Three Vancouver places to take part in the art of paella
Since opening in 1971, La Bodega (1277 Howe Street) has been using the same paella recipe that co-owner and Madrid native Paco Rivas brought with him when he moved to Vancouver in the mid ’60s. Executive chef Paul Rivas remains faithful to his father’s recipe because of the fond memories it evokes of his childhood, and because his regular customers would kill him if he switched it up. “We’d always make it for special occasions. It was a labour-of-love dish. It was always a treat,” he recalls by phone.
Rivas explains that while paella is found throughout Spain, it originates and was popularized in Valencia. Paella varies from region to region, depending on the availability of ingredients and the whim of the cook. In some recipes, there’s rabbit and snails; in others, it’s an abundance of seafood; and in many versions, also common in Vancouver, there’s a mix of meat and seafood. Sadly, the snails have gotten lost in translation.
“We’ve got paella down to a science,” Rivas says. First, he sears chicken drummettes in a paellera, a large, very shallow frying pan. After the chicken is browned, he removes it from the pan and goes about making the sofrito (base). Into the paellera go diced chorizo, minced onion and garlic, diced green peppers, chopped tomatoes, paprika, and a pinch of saffron.
Once the onions are browned and the sofrito has a nice aroma, he adds parboiled long-grain rice. Although bomba rice—a short-grain variety with great absorptive properties—is traditionally used, Rivas likes how long-grain rice keeps its firm texture as well as taking on the flavours of the chicken stock he pours into the pan next.
The stock is brought to a boil before Rivas puts the chicken back in, along with prawns, clams, and mussels. The heat is then lowered, and the dish simmers until the rice is almost dry. Finally, Rivas adds peas and strips of red pimento before popping the uncovered paellera in the oven. The end product has a fluffy texture, and some customers like the nummy caramelized bits (socarrat) on the bottom of the pan.
Executive chef Oliver Beckert at the Four Seasons Hotel’s YEW Restaurant (791 West Georgia Street) developed a passion for paella when he was working at the Four Seasons Hotel in Miami. “On Saturday afternoons by the pool, we had a big paella pan, and we served all-you-can-eat paella and a glass of sangria,” he explains during a chat at the restaurant.
Unfortunately for all those gluttons out there, YEW doesn’t offer all-you-can-eat paella, but each order is chock full of chicken breast, chorizo, shrimp, squid, clams, and mussels. The dish has great depth of flavour, due to Beckert’s exacting attention to ingredients, which include free-range chicken, house-made chicken stock, real saffron, and fresh seafood and clam juice. Beckert’s rendition uses carnaroli, a risotto rice that gives his paella a slightly creamier texture. “If you picked up our paella with a spoon, because we cook with risotto rice it would stick together better. I think it’s easier to eat,” he says.
Another person who takes her sourcing for paella seriously is Lisa Henderson, chef and co-owner of Latitude (3250 Main Street). In a phone interview, she explains that paella is on the menu because it fits the restaurant’s Latin American–inspired concept with its Spanish roots, as well as showcasing local seafood.
Her riff on the dish involves a sofrito of grilled sweet red peppers and jalapeños, broiled plum tomatoes, celery, fennel, onion, paprika, saffron, and high-quality canned tomatoes. After the sofrito is made, she sets it aside and cooks mussels in a rich prawn stock made using the roasted shells of Tofino side-stripe prawns. She then stirs in the base, along with partially cooked arborio rice, halibut pieces, and duck sausage from Hills Foods (a play on the usual chorizo). Finally, she adds the side-stripe prawns (or spot prawns if they’re in season) near the end to make sure they don’t overcook.
With such a special dish, you might want to raise a glass of vino. Henderson's husband and Latitude co-owner Larry Nicolay pipes up in the background that he’d go for the ’08 Poplar Grove Pinot Gris. Or, with the stewed-tomato flavours, he muses, a Malbec might be good as well.