“As close as you can get to eating paella in Spain.” It’s a claim that Arrozeria Manila does not take lightly. Chefs Chele Gonzalez , Ivan Saiz and Keith Fresnido, the team behind the highly regarded Vask and Gallery Vask, are the same team behind Arrozeria. The philosophy that guides Vask, is the same philosophy they have applied to Arrozeria—high quality food, sustainable local ingredients, no pretensions, helping local farm communities by buying their products. But Arrozeria is not Vask’s clone. The food is simpler, homier, comfort-driven, with affordable prices that make it easy to return again and again. The interiors are unpretentious, casual, and show off not just the chefs’ personalities, but the star of the restaurant’s menu—rice.
To ensure the authenticity of the Arrozeria’s paella while remaining true to their philosophy of cooking local, the chefs partnered with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Banos. They brought samples of bomba, the Spanish variety of rice typically used in paella and other rice dishes, for the scientists to study. Once it was determined that the Ifugao heirloom rice variety tinawan had all the characteristics of bomba, the chefs set out to secure their supply. This involved several journeys to the Ifugao communities to buy the rice, and build relationships with them—meeting the people, understanding their planting and harvesting traditions, sharing meals with them, and even learning to cook the rice.
The result, combined with that Spanish passion for bringing out the best in the food that they cook and eat, is paella that tastes as authentic as if you were in the seaside city of Valencia, perhaps at a small family-run place, and delicious smells float up into your nose as your paella is placed in front of you. Each separate grain of rice glistens, and is the pale yellow-orange of a sun just beginning to set over the horizon. You dig in, the rice a thin layer that crusts around the bottom and edges of the paellera. There is a bite to the rice, al dente, each spoonful so flavorful that meat or seafood are superfluous.
Chef Chele explains that Spaniards like their paella al dente and slightly dry, with more rice than meat, in contrast to the way Filipinos learned to eat paella that was wet and soft, and chunky with meats and vegetables. The menu at Arrozeria respects the Filipino style of eating paella, and diners may order their paella either “al dente and thin” in the Spanish manner, or “soft and wet” in the Filipino fashion. He goes on to talk about the characteristics that make a truly great paella: the integrity of the rice and the way you can feel each grain in your mouth, the thin layer that results in quick cooking and the prized soccarat or tutong, an intensely flavored stock that matches the main ingredient, the tastiness of the sofrito (the all-important base to many Spanish dishes that consists of garlic, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and paprika slow-cooked in olive oil), and the correct seasonings (not all paellas are flavored with saffron).
But Arrozeria Manila is more than just the sum of its paellas; like the traditional arrocerias in Spain, it features how rice is cooked in the different regions of Spain. Southern Spain prefers its rice dishes drier and favors paella; Northern Spain prefers wetter, soupier dishes, similar to risotto. The menu divides its rice dishes into Caldoso or Soupy, similar to our arroz caldo; Meloso or Saucy, somewhere between soupy and a risotto; and Risotto or creamy rice dishes similar to the Italian-style. There is also Fideua, thin noodles no longer than your pinky fingernail, cooked in the style of paella.
Arrozeria’s new menu has been streamlined and interesting new dishes added. Among them Fideua Callos, a dish that combines the best parts of both dishes into something that diners will find difficult to stop eating; Arroz Gratinado Longaniza, a tip of the hat to our Filipino longaniza, combining house-made longaniza, broccoli, and garlic-rich aioli in a rice dish that is run under a broiler; a refreshing and tender Salpicon de Pulpo (octopus) bathed in capsicum and onion vinaigrette; Pimiento Rellenos, piquillo peppers stuffed with braised oxtail so intensely-flavored that its meatiness permeates throughout the peppers; a classic Chorizo y Gambas; and Lengua Frita, melt-in-your-mouth Angus beef tongue coated in béchamel sauce and breadcrumbs, before being deep-fried like croquetas.
More than just a Spanish restaurant that showcases rice, Chefs Ivan and Chele want Arrozeria to tell the story of the kind of food they grew up with, and the local ingredients and communities that produce them. Arrozeria brings a tiny corner of Spain to the Philippines, and introduces the food and culture in the heart of every Spaniard. And because we are alike in so many ways, it will touch the hearts and palates of Filipinos as well. Come on a Sunday, when homesick Spanish expats gather to eat a lunch of paella the way they would in Spain; it will feel like a typical Sunday lunch with family that you would find anywhere in the Philippines. Except that you will hear Spanish being spoken, and the paella—the paella will be the best you can possibly get, outside of Spain.