Restaurante Elías: The 100-point Paella

I’ve been meaning to write about the rice at Restaurante Elías for a long time—I mentioned it in a previous article on the wines from the Mediterranean strip of Spain last year. But even if I sometimes dream about their crunchy, tasty rice with snails and rabbit, I haven’t had the chance to go back until I had to taste the wines from Jumilla, Yecla and Alicante again, the appellations closest to the village of Xinorlet (or Chinorlet, you might find both spellings in Valenciano and in Spanish) where the restaurant is located. 

When I’m there, it’s to have their signature dish, paella. There are many different variations but the traditional one from the region features rabbit and snails. I recommend that you go straight to the point and save your appetite for it—my friend Manolo, my role model from growing up, drives three hours from Madrid, has rice as a starter, as a main and as dessert, and then heads back home. We didn’t quite emulate him, as we had a couple of starters to share and only had two paellas, but we were close. I took the opportunity to preview some of the top current releases from the region with the food, as the combination of this paella with Monastrell is a match made in heaven.
Dried fish is a signature product from Alicante and Murcia. This was red tuna roe.

Air-dried red tuna roe is perfect with roasted almonds and a dry Sherry. But since we didn’t have a Sherry at hand, we experimented with the white 1948 Marqués de Murrieta Reserva, popularly known as "white label," produced every year, unlike the rare white Castillo Ygay, which is only bottled once or twice per decade. These old wood-aged white Riojas have an oxidative profile from being aged for many years in barrel and always have a toffee twist and certain Sherry-like aromas. But what is truly surprising about them is the acidity, how lively the palate is and how the oxidation seems to disappear as the wine breathes once the bottle is opened. They never cease to amaze me, and considering this 1948 is on the edge of turning 70 years old, I’d say it feels a lot younger.

Snails are not to be taken lightly. The ones used for this dish are the Serrana type, found on the dry-farmed lands, in the wild of the mountains, where they feed on thyme and rosemary; they act as both an ingredient as well as seasoning. Snails like that are not always available fresh, but as they were in season when I visited, we decided to order some on the side as a snack. They are also cooked with the heat of embers from vine cuttings used to cook paella.
Serrana snails.

We experimented with an unusual white from Burgundy as it comes from the Côte de Nuits—where most of the wines are red—the 2008 Domaine de l’Arlot, Nuits Saint Georges Blanc La Gerbotte, from a cool vintage that showed good freshness. We brought some bottles but the list has a good selection and contains most of the wines from the region, so we also ordered some, such as the ancestral sparkling 2015 Tipzzy by Rafa Bernabé. (Sparklers are also a good pairing with rice dishes.)
These are paellas, not paelleras as many people call them.

Paella is the name of the pan used to cook dried rice seasoned with saffron to which vegetables, meat and seafood can be added in a myriad of combinations. However, the most orthodox version uses ingredients from the Valencian countryside: chicken, rabbit, snails, green beans and garrafon beans (a type of white broad bean). The dish inherited the name of the pan where it’s cooked, and it has become one of the signature dishes from Spain. In Alicante, traditional paella is cooked with only rabbit and snails and a thick type of rice. 

Even if the classic pairing for this particular dish is Monastrell, we also experimented with a couple of other reds, the superb Mencía from Bierzo 2015 Sufreiral produced by Raúl Pérez’s nephew César Márquez and a Cabernet Franc from the Loire, the 2005 Domaine des Roches Neuves, Saumur Champigny Terres Chaudes which, as the name might imply, showed some heat and evolution, and should be consumed sooner rather than later.

The main secret for a good paella is, as with every dish, to use good ingredients. The quality of the stock, the olive oil, the tomatoes, the bomba rice (the variety from Calasparra), the serrana snails and, in this case, the rabbit. Rabbit meat can be tough, but not here, where it's very tender and tasty, and it melts in your mouth. They also use the liver and kidneys, which also provide an earthier, iron-like twist to the rice.
The 2015 Pie Franco from Casa Castillo in Jumilla—best vintage so far!

The Monastrell chapter was truly superb and lasted throughout the two large dishes of rice. I had the chance to preview the latest releases from Casa Castillo and Enrique Mendoza, which have produced some of their best wines ever in 2015. Casa Castillo’s 2015 Pie Franco is the finest wine José María Vicente has produced, combining the power and rusticity of that old ungrafted Monastrell with elegance and subtleness. The two bottlings from Enrique Mendoza, those from the Alicante appellation, 2015 Las Quebradas and 2015 Estrecho were not bad either, both at a very high and similar quality level, but with different styles reflecting the different soils where the vines grow.
The rice is cooked on a very high heat, so the broth is boiling and the rice is always moving around and floating in the liquid.

The way to achieve a one-grain thick (or thin!) paella without the rice being hard or overcooked is to use a lot of stock and a lively fire so the stock is boiling and the rice is in constant suspension in the liquid while it cooks. That way it doesn’t stick to the pan before it’s ready. (But later you actually do want the rice to be stuck to the pan.)
The heat is almost unbearable.

To get the required heat they use vine cuttings, which burn quite quickly. In some places they use orange tree cuttings, but they are not available in this zone. Both types of wood are also believed to provide some aromatics to the dish that go up in the form of smoke and later precipitate over the rice. Once it is cooked, the rice is left to settle and, as the liquid is consumed, it sticks to the pan which gives it that slightly burnt crunchiness created by one of those Maillard reactions (that I’m convinced created the term umami), locally know as socarrat. Then you need to let it rest for a few minutes before you serve it.

There was one more horsepower on the wine front, a 2007 Saint-Joseph Rouge by Pierre Gonon, for me the finest grower in the appellation, that showed a very good evolution. We also ordered one of the classical labels from the region, the polished Monastrell 2010 Raspay from Primitivo Quiles, also in the Alicante appellation—and I’m glad we did, because it was one of the best vintages of that wine I’ve ever had.

Paella is a dish to be shared, ideal for Sunday lunch with the family or a get-together with friends. 
A thin paella means the whole paella is socarrat—and it’s quite large; the rice is stuck to the pan, which you have to scrape with a piece of cutlery that is half fork and half spoon and you eat it directly from the pan. On this occasion we ordered two paellas, one for a starter and one as a main dish. Even if the dish looks quite large the rice goes quite quickly.
The crunchy apple tart is so thin it’s really a crêpe.

The desserts are not to be ignored, even if you’re quite full from the rice. Their signature desserts are a turrón ice cream, a nougat associated with Christmas produced with almonds from Alicante, and a thin apple tart (which they call a crêpe), served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Rice is not a light dish, and it’s usually eaten at lunch, the only time of the day this fabulous restaurant is open.
Elías in Xinorlet in Alicante, very close to Yecla and Jumilla, the place for world class paella.

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