Have you ever tasted real paella? And by “real,” I should specify that I mean not the stuff you eat with sangria down by the beach or even the lovely yellow rice with seafood that you have to order a day in advance at Cuban restaurants, but the real thing, rare outside its birthplace in the mountains outside Valencia, which is less a vehicle for costly ingredients than it is a big, shallow pan of methodically toasted rice.
An alarming percentage of the best paellas I have eaten have come from the well-seasoned steel pans of Perfecto Rocher, a third-generation paella chef now at the new Smoke.Oil.Salt. You may know Rocher from his brief term at elBulli, nicely described by Lisa Abend in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices”; from his year at the Blvd in the Beverly Wilshire hotel; or from the several months he spent as chef at Lazy Ox Canteen downtown, where he followed Josef Centeno. He is a fairly spectacular creative chef, fully conversant with the toys of the modernist kitchen and a master of the 62.5-degree egg, but what people still talk about are his Monday night paellas; traditionalist masterpieces of a sort we had never seen in Los Angeles.
With promises of paellas to come, he planned a Santa Monica paelleria with Lazy Ox owner Michael Cardenas — and then he disappeared. The Santa Monica paella bar, Taberna Arros y Vi, much diminished, opened without him. I began to drift back to the Saturday afternoon picnic-table paellas outside the La Española meatpacker in a South Bay industrial park.
So paella lovers were beyond ecstatic when they learned about Smoke.Oil.Salt, a collaboration between Rocher, Umami Burger czar Adam Fleischman and Hollywood wine geek Stephen Gelber in the space that for 30 years housed Evan Kleiman’s beloved Angeli Caffe on Melrose Avenue. And once they found the door (the place is almost hidden by the high-profile piercing salon that sits atop it), they found all the right signs: photographs of Dali’s mustache mounted on the exposed brick, pink Txakolina wine poured at traditional arm’s length and Angeli’s old range hood above a vast wood-burning grill. Plus, whoever puts the restaurant’s soundtrack together really likes Nuggets, the Clash and the Ramones. Some nights it looks as if everybody in the restaurant has just come back from Ibiza.
Rocher’s menu tends toward modernized Catalan favorites: things like toasted bread rubbed with tomatoes and garnished with a pungent slice or two of house-made sausage, roasted beets with tiny spheres of goat cheese, and prawns seared on the flattop, sauced with just a little oil. There is caramelized cauliflower served with frizzled, garlicky broccoli florets; salty, delicious artichoke omelets buried under greens; and jiggers of almond gazpacho flavored with garlic and sherry. Sea urchin flan or cherry gazpacho? Why not.
They are already off the menu, but Rocher’s version of calcot, Catalan spring onions charred over a hot fire and served with romesco sauce, are pretty close to what you might taste if you were invited to a country feast near Monsant. And you’ve got to get at least one order of the papas bravas, well-crusted chunks of potato smeared with a roasted pepper sauce.
There are also a few Valencian-style dishes, although you probably wouldn’t know unless you were told. Instead of the Catalan escalivada, for example, there is espencat, a similar salad of smooth, smoky roasted eggplant and peppers, here fortified with bits of the dried tuna usually called moixama; the ceviche-like salpico of diced octopus and amberjack bathed in an orxata made from the almondy Valencian tuber xufa; or a rich, meltingly soft Valencian tripe stew with chorizo and chickpeas.
If you have been to a Barcelona Cava bar, you have probably seen most of these things: a bunch of light, small plates for sharing and a few bigger things from the grill for that moment when the wine inspires a more robust hunger. Gelber’s list is especially strong in Spanish wines, like the superb Rueda from Belondrade y Lurton, a concentrated white from the Verdejo grape that is as close as Spain gets to a Meursault, or a feral, fragrant Muscat from Bodegas Bernabé Navarro aged in amphorae.
And you will want what comes from the grill, especially the impossibly wild-tasting quail served with lentils and chickpeas, the rare fillet of Iberico pork served with smoked scallions, and the crisp-skinned whole sea bass rubbed with fish sauce and lemon. If somebody in your group is in a spendy mood, you may as well spring for the carn de vedella, an herbed, blackened rib-eye that expresses every one of its 50 days of dry age.
But that paella? Only on Sundays, I’m afraid, as the focus of a four-course menu that includes the almond gazpacho, a salad or those papas bravas, and a plate of fritters or crème Catalana for dessert.
Like most great paellas, Rocher’s creations probably do not score well on Yelp reviews. The serving, no more than three or four grains thick, is undoubtedly regarded as stinginess, and the ingredients, maybe a handful of rabbit chunks and some favas, or artichokes and half a cup of lima beans, might strike people as rather austere.
Like any decent paellero, Rocher values chewiness over dreamy softness, mountain herbs over the raw smack of saffron, the communal experience over the desires of an individual diner and almost anything over soupiness. One of the paellas includes seafood, but the point of the dish is always the fat-grained Bomba rice, not the lobster or prawns with which it is cooked or the aioli with which it is anointed.
To the unknowledgeable, the crunchy bottom layer, the soccarat, deeply caramelized where it touches the pan, signals carelessness instead of craft, especially when the aroma is enhanced with the smoky fragrance of the wood over which it is cooked. To the true believers — excuse us while we scrape the soccarat off the pan with a big metal spoon — Sundays cannot come often enough.
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With Perfecto Rocher’s paella specials, Sundays will never be the same.
7274 W. Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 930-7900, www.smokeoilsalt.com
Tapas, $4-$17; sharing plates, $10-$18 (more for ham); main dishes, $24-$35. Four-course Sunday paella dinners, $45.
5:30 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays to Sundays. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Valet parking.
Valencian tripe stew, espencat de moixama, seafood salpicon in horchata, artichoke omelet, grilled quail with lentils and chickpeas, grilled Iberico pork with smoked green onions, paella.