This past weekend, three of my friends and I packed into a rental car and drove five hours from Córdoba to Valencia. During the course of the weekend, we walked until our legs almost fell off, perusing trendy neighborhoods, marveling at La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, and resting for a minute on the beach. In fact, we ended up walking 26 miles in about 36 hours. Needless to say, we were some hungry, hungry ladies.
Since we were roaming around the birthplace of paella, eating the Valencian delicacy was obviously at the top of our list. On Saturday, we had reservations to eat at a beachside restaurant, L’Estimat, thanks to an old friend’s recommendation. Founded in 1927, the restaurant is situated right in the heart of what I would describe as the “paella district” in Playa Las Arenas. The stretch of beach front is packed with paella restaurants, most of them fairly touristy. But L’Estimat is a little bit off the beaten path, located one quiet street behind these sardine-packed restaurants.
We walked in the door, and I immediately fell in love. As we walked to the receptionist desk, we passed the open kitchen, full of bustling chefs and sizzling pans of rice. Large pots of broth were scattered around the counters and you could hear the click, click, click of the stove flames coming to life. At the reception desk, the receptionist flipped through the thick book of reservations, flashing us a smile when she found our name.
A waiter collected us, ushered us to our table in the heart of the restaurant, and promptly took our drink orders. Soon after, a bottle of red wine and fresh bread arrived to the table. The first thing I noticed about the restaurant--other than the incredible views--was the lack of tourists. We were surrounded by three different families speaking Spanish, a trend that seemed to be mirrored throughout the dining room. A good sign, usually speaking to the authenticity of a place.
When we made the reservation over the phone, we gave our order in advance so the chefs would know how many pans of paella to make that day. A small piece of paper lay on our table with our order, paella marisco. Only one glass into our wine, we watched our waiter carry our gigantic steel pan of paella over his head and to our table. He held the pan up vertically (impressive), we nodded in approval, and then boom, there it was front and center at our table.
After hastily taking a few pictures, it took us about 0.7 seconds to dig in. Traditionally prepared, paella isn’t loaded with tons of meat and vegetables like you’d imagine. It’s comprised of a few bold ingredients so you can savor each component more. Our dark seafood paella was filled with peeled shrimps, mussels, and teeny tiny little octopi.
In my opinion, one of the best parts of eating paella is being able to eat it straight out of the pan. Contrary to how I usually eat homemade brownies and cinnamon rolls (digging straight in for the middle piece), we started around the edges and worked our way towards the center. The flavor was incredible—rich and smoky. The four of us finished the entire pan in 17 minutes flat, an impressive feat in the birthplace of long, drawn out meals. Even after we finished the bulk of the rice, we found ourselves scraping our spoons along the pan’s edges, pulling off the crispy, caramelized layer of rice, called the socarrat.
Somehow, in a food-induced stupor, we convinced ourselves we had room for dessert, and we ordered a brownie with ice cream to share. Our forks fought with forceful clinks to scoop up more ooey gooey chocolate. It was a fantastic brownie, but I was still daydreaming about the paella. With a full stomach and full confidence, I can now confirm that paella in Valencia is the best paella.