Photo By Norma Lopez Molina
In Asia, Spain and the Middle East, rice is the preferred staple. And while what is made with it varies greatly from region to region, there is a commonality among most rice-based cuisines-the burnt stuff at the bottom of the pot.
Americans have been taught that a crust of darkened rice stuck to the pan is cause for cursing and recrimination ("You burnt the rice again?"). Meanwhile, Vietnamese chefs trade secrets for the best gao rang ("burnt rice"), Korean families fight over who will get the noo roong ji, and Cantonese cooks hack their electric rice steamers to bypass the otherwise "perfect" settings and create bo zai fan. In Turkey and Iran, rice crust is called tadiq and described as "glorious," while kids in the Philippines dip tutong in sugar as a treat.
Valencia is the home of Spanish paella (pie-AY-yah), a hearty special occasion dish resplendent with chicken, seafood, sausage, vegetables-well, all manner of things, depending on the family recipe, ingredients available and the hotly contested definition of the dish itself. People have been taken to court in Spain over the addition of green peppers. Yet the most prized part of paella is the socarrat-you guessed it, the crispy rice at the bottom of the pan. The waiters at Mi Tomatina Paella Bar in Winter Park make a particular tableside show of scraping the socarrat from the pan of their signature dish, and while there isn't a lot, it's a treasure.
The name Mi Tomatina refers to a tomato-throwing festival in Valencia, called the world's biggest food fight, and has nothing to do with the space or anything on the menu. So please refrain from flinging your meal. Co-owner Patricia Carvajal says her vision for the restaurant (her first, along with business partner Stuart Kirban) is "a fun, casual place that celebrates life." Alive with earthy Spanish colors and a beautiful distressed wood ceiling, Mi Tomatina feels more like a big living room than a small restaurant. The large paintings by Spanish Surrealist Joan Miro that hang on the walls are echoed in the handmade mosaic tabletops to splendid effect. (Carvajal says people often reserve their favorite tables.)
What comes from chef Tyler Faviere's kitchen are also works of art. I was particularly taken by several tapas offerings. These small dishes, which are a holdover from centuries of Moorish rule over Spain, explore all kinds of pleasures, from bright greens to rich roasted meats.
Tetilla cheese, a richer version of mozzarella, combines with sliced cherry and sun-dried tomatoes, fig balsamic vinegar and mint for an ensalada de tomate ($9) that will spoil you for bland caprese. Calamari de la casa ($8) lightly coats baby squid in a peppery crust, to be dipped in fresh tomato sauce. A classic Spanish dish is croquetas ($7 for two), breaded dumplings surrounding a smooth, palate-filling bacalao (cod) or Serrano ham. The roasted pepper aioli perfectly suits the ham; the combination of garlic and vanilla accompanying the cod is an overpowering mistake: ignore it. When I first tried the papas bravas ($6) I thought, here are the world's best home fries: chunks of long-roasted potatoes, tossed with Manchego cheese and truffle oil, tasting of earth and forests and smoke. The tapeo, the custom of a glass of Spanish port and some small plates, is a tempting way to pass an evening here.
On to big plates. Mi Tomatina's paella comes in several different styles, and all serve at least three-or two unbelievably hungry-people. Prepared in a large, round, shallow pan, traditional paella takes an hour or more to cook, and some restaurants will request an order in advance. Things are relaxed and unhurried at Mi Tomatina, but it took no more than 20 minutes before the paella (both pan and meal, it's the same word) reached the table, which tells me at least some of the dish is cooked ahead. That said, while a rustically authentic and longer cooking procedure may make for a deeper, more integrated flavor (and more crust), I'd rather not wait an hour to eat.
The signature Fabulosa ($44) adds calamari, chicken, shellfish, shrimp and beautifully cooked lobster tail to broth-infused rice, while Paella de Champi�ones ($28) replaces meats with mushrooms for a vegetarian alternative. The Paella Negra ($36) combines seafood and chicken with black squid ink, which tastes like what you'd imagine ink tastes like. Watch your clothing.
If you still lust for sufficient socarrat, here's my suggestion: Eat your fill at Mi Tomatina, then take the rest home (and there will be leftovers), and cook it down in your own pan until there's enough glorious rice for everyone.