Stories on the fly is a reocurring guest post series featuring the voices of Indianapolis's restaurant community, from the front of the house to the back. This week, Meridian line cook Mark Allen rhapsodizes about paella.
Somewhere around the turn of this century I found myself, under blurry circumstances, in Malaga, Spain. The junket to nowhere was doing a good job in fulfilling its purpose and, as is often the case, I found myself aimlessly haunting city streets in search of the cultural essence of my host country.
After some time at the Plaza de Toros de La Malagueta I walked toward the beach eschewing the Parisian cafes perplexingly lining the Spanish streets and eventually began ambling toward a date with personal culinary destiny. When I hit the sands, shoes in hand, I notice a sizable crowd gathered at the base of the escarpment separating the beach from the jetty. More prevalent than the sight were the complexities of smells wafting through the cool air—-rich layers of salt and sea, spice and herbs. This was my first introduction to paella.
Food often has uniting properties and several of the native beachcombers were more than happy to enlighten me as to some facts about their regional delicacy. Paella, with it's loop of Spanish vowel sounds, has rustic roots as a catch-all solution for Spanish farmers in the 18th century. Wide pans of rice and available produce were simmered slowly over fires and in the Valencia region whatever happened to be lying around often made its way into the pan—-green beans, snails, rabbits, etc.. As the technique spread so did the inclusion of more familiar ingredients and the practice of seafood being added became a prevalent option. Certain ingredients became standard, among these olive oil, saffron and citrus.
What this has to do with a trip to Indy's venerable Jazz Kitchen is a bit circular, I suppose, but it sets a context.
I am generally loathe to try regional or specialty dishes and even less so when only one restaurant in town offers them. It's often been my experience that either the dish is too expensive to make properly with imported ingredients or more time consuming than most kitchen staffs would prefer. Sometimes both.
I think I'd been going to The Jazz Kitchen for a few months before summoning the courage to try the paella. Circumstances always seemed to dictate another choice—-either there were time constraints or sometimes I was lost in the company or the music, occasionally I'd dine before the show. The turning point came when I consciously recognized that the simple (and not ostentatious) presentation of the platter inevitably led to fun. Call it "merriment", call it "revelry", or as is generally is the case at my table, call it "bad behavior" but I'm fairly well convinced that you can't have a gigantic, scalding pan of spicy seafood placed in front of you without a positive reaction. It's both a communal and participatory dish and if it can be arranged to have someone belting out a few Coltrane standards then memories are assured.
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The JK version of the dish contains the proper amount of oils and spices to lend an aromatic authenticity to the event, but also includes chorizo for heat.
You can plan on it taking a minimum of an hour from the time you order the dish until delivery to your table. This is well discussed ahead of time, and while seemingly inconvenient, is absolutely essential to the outcome. Proper sequencing of ingredients leads to a well blended juxtaposition of flavors and luxurious textures with a toothsome quality to the vegetables and the proper feel to the variety of seafoods playfully hiding throughout the pan. Of note, roasted lemon halves are included to allow the diner to adjust the level of citrus/acid per serving. This is not always an inclusion and shows a thoughtfulness in the kitchen.
I've come to think of the paella at the Jazz Kitchen as somewhat akin to the shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo's—-a signature experience to and of Indianapolis. The reader might not be transformed by the experience but without a doubt memories will be made, and, isn't that what good food is about?
I'm not saying that it's mandatory that you end the evening with your necktie knotted around your head, bebopping across the dance floor with a cephalopod's tentacles hanging out of your mouth. I'm also not saying that it's out of the question...