Postcard from Valencia, Spain: Honing in on our favorite lunch stops

The simple floorplan stenciled on the wall by the entrance gave me a clue I was going to like Refugio Restaurante. The kitchen is designated with “You are not here.” Off to a good start. But the name, “Refuge,” carries a deeper connotation for locals than my mere relief from cooking. The intimate restaurant is across from an underground bunker, Refugio, built to shelter up to 600 people during the Spanish Civil War when Valencia was bombed more than 400 times.

If you head to Valencia, these four spots were our favorites for repeat visits. These photos are all from multi-course lunches, with three courses for two people with a bottle of wine plus tip running about the same as we pay for a pre-tip bottle of wine in a restaurant in San Antonio. Kind of like free food, and we rarely recovered enough from these ample lunches to want anything to eat in the evening. Before I start, though, we had expected and unexpected paella and rice dishes at all of these. For those photos, go back to an earlier post.

Refugio bills itself as offering contemporary fusion food, and the kitchen obviously loves playing with food. Aside for variations on the Mister’s go-to moist dark brownies for dessert, the daily menu selections never seem to be repeated. Even better than deserts were the wonderful vegetable flans, whether pumpkin, asparagus or corn. The fish and langostino suquet was magical, and both seafood and meats, including duck and ox, always were cooked perfectly.

Namua Gastronomic almost escaped our notice. Fairly new, there were few reviews online, which meant it was not as full as the more established Refugio. Namua became the end-of-our-stay favorite. An amuse-bouche always started the meal. Heirloom tomatoes atop a fish puree was refreshing, and panko-crusted cod arrived nesting in a dark rich sauce of tomatoes and tuna. The chef deftly turned out fried foods, such as appetizers of sardines or artichokes, and sometimes turned to classics from other regions, such as the judiones de la granja, the giant beans and sausage we first encountered in Segovia.

Lunches at Viva Mascaraque were a little more extended affairs, with an amuse bouche – a light melon soup on one day – arriving before three courses of appetizers, a main course and dessert. For the main course, we often were seduced by the paellas. Chef Mascaraque was head chef at the Hotel Ritz in Madrid and at the Spanish restaurant at Harrods in London; yet this restaurant was still almost as comfortably casual as the two above and only a few dollars more. As I clicked on the website, I did notice Viva Mascaraque now offers a shorter weekday menu eliminating two of the appetizer courses for about 13 Euros.

While the first three restaurants were all in the Carmen neighborhood, Mythos Tapas y Mas was on a shady tree-lined street in Canovas. The lunch menus did not vary as much from day to day, but the sea bass was wonderful and it was hard to resist the baby beans in a lacy thin crepe basket. And sitting outside on the quiet street was well worth the walk.

Definitely missing the personal implication of that Refugio sign now that we are back in San Antonio.

Postcard from Valencia, Spain: More saffron and less of everything else needed in my paella pan

Ask a purely traditional cook from Valencia, Spain, about paella, and you are told there is only one. It contains rabbit, chicken and maybe sausage or snails.

But I realized after a month consuming rice dishes there, we never tried the classic version. Seafood lovers have corrupted many a restaurant kitchen, and experimental contemporary chefs led us into playful flavorful territory.

Two things I learned I have always done incorrectly: I am too stingy with saffron, and I put too much of everything else in the pan. Proper Valencian paella is shallow in depth to allow the rice to caramelize in the bottom and particularly around the edges of the pan. This crispy crust – socarrat – is key, and Valencians are not timid about vigorously scraping the dish, even when served in a communal pan. Of course, I’m not even sure we can buy the real Valencian rice at home – the rice grown specifically for its capabilities of absorbing the broth quickly without turning into mush.

Also, paella should be made only upon ordering. The broad pans are only set on the stove for at least two; you just are out of luck if no one at the table is willing to share. If your paella arrives on a plate dished out of a large deep pre-prepared pan in the kitchen, we’re talking by pure Valencian standards, it’s just wrong.

As the photos demonstrate, we violated tradition by ordering seafood paella, such as the one at Namua, and, horrors, even a verde, all-vegetable one at Viva Mascaraque. We weren’t disappointed at all.

Another rice preparation prevalent in the region adds more rich stock to the pan than the rice can absorb – arroz merloso. Mythos Tapas y Mas featured a different one daily on its comida specials, and we enjoyed a wild mushroom and bean one at Refugio. Foam-topped mussel-plump arroz at Seu Xerea fell into this category as well.

And then, there were the totally unexpected, on our part, arrivals in paella pans – fideo noodles, caramelized the same way as the rice. Don’t tell any of the traditionalists, but my favorite dish delivered in a paella pan was the black fideo filled with tender pulpo served at Viva Mascaraque. We greedily scraped up very bit of socarrat we could. Just wanted to save the kitchen staff some elbow grease.