Jill and I haven’t been shy about discussing our collective obsession with Spanish cuisine in these pages—our love affair with tapas and sangria has been going strong since our inaugural trip together, and it shows no signs of waning anytime soon. Fried chunks of potato doused with aioli, shrimp in sizzling garlic oil, served in a hot cazuela, blistered shishito peppers sprinkled with sea salt, croquetas de jamón (or blue cheese and dates, if we’re feeling fancy)—these are the things of which reveries are made.
But as much as I love those small-plate staples, I’ve always been less than impressed by what may as well be the country’s de facto national dish: paella. (Not that that’s stopped me from wanting to make a great version myself, mind.) After one too many encounters with an underwhelming, blandly seasoned pan of rice, I gave up, mentally categorizing this dish as one that’s great in theory—what’s not to love about seafood, sausage, and garlic?—but fails to live up to its billing in reality. Silly me. Turns out I just hadn’t met the right one yet.
Even with my misgivings about its namesake foodstuff, Socarrat Paella Bar had been on my list of places to try since the original location opened its doors in 2008, but it wasn’t until my friend and I found ourselves near the Nolita outpost, at loose ends for dinner plans, that I finally had the chance to sample its wares.
When they’re on the menu, it’s next to impossible for two meat-eaters to resist devils on horseback. Though not technically an amuse-bouche, Socarrat’s bacon-wrapped, Valdeon-and-almond-stuffed dates served the same purpose, tickling our palates and stimulating our appetites for the feast to come.
As a prelude to the main event, we also ordered one of the evening’s specials, a tapa of suckling pig with spinach (pictured at top), served in its jus and finished with a few flakes of some very serious salt. Between the sheet of crispy skin on top and the pool of juice underneath, that little square of meat packed a serious flavor punch. Unfortunately, it packed a sucker punch as well—to say that we were surprised when we got the bill would be an understatement. At $18, this small plate was twice the average cost of the restaurant’s small plates, and a third more expensive than the priciest item on the tapas menu.
Our second surprise of the evening came courtesy of the main portion of the bill—though, I hasten to add, through no fault of the establishment. How we both managed to misread the headnote proclaiming that paellas are priced per person is beyond me, but in this case, the shock was tempered by the knowledge that it was money well spent.
The eponymous version, chock full of chicken, beef, fish, mussels, cockles, shrimp, sepia, giant fava beans (a pleasant surprise, for a change—the menu advertised green beans instead), and piquillo peppers arrived at our table with a flourish, a heady cloud of wine and garlic rising from the still-steaming pan. The waiter delivered our dinner with the instruction to wait a few minutes before digging in to give the rice time to finish absorbing that highly aromatic liquid—directions we immediately ignored in favor of instant gratification. Our first bites, as he’d warned, were decidedly crunchy, but even so, this was the best paella I’d ever had, in Spain or elsewhere.
Though it’s a little high-dollar for your average weeknight meal, I’m already planning to go back on a Tuesday, when the restaurant breaks from form and allows diners to order two different paellas in one pan—catnip for the indecisive (read: yours truly) among us. Because the variety, it seems, is maybe what I like best about Spanish food. (Pass the tapas menu, please.)
Socarrat Paella Bar
284 Mulberry Street
New York, NY