The First and Last of a Perfect Paella

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Last fall, I had the privilege of trying Chef Jonathan Vasquez's cooking at Smoke.Oil.Salt, a Spanish restaurant on Melrose Avenue, before it unexpectedly closed. I'd never even heard of the restaurant before I ate there. In fact, I had only known about it through making a mental note of its name from passing by. It was easy enough to remember. Why? Because the alchemy of (1) smoke, (2) oil, and (3) salt is what makes any cuisine sizzle and sing!

I have a particular soft spot for Spanish cuisine. It's a very approachable cuisine. I've only been to Spain once–Barcelona; 2005–but will never forget my first meal there. I was strolling along the street when I caught sight of a man at a sidewalk cafe, tucking into a plate of crispy fried eggs and french fries. It wasn't particularly special, or even traditionally Spanish, but those rich orange yolks, glossed with olive oil, called out to me. It was just the right thing, cooked just the right way, in just the right place. 

Smoke.Oil.Salt's pan con tomate hit me with that very same feeling. From my seat at the bar, I watched the sous-chef rub a large slice of rustic bread with garlic, grill it, and then carefully spoon a mixture of freshly grated tomatoes on top. He delicately lashed it with olive oil and sprinkled a few fresh thyme leaves on top. Then, with a very sharp knife, he made two swift cuts and produced three pieces on a slate serving board. I was impressed with its sublime simplicity. I could taste the quality of the bread, olive oil, and tomatoes. 

I knew that great things were still to come. 

The pièce de résistance was the seafood paella–a masterpiece in a cast-iron skillet. The perfectly cooked squid ink rice was a glistening ebony backdrop for the blistered cherry tomatoes, pickled onion, grilled prawns and squid. Small, frilly bunches of lightly dressed cilantro leaves adorned the paella, which was crowned with a fried egg. Every bite brought out a different element of the dish–crisped edges, piquant flavors, unctuousness, or smoke. I could taste the care and passion and focus that the chef had for cooking. 

My friend Nathan, who was dining with me that evening, was on a cleanse and therefore picked away at his salad while I was trying to suppress the sheer enjoyment of my meal. I could sense that he knew he was missing out on greatness.

"I'm sorry," I apologized. "Is this torture for you?"

"Yes," he replied. "Your eyes are literally rolling to the back of your head after every bite."

"You should just have a bite."

He hesitated, already filling up with guilt. 

"Food is energy! Your body will burn right through it by the time we walk out of here!" I exclaimed, putting on the pressure.

He took his fork and gingerly scooped up a sliver of pickled onion and a few cilantro leaves that had a couple of grains of rice clinging to it.

"Oh, come on!" I laughed.

"I can't!" he wailed. "I might eat the whole thing if I do! We'll come back when my detox is over."

Not too long after that, I read news that Smoke.Oil.Salt shut its doors for the last time. I told Nathan the sad news. We still mourn for that pan con tomate and paella to this day.