot oven.
We also loved our tiny clams, steamed open in a red marinara sauce ($7.95), and a dish of fragrant, tender button mushrooms steamed in wine and olive oil. The bacalao croquetas fried salt cod croquettes had just the right degree of crunchiness on the outside, creaminess/saltiness on the inside, and were served with a tart tomato dipping sauce. On our second visit, we sampled an excellent ceviche ($6.95); chunks of tilapia and curls of pink shrimp had been tucked into a lettuce-leaf bowl and sprinkled with lime juice, thinly sliced red onion, peppers, and cilantro. The kitchen had marinated the fish to the right degree of tenderness and body without letting it deconstruct, and it was ice-cold, tart, and delicious.
That tableful of tapas should have done us in, but we splurged on one of the "Chef's Favorites" entrées, the Paradilla de Mariscoes ($20.95), a great tray of broiled fish, lobster, shrimp, squid, scallops, clams, and mussels swimming in a sea of butter and oil. This turned out to be the one downer in an otherwise interesting and lively meal. While some of the seafood was fresh and delicate, the lobster, shrimp, and squid were way overcooked, tough and tasteless as foam rubber, and the greasy presentation of the platter was gross and unappetizing. Next time, I'll opt for the fish casserole ($20.95), broiled grouper (priced by the pound), or Palomilla steak ($8.95).
Four types of paella are on offer, running from $12.95 to $15.95 per person. Paella Valenciana ($15.95 per person), the queen of paellas, is made with small lobster tails, shrimp, clams, mussels, chunks of tilapia, scallops, calamari, tiny bits of Serano ham and sausages, and chicken. This dish requires a half-hour wait, no hardship when you're working on a half-carafe of sangria ($11.95) and a couple of tapas. The paella is presented, as it traditionally is in Spain, in its pan with a flourish, beautifully arranged and multicolored green peas and red peppers against saffron-hued rice, circled with lime wedges and all that glorious shellfish and meat. Our waiter expertly dished us each a plate so we wouldn't have to argue over who got the extra piece of shrimp.
Paella is one of the most contested foods on the planet how to cook it, with exactly which ingredients, is a subject of fierce debate in Spain. Certain ingredients are considered heretical: Whether to add garlic and onion is a question over which otherwise level-headed men will come to blows. At Paella Seafood Grill, needless to say, they don't hunt and skin a wild rabbit in the mountains or collect snails fed with rosemary or bake the paella on a wood fire outdoors with only one precise variety of Mediterranean string bean or use nothing less than sheets of Las Provincias newspaper under the lid to absorb steam. So in the opinion of some Valencians, Paella's paella might not do at all. But we thought it was just yummy.
We liked that the rice was cooked al dente, sticky and dense, and how thoroughly and delicately infused it was with the flavors of shellfish and paprika. And if we missed the "socarrat," the lightly burnt crust on the bottom of the pan, we were able to quell our disappointment. This was a hearty, satisfying dish, and the roughly ten pounds of it left over we took home and ate with relish the next day.
The atmosphere at Paella is relaxed, dinner served family-style, without frills but conveying a lot of warmth. This is simple, comforting, inexpensive fare, focused mostly on Spain but with nods to Latin America. Service is quick and personable (our adorable waiter, Alex, remembered us on our second visit, and air-kissed us enthusiastically.) As for the wine, it would be nice if Blanco could explore a few more Spanish and Latin possibilities with his list he's got a solid selection of Chilean Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs but only two Spanish reds, a Tempranillo ($17) and a Rioja ($28). It would be even better if he'd offer the Tempranillo and Rioja by the glass (we did have a glass of Argentinean Malbec/Cabernet blend at the almost unheard-of price of $5).
But these are minor quibbles with a restaurant that offers so much and asks for so little in return. Its flamenco performance, led by gypsy guitarist Luis Linares, who is descended from three generations of Spanish flamenco artists and also performs with Miami's Flamenco Puro Dance Company, is completely exhilarating if only too short. Next time, I plan to sit through both the early and late shows. Which might be long enough to justify ordering that whole bottle of Tempranillo.
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