I stopped off once in a little trash-bestrewn town that stank of the sewer, and just down the street from a junkie begging for spare change was a little tapas place where I ate tiny, very fresh North Atlantic scallops, cooked quickly in olive oil with hot peppers and garlic. The earthenware serving dish was sizzling as it was put before me, and despite the simplicity of the dish, it endures as one of the best taste experiences I've ever had.
In the wider culinary world, Spain has, for many years now, been lauded as the next big thing, and its influence has been profound on some of the best chefs in this country. Wild, technological innovation and the first deconstruction of dishes originated at El Bulli, Ferran Adrià's restaurant near Barcelona. And Arzac in San Sebastian is routinely cited as the best restaurant in the world. More prosaically, Spain's garlic-laced chorizo and smoked paprika have shown up everywhere, on every menu it seems, and with the opening of Tienda, a Williamsburg store and online mail-order business, authentic Spanish ingredients finally are easy to come by.
Luckily for Richmond, a native Spaniard, Emilio Peiro, has brought real Spanish food to our town. When it first opened, Emilio's, on Broad Street, was kind of a dive, complete with a drunk falling off her barstool the night I first was there. The food was mediocre at best, and I sadly wrote it off. It was, admittedly, authentic; it served authentically bad Spanish food, with greasy, overfried croquettes and a lazy, haphazard presentation.
When I went back last week, however, the whole place had been spiffed up with new red, lime and dark-blue walls, with bullfight posters, a new bar and slick copper-topped tables. It's funky now, like so many real tapas bars, with a mix of old and new that without pretense instantly conveys comfort. The relaxed, casual crowd is mostly young (Emilio's has live music most nights of the week, after the dinner hour) with a few older people who know good food when it's offered to them.
A whole meal can be made of tapas (and the Spanish often do), and the selection is extensive. Most memorable are the gambas al ajillo, garlicky shrimp seared quickly in olive oil with hot red-pepper flakes; the patatas pobres, potatoes wrapped in an unctuous homemade garlic mayonnaise; and the flaming chorizo, little chorizo sausages doused in brandy and set aflame. Best is the thinly sliced jamon (Spain's equivalent of prosciutto), layered with an intense sauce of pureed fresh tomatoes and garlic on bread. Why ordinary soft and squishy bread was chosen instead of a sturdy, artisanal loaf is almost a tragedy, however, and frankly, impossible to overlook.
Another near tragedy is the lack of any discernible saffron in the paella mixta. Tragic, because even without it, the paella is extremely good; the rice, clearly an authentic short grain, is cooked to perfection (so often, the rice in paella is undercooked in a rush to get it to the table), as is the seafood, still tender and briny instead of tough and overdone. But paella can't be paella without saffron. Its golden fragrance defines the dish, and in its absence, you're left with an indistinct, unsatisfying mix of rice and meats. So close but still just a pinch of saffron away from the real thing.
Despite this lack of attention to detail (and a chorizo sandwich on the lunch menu that is decidedly Italian sausage), Emilio's is a tiny outpost of Spain that should be celebrated for its obvious pleasure in bringing a glorious culinary tradition finally to Richmond.
Emilio's Restaurante Espa¤ol ($$)
1847 W. Broad St.
Lunch: Monday - Friday, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: 4 p.m. - 2 a.m. daily.
Emilio's is scheduled to open a new location in the South Side this week at 7016 Woodlake Commons Loop, Midlothian. 639-8099.