Restaurant Reviews

Rice Recovery

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.