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Soul of Spain

By Mike Peters | China Daily | Updated: 2016-09-13 07:21

Oysters, paella, grilled prawns and an intriguing wine list are just the start at one of the city's oldest European eateries. Mike Peters reports.

Hangzhou is justly famous for its local cuisine, but it's not well-known as an outpost for foreign fare. So on a recent visit to Zhejiang's provincial capital, we were pleasantly surprised to discover La Pedrera - a Spanish restaurant with an impressive wine list tucked in a corner of a large Chinese hotel.

Our leisurely lunch got a pleasantly authentic start with a refreshing glass of sparkling cava, a bottle of mineral water labeled Vichy Catalan, a welcome platter of fresh-baked breads, and serving dishes with a mosaic edge as colorful as any you might find in sunny Spain.

As soon as we were settled at our table with this opening array, we were advised to choose a rice dish - that menu section was labeled "the most famous" - as these four specialties would take 25 minutes to prepare. These are generous iron skillets to serve two or more people. We gave the tempting lobster rice Caldoso (298 yuan or about $45) a longing gaze before opting for the black-rice paella (98 yuan) instead.

We started our meal with a pair of oysters from a list that included four French options as well as bivalves from South Africa and Tasmania. The steak menu was even more extensive, and we settled for an Angus beef striploin (218 yuan for 280 grams) with sides of rosemary-roasted potatoes and a lightly pungent confit of mushrooms and garlic.

While the chefs were practicing their art on the steak and paella, we enjoyed a small raw feast: the Geay oysters we'd chosen from the international oyster list and a stunning steak tartare. The patty of well-seasoned beef, served with a duck egg, a big pinch of arugula and thin crisp rounds of lightly toasted fresh bread, made the prettiest dish of the meal.

The taste winner, however, may have been the Argentine prawns, fried in citric oil and delectably tender amid chunks of dried red chili and devastatingly delicious garlic chips. The two menu pages of tapas also included lots of other tempting seafood, from grilled octopus and Spanish-style seafood croquettes to marinara clams.

The paella arrived next, well worth the wait with a pair of sauteed shrimps at the center, seemingly locked face-to-face inthe rice like apair of flamenco dancers. Afloat in the sea of squid-ink tinted rice around them were tasty clams and scallops, and a pair of lemon slices poised like tiny boats of brilliant yellow.

We were basically full when the steak arrived, but our appetites returned as the tender beef, perfectly cooked to our medium-rare order, was sliced and sprinked with a bit of freshly ground pepper and pink Himalayan salt. The sides of grilled mushrooms and potatoes gave the plate some visual and nutritional balance.

Among the dishes we passed over with regret were a turbot stew with baked beans, young garlic and saffron foam, and grilled octopus with potatoes and paprika oil. Those temptations will have to wait for a return visit.

Somehow, we found room for dessert - in fact, two of them. A fig "biscuit" turned out to be a creamy rectangle that was almost as dense as cheesecake; served with toffee and sweet cream, it was a sensation of textures and flavors. More conventional but perhaps more appealing as a summer treat: a vanilla yogurt impregnated with seasonal fruits: orange, berry and mango.

Besides its carefully sourced and prepared Spanish fare, the original La Pedrera is well-known for its gin and tonics - varieties including pineapple and apple caramelized by a small torch in front of you, fresh herbs and frozen figs. We were too sated with a big meal and a robust tempranillo to migrate to the bar for more alcohol, so a G&T sampling will also have to be saved for a return visit.

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(China Daily 09/13/2016 page19)

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