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docsconz

Levante in Benisano'

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When I tasted Rafael Vidal's paella valenciana that he had made for 800 people last November at the CIA?Greystone's World Of Flavors Conference on Spain and the World Table I knew that I just had to taste this at its source. Though my wife and I had been to Spain (predominantly Catalunya) several times over the past few years we hadn't ventured down into Valencia or Alicante. This was the impetus that we needed. That there were other incredible restaurants to try as well as an exciting city on the rise in Valencia and America's Cup activities and races didn't put a damper on the idea either.

Located in Benisano' a small town with a pretty old castle about 20 minutes inland from Valencia city, Restaurante Levante, is a charming family - run traditional restaurant founded by Rafael Vidal Sr. and his wife in 1968. Over the years, honors piledup on the restaurant, which was eventually taken over by the founders' son, Rafael and his wife Fina. In addition to running the restaurant, Rafael and his wife travel all over to make paellas for large groups and events including for the King of Spain himself.

The day we drove down from Barcelona was a puente or "bridge day" that is the day between a weekend and a holiday. In this case, Monday April 30th was the day between the weekend and May 1st or May Day, a particularly big holiday in Valencia and the equivalent of Labor day in the US. This bridge day was quiet at Levante which worked well for us as Rafael Vidal had some time that he could spend with us.

We arrived early at the restaurant shortly before its 2PM opening time so we took a short walk to view the town's charming castle.

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By the time we returned, it was open.

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We were seated at a table in the middle of the room and immediately brought a plate of delicious marcona almonds to nibble on.

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While we specifically came for the paella we wished to try a few of their other dishes. We left it in the hands of our waitress and Rafael Vidal to decide what to bring us. All we told them is that we would like to try some of the house specialties.

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We were started with the aptly named Delicias de Queso con Calabaza y Almendra or cheese fritters with pumpkin and almond. These were rich and satisfying with a nice crispy coat and soft, creamy interior.

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Acelgas Rellenas de Morcilla or morcilla stuffed greens over toast with a cream sauce. Morcilla is a blood sausage from pork. This dish too was rich and delicious with the richness countered by a touch of sweetness from some dried fruit.

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Calamari Fritas These were perfect fried calamari from local squid cooked in a light beer-batter. They were sweet, tender and as good as any I've ever had. I find fried calamari to be a good benchmark dish as it is easy to do reasonably well, but very difficult to do so that the dish is outstanding. This one was outstanding.

We left our wine choice to the Vidal's son, Victor who has assumed the duties of sommalier at the restaurant. He chose an excellent Valencian wine, the producer of which we would become more familiar with more during our trip.

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This was a delightful blend, hence the name. One of the grapes, bobal, is a local variety that amongst others was put to excellent use here.

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Puntillas con Habitas y Ajos Tiernos or small squid with favas and garlic. Rafael was telling us that as much ass he loves his favas with this dish, when he was in California he had a bean that he thought would be perfect for it. he could not find that bean anywhere he said. I suggested that he contact Rancho Gordo, because if anyone can determine the bean he is looking for it would be Steve. The dish was excellent, but I was beginning to feel that we should leave room for some paella.

Rafael kindly invited us to come and look at the paella preparation. In some places the paella pan is set out on a communal table to share. not so, here, where the paella is apportioned from a central location with fresh paella constantly rotating in.

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A completed paella awaiting apportioning.

He took us upstairs to a top-floor kitchen where the paella is cooked over wood and vine-cuttings. The smoke is an essential ingredient to an authentic paella.

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At Levante, Vidal uses Senia rice to make his paella. He says that Bomba rice is easier and more forgiving, but doesn't absorb the cooking juices as well as the senia and theefore does not impart as much flavor. Senia is tricky though as if not cooked carefully, it has a greater tendency to burst rather than remain whole.

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Vidal is known for his beans, especially the variety known as garrofo' a type of Lima bean. Though the paella is best when the beans are fresh, the next best thing according to Vidal is to use frozen beans (he grows his own along with much of the rest of the produce at the restaurant).

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These are what was in our paella.

Following the frozen beans, dried beans make for an acceptable paella.

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In addition to the beans, green-beans of the variety called ferraura are an essential component to an authentic paella valenciana according to Vidal.

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The other essential components include chicken, rabbit, tomato, water and rosemary.

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Our appetites re-fired, we returne to the ddining room to sample what we came for.

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It was delicious and well worth the trip!

The paella was served with a salad that included white asparagus, tuna, tomatoes, hard-boiled egg lettuce, onion, olives and O&V.

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After the paella, the Vidals gave us fresh squeezed orange juice from their own home-grown oranges, a sampling of their house-made desserts and then some 1964 Gran Reserva de Fondillon to finish the meal. All were delicious.

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The desserts made by Rafael's wife, Fina, included (clockwise from top) Brazo de Gitano or membrillo roll; dried fruit pudding, tarta de requeson con frambuesa or cheesecake with raspberries and pumpkin, almond and membrillo cake.

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Translation: Fondillon is an oxidized, old wine, its flavor sweet without being cloying; its density obscuring the glass; a scent of old mahogany. That pretty much describes it.

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The Family Vidal.


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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