ILOVE the idea of a special dish that’s only cooked one day of the week. It creates a sense of occasion, the promise of ingredients at their peak of freshness and a specialist focus at the stove. In Spain you get deeply ordinary paella in loads of places, with frozen shellfish, workaday rice, stock cubes, and those skinflint lookalikes for saffron. A meticulous paella, on the other hand, is a wonderful thing.
Sunday at Cadiz in Edinburgh is paella day. Quite a big deal you’d think, reading the menu: “We cook the best paella in town,” no less. “Our paellas take 30-40 minutes to prepare, [so] why not order some of our Platos Pequenos (small plates) with a chilled bottle of wine and enjoy a lazy Sunday”. We succumb to this seductive offer. With its contemporary Moorish decor and well stocked bar, Cadiz has enough style that it might plausibly feel like a special occasion. But when our paella de mariscos arrives, it doesn’t feel like such a great idea.
Now to be fair, we might have got carried away with the small plates. The pan rustico con mantequilla de paprika, which I ordered mainly to assess rather than eat, is compelling: a breadbasket stacked high with slices of thick sourdough bread with a darkly flavoursome crust that exercises the jaw, and a generous slab of cultured butter that’s orange with smoked paprika. We also had to check out the Cumbrae oysters, which are always a joy, but I’m keen to know how their “Reseda” treatment works: shallots, sherry vinegar, and lemon. It’s an interesting experiment. This bracing, broadshouldered vinegar accentuates the minerality of the oysters. I’m glad I tried it, but in future I’ll stick with lemon (plan A) then red wine vinegar (plan B). The oysters, as always, what with all that crushed ice and the lemon halves in muslin, set a celebratory note, and surprisingly, so do the whitebait. They can so easily look like a pile of greasy fries, but these large specimens with their stiff, athletically arched silver backs dusted orange with paprika, have more presence than your average small fry.
A steaming pan of shell-on Venus clams “sautéed in white wine and garlic, finished with coriander” is the first dish that stalls my overall appreciative assessment. The milky-grey liquor doesn’t continue the celebratory mood; it tastes watery rather than winey, it’s too salty even for me, and we play Hunt The Coriander.
But it’s when the paella is plonked down before us that I find myself revisiting the sales pitch. If it takes 30-40 minutes to prepare, the kitchen must have been in a tearing hurry. It looks as if it’s been kicking its heels under a heat lamp for quite some time, so long in fact, that it has acquired the well-browned crust of a gratin. The eight mussels in their shells that top it taste solid and are crisp at their extremities. While the grains of rice are judiciously firm, and the saffron aroma is present, the rice element is almost dry, as if it might have been reasonable paella 15 minutes earlier. But it’s the seafood that really makes this a failed paella attempt.
The langoustines are reasonable, although I’ve had better, and the shell-on king prawns are about as intrinsically tasty as these crustaceans ever get. Salt supplants the shellfish flavour. There’s white fish in amongst the rice, possibly hake, but it’s over-cooked. The worst element in this dish is its rings of squid that taste of absolutely nothing, quite some achievement if the chef starts with fresh squid.
The reality of the muchanticipated paella, which comes with airplane-style wet wipes (for this money I want a finger bowl), ushers in a “party’s over” mood. We eye-up the dessert options, which have abandoned Spain irrevocably: brownie, vanilla cream, praline cheesecake, and vanilla sponge pudding (how British!). None of these sit easily after the savoury options. Even the cheese option offers a “selection of Continental cheese”. Why not regional Spanish? I get the impression that Cadiz aspires to be a rich relation of Cafe Andaluz, its cloned sister outfit down below. But it’s just too ordinary.