Prague’s Perfect Paella

Spanish cuisine on La Vltava.

Don Juan Restaurante

Na struze 1470/7 in P1, behind the National Theatre

Tel: 224 930 182

The Italians conquered Central Europe the same way they conquered North America:
with the pizza. It’s simple, cheap and difficult to fumble. The Czechs are
so smitten with the pizza pie that they’ve even tried to make it their own by
covering it with ketchup instead of tomato sauce.

The French have defended their local market share less by relying on accessible,
quality dishes than on specious claims of innate skill in sniffing out mushrooms
with leashed, gigantic swine. The local Spanish gourmands, meanwhile, have kept
the boasting to themselves. But it’s not as if they have nothing to brag about,
and Spanish is the other, other Latin cuisine you may want to acquaint yourself
with. Don Juan Restaurante is exactly the place to hang your matador’s cape.

Animal rights types be warned: the interior of Don Juan is full of original
artwork and prints of bulls getting brutalized in brush strokes. But kitsch
it is not, and the furniture, lamps and tiles are all imported from Spain. More
importantly, so are many of the fresh ingredients.

When ordering, be open, playful and diverse. As eaters, the Spanish traditionally
pick from a wide array of warm and cold starters. Especially on the weekends,
they go from locale to locale snacking on various tapas until midnight, after
which they head out to the clubs. Follow the flow of sangria and finger snacks
and it’s hard not to fall in love with tapas culture.

If you can afford it, stick with the best on offer. The tiger shrimps in garlic
may be cost-prohibitive at 480 Kč, but manager Michal Suchanek delivers some
of the freshest prawns in this city. Again, freshness is the key to quality
in this cuisine, since the sunny Spanish climate provides rich, sun-ripened
vegetables, while the Mediterranean offers up a seemingly unlimited abundance
every morning at the fish monger’s market. Seafood should be right-off-the-boat,
and in the Czech Republic the careful diner is right to raise an eyebrow at
claims of freshness.

The best items on the tapas menu at Don Juan’s are the hams. Spanish jamón is
world-famous with good reason, and Don Juan’s offers two types. The first is
the standard Serrano ham, which is made by curing the hind leg of a pig, traditionally
in a mountain environment where the air is clean, winters are cold and the moisture
levels just right. Unfortunately, Serrano ham has spawned many unpleasant and
inferior imposters. Don Juan’s, at 350 Kč, is the real thing.

But an even better ham is the Iberico jamón. With a hefty price tag of 750 Kč
per portion, it’s certainly an indulgence, but there is real delight in this
incredible meat. Iberico is expensive for a reason. Produced in relatively small
quantities, the meat comes from a particular breed of pigs raised in the Extremadura
region of Spain. They dine exclusively on acorns from a special cork tree, and
global demand far outweighs supply. The curing process is also pricey, making
for the most expensive ham on the market. You can tell the Iberico by its black
hoof; the Seranno’s is brown. The taste is unforgettable. Sprinkled with a bit
of olive oil – as presented at Don Juan – it is a delicacy to be enjoyed over
good conversation and fine wine.

On the subject of wine, there’s no need to go overboard on a bottle of Spain’s
best, as they are notoriously unreliable. Instead, order a glass or three of
the tempera nillo Vina Lange, which is dry, dark, and strong-bodied.

The best Spanish dish can be enjoyed with either red or white. I refer, of course,
to paella. Don Juan offers mixta – a combination of chicken and seafood served
with rice. This is another high-ticket item (1250 Kč), but it serves two.

A true paella uses the full and round short-grain Spanish rice. When cooked
properly, it has a chewy texture and isn’t mushy or awash in liquid. Paella
is also free of gratuitous ingredients; onions and peppers sautéed in advance
will suffice, since you don’t want the base to overpower the rich taste of the
rice. It also calls for a thread or two of the most expensive spice on the planet,
saffron, giving the dish its distinctive yellow color as well as a mild flavor
that blends naturally with the rice.

Paella chefs prepare the dish in a shallow, wide pan, allowing the rice to crust
over a wide area. Yes, crust. A proper paella is cooked at a high enough temperature
that the bottom develops a crunchy crust, but doesn’t burn.

The chef at Don Juan, Renee Mican, knows how to cook paella. He and his brother
Roman, the owner, have alreadyopened a successful restaurant in Pribor. When
asked about cooking authentic Spanish food using local vegetables, he shrugged.
“Of course, you can’t have everything here like in Spain, so you have to modify,”
he explained. He added, “I pick all the produce myself. And the meat. I have
exceptionally good suppliers.”

Don Juan is a tiny restaurant, and the high prices help keep it intimate. For
those who can’t forget the beauty and perfection of an authentic Spanish meal,
the price worth it.

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