But There’s Better

Posted on Sunday, September 27th, 2009 at 7:26 am

After witnessing the Fire Walk (people dress themselves in goggles and other protective gear and throw themselves in front of exploding pyrotechnics: part of the Fete de Merce), a group of us went in search of paella.  My new Quebecois friend, Josiane, wanted to taste it before she left Spain and I was looking forward to trying another version.

We had really liked the Born neighborhood so I thought to ask dear Javi from Cal Pep where he might recommend there for a great paella.  We wandered the curving alleys until we found ourselves back in the Place de Olla, only to discover that Cal Pep had closed at 3pm.  (One of the top tapas places in Barcelona is closed  on Saturday nights?!)  Many of the nearby restaurants might as well have had matching neon signs screaming “MEDIOCRE TOURIST FOOD HERE” so I did the best I could in the moment.  I went into a cute vinoteca and asked the bartender for his recommendation for good paella.  He suggested Senor Parellada (Argenteria, 37).

We walked six or seven blocks and found the place.  I was confused to find white tablecloths and tuxedo-clad servers paired with a reasonably-priced menu.  The group voted “yes,” probably because it was already 10:30pm and we were all hungry.  We waited a few minutes for a table for five and then were seated on the second floor of the crowded restaurant.  I was happy to see that the menu had a lot of Catalonian specials.  Josiane was up for sharing so we ordered the paella and the cannelloni.  (Catalonia is the only region of Spain that has embraced pasta and cannelloni is a specialty.)

Cannelloni at Senyor Parelleda Paella at Senyor Parelleda

I tasted the cannelloni first and it was actually very tasty: thin tubes of pasta stuffed with tender ground veal and generously topped with a creamy bechamel.  I was glad for the chance to try the dish.

The paella, on the other hand, was not good.  Each grain of rice was separate, with no relation to any of the others.  It was the opposite of the risotto-like, creamy rice that I savored in Valencia.  This particular paella had some shrimp (overcooked), some butifarra sausage (overcooked) , and some other unrecognizable mystery meats (overcooked until their individual identities were completely lost).  I kept my mouth shut because this was Josiane’s first paella.  She was liking it; why not let her?  But Juli-from-Germany ruined it for Josiane, describing in detail everything that was wrong with this particular paella.  What she said was sad, but true.

Chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli is quoted in Paul Richardson’s A Late Dinner, “People accuse me… ‘It’s your fault there are so many young kids trying to do modern food, and doing it badly.’  Maybe, but isn’t it much worse that there are millions of tortillas and paellas all over the country that are cooked so badly.  Ordinary food in Spain is in a much worse state than haute cuisine, and that’s a fact.”

It makes me very sad to think that some visitors will only ever taste the paella at Senor Parellada.  (Or worse, somewhere along Las Ramblas, that terrible tourist strip.)  Tragically, they’ll get back on their cruise ships and go home to say that the food in Spain was just okay.

When we left Senor Parellada, there was a group looking at the menu posted by the door.  As I passed them, I said quietly, “Don’t go.”  They looked surprised, but thanked me.  It was the least I could do.  I hope they found a better paella.

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