Paella cooked over an open fire is the focus of a new restaurant in London opening next month from celebrated three-Michelin-starred Spanish chef Quique Dacosta. Vincent Wood met up with the king of rice
Quique Dacosta has already achieved most chefs’ idea of greatness. His self-titled restaurant is one of 11 in his native Spain to hold three Michelin stars. In Valencia, his empire includes another star for El Poblet and three more sites that celebrate the deep-rooted culinary traditions of the region. He is a chef who has made his name as one of the leaders of the nation’s avant-garde culinary movement. Now he is coming to London, and he wants to serve you rice.
The path from molecular gastronomy on the coast of Alicante to paella on the side streets of Fitzrovia may seem odd – but it is a natural progression for the chef. At restaurant Quique Dacosta the chef found fame with creations such as a dish of saffron and red mullet inspired by the paintings of Mark Rothko, and ‘The Other Moon of Valencia’ – a play on words that became a dish of stark black and white cuttlefish.
However, at Arros QD in London, which is named for the Valencian spelling of rice, Dacosta’s expertise is seen in the nuanced understanding of the restaurant’s core ingredient. For one, the chef wrote the definitive book on rice, Arroces Contemporaneos, which is currently in its fifth edition.
“I’ve not come here to win Michelin stars,” he says, speaking through a translator, “this is not the purpose. The whole purpose is to share
our passion for traditional rice and to bring that to the public, and to have them discover what the essence of paella is. I’m trying to get out of this frame of the rigid three-Michelin-starred environment and bring what paella is about – it’s sharing, it’s joy, it’s fun.”
His commitment to the intricacies of stock, flame and grain are the core focus of the concept. Each dish is cooked with the type of dry rice best suited for the task with an awareness of its unique properties, its propensity to absorb flavour or to leach starch. In keeping with tradition, many of the dishes are cooked over open fires, with the wood selected to enhance the dish with the right smoky notes.
Using dried rice and wood fires without any gas element slows down the process, but this commitment to the fundamentals means the perfect flavour and texture
are achieved, with every element of the dish working in harmony.
His level of precision extends to the cooking pan for which the dish is named. Each ironcast paella is designed to be as thin as possible, allowing for the perfect distribution of heat.
As Dacosta notes: “It is not only about the stock; it is not only about the type of rice grain used; it is also about the type of wood and the cooking process. The variables of cooking rice are unlimited.”
The dish is served at the table to allow diners to scrape the crust of the paella –
known as ‘socarrat’ – from the base of the pan, with each pan acid-washed on a nightly basis.
Beyond the flavour, this style of cooking and plating gets to the heart of what the chef loves about this type of cuisine – the sense of community that comes from a group of people all digging into the same dish.
However, with this baseline of carefully crafted dishes, the challenge becomes one of scale. The 140-cover site is equipped to house a chef’s table, counter service, private dining and à la carte operation, all running simultaneously. A paella for two has a cook time of just more than 25 minutes.
Dacosta’s innovation, which is rooted in respect for tradition, comes through in what is not a paella as much what it is. To ensure a oneportion dish could be offered, the chef created ‘chapas’ tray dishes, its name coming from the Spanish word for sheets. The dish is cooked in a Rational with different stocks and rice, while the trays are plated on ornate woodwork frames with accompaniments like Welsh duck breast, morel, black trompettes and porcini aïoli – allowing luxury on a smaller scale.
Achieving consistency across large parties while cooking in vast dishes has its own challenges – particularly for Dacosta, given his time will be split between his Spanish sites and his London outpost. That is where the restaurant’s use of open-fire cooking is balanced out by modern technology.
The open kitchen is split into two. On one side much of the cooking surface is bare masonry on which chefs can build their fires. On the other is a range of five vast paella burners, each equipped with screens and laser temperature probes.
Chefs are told when to add each ingredient, while the system adjusts the burners to ensure the right temperature is always maintained. The result is the ability to cook perfect paella for up to 30 people in a matter of minutes before finishing it on the flames to imbue the dish with a natural smokiness.
“Paella for us Spanish means festivities – it brings people around the table. It’s about sharing and it’s about happiness. What is great about this technology is we can provide five big paellas at a level of precision that is unmatched.”
This balancing act between tradition and modernity is spread throughout the aesthetic of the restaurant itself, which was designed by Barcelonian studio Lázaro Rosa-Violán. There is a pervasive moodiness to the site, which floods with natural light during the day and glows with flames at night. The walls of the spiral staircase, which lead to two of the restaurant’s four distinct dining rooms, are lined with black 3D-printed tiles that look like a cross between Spanish ceramics and burnt timber. The visibility of the operation – with its open kitchen
and glass-walled sommelier station – makes it as much of a visual spectacle for diners as it is for passers-by walking down Eastcastle Street.
From Valencia with love
Arros QD’s location could easily be seen as one of its most peculiar elements. The restaurant is his first outside of Spain – aside from a three-month pop-up in Dubai – and he arrives in the UK as many native chefs are looking to open restaurants in east Asia and the Middle East. However, despite a tough culinary market, much of his motivation comes from his love of the city and the culture it has been able to produce.
“I always wanted to open a restaurant in London. It’s one of the cities, if not the city, that integrates different tendencies from around the world. London has pushed the boundaries in everything that is related to technique, to creativity, the space to design – everything that is brought here has been taken to a whole new level. Because of people’s backgrounds and the melting pot that London is, people are able to accept big changes or big differences more easily. For me to come to London is to bring my own grain of rice to the city – and also to learn.”
Arros QD could be the start of something international [see panel] and the site is set up with the capacity to serve as a base of operations for more in the future. However, Dacosta is deeply inspired by terroir in all of his restaurants, and for now his focus is on Britain. At his self-titled namesake, he only accepts ingredients sourced within 75km of the kitchen. In London, even while cooking food so strongly linked to the flavours of his home, his inspiration comes from the UK’s produce.
“The dream for Arros is to be able to break barriers and go in other big cities around the world, but for now we want to make sure we get the first one right and perfect. This is a project that started here in London, that works with English producers from north to south, east to west, mountains to the sea. There are some very strong Valencian techniques that we use for the making of paella but we are here to promote English ingredients. My heart is in this project, and it is an English project.”
Arros QD: international potential
Arros QD has been anything but a flash in the pan opening, writes James Stagg.
The £4.3m project started some three years ago when Quique Dacosta approached Ibérica and InPaella chief executive Marcos Fernandez with his vision for a restaurant based on rice.
It’s a restaurant designed to be the hub of a group of restaurants in international capitals, with an extensive back of house area to facilitate the research and development required for roll out.
Fernandez explains: “We’ve put a lot of technology into this, working to minimise the risk in recipes. Quique has been working on the development of this for three years with us, and two or three years before that.”
That reduction of risk includes the use of five Mimcook automatic paella cookers – alongside the theatrics of the open-wood fire – that are programmed with recipes devised by group head chef Richard De La Cruz. The recipes developed in London can then be employed in any other site to create consistent dishes.
“It helps us maintain the standards,” De La Cruz explains. “Let’s be frank, we’re
not in Valencia, so we don’t have a huge amount of expertise here. It will mean one chef can run the entire section of automatic paella burners. Everything is crystal clear.”
Although the international roll out won’t happen until London has fully bedded in, the structure is in place to facilitate the growth.
Former Hakkasan general manager Aurelien Pottier has been brought in as managing director, with his experience of building brands and exporting concepts. Meanwhile, Fernandez has gained investment from friends and family in what he describes as a high-net-worth crowdfund that doubles as an international network of influencers.
“We have footballers within our ranks and a number of CEOs, including presidents of PepsiCo, and the ex-CEO of Intel. “Instead of going for two or three funders we’ve gone for a larger group. What that does for us is create a good PR tool; it’s a good source of knowledge and, as we grow, it opens doors for us in other countries.”
Though there are no firm plans for the next opening as yet, Fernandez is more focused on Asia than the west, since rice is part of the everyday diet, albeit in different dishes. “Tokyo has more flamenco schools than anywhere in the world, so there’s a good link with Spain,” he says.
Wherever Arros QD expands, the business won’t compromise on the quality
of the product, thanks to the technology and commitment to authenticity.
Typical Arros QD dishes
• Yuca charcoal, deep-fried cassava and ‘pericana’ emulsion £6
• Cheese stone, Parmesan, Manchego cream with cocoa butter £5
• Truffle bomb, ‘liquid’ potato soufflé with truffle ‘spaghetti’ £12
• Kale citrus salad, mixed Valencian citruses, kale and three-tomato dressing £14
• Fried red soft-shell crab and spicy mayo £14
• Smoky oysters, shiso leaves and coconut purée £5 each
Rice cooked the traditional way, in a paella pan over a wood fire (serves two)
• Mediterranean, noras aïoli, cuttlefish, tiger prawn and monkfish £50
• Paella Valenciana with traditional aïoli, rabbit, chicken, garrafo bean and rosemary £35
Rice cooked in small, rectangular ‘chapas’ pans (per person)
• Black squid ink rice, oyster aïoli, calamari, artichokes and dill £16
• Wood pigeon breast, porcini aïoli, wild mushrooms and rosemary £24
• Black ash rice with truffle £28
• Giant cookie, macadamia nuts with Araguani chocolate £11
• Cheesecake, forest fruit syrup, biscuit ice-cream and almond paper £11
• Pistachio, cocoa craquer and pistachio sponge £11