Paella: Wine Country’s Party in a Pan

Paella from Jose Castaneda

The father of jambalaya, Spanish paella  is a one-pot, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sort of dish that improves with ingredients and friends to share it with. “There’s something so sweet about it, paella is a seasonal dish and incorporates whatever you have on hand,” said Gerard Nebesky of Gerard’s Paella.

The perfect party food, you’ll find four, five and even 10-foot paella (pronounced pie-a-yah) pans smoking throughout Wine Country throughout the summer event season. Historically a  peasant dish of rice and game (chicken, rabbit, duck or snails), it was eaten communally from the pan. Paella’s gone high-brown since then, however, incorporating the fruits of the sea and a one of the world’s most expensive ingredients: saffron.

At it’s heart, however, its a social event waiting to happen. Here are some of the best places to find piping hot paella throughout the North Bay….

Jose Castaneda, The Paella Guy: Jose doesn’t just make paella, he orchestrates it. A serious connoisseur of traditional Spanish paella, Castaneda has spent 15 years perfecting every aspect of the dish — from the his homemade stock and chorizo to actually growing his own saffron. And don’t even get him started on the four to five days it takes to make the sofrito (garlic, onions, tomatoes, and other aromatic spices that sauté for hours or longer). A former high-tech sales rep, Castaneda spent much of his time on the road, immersing himself on lonely nights away from home with local cuisine. He now owns two Mexican grocery stores, Castaneda’s in Windsor and El Toro (113 Healdsburg Avenue, Healdsburg, 431-9910) that have become well-known in foodie circles.

Jose Castaneda, the Paella Guy

Castaneda makes a large pan of paella each Friday afternoon outside his Windsor store. “I’ve tried many recipes, but what I’ve found is that people’s perception of paella — especially when they go to Spain– is different that what we eat here. Traditional Spanish paella is all about the rice. Americans want a full flavor and they want prawns and the protein, so I make a very full-flavored paella” said Castaneda. While cooking, he gently arranges the langoustines, mussels, clams, prawns, peppers, lemon slices and shrimp with tweezer-perfect accuracy in concentric circles.

From start to finish, the process takes about an hour, during which the air is perfumed tauntingly with garlic, onions, and spices, causing curious passersby ask when the dish will be ready. “I come every week,” said one fan, looking on hungrily.   Mid-conversation, as we waited, he breaks away at some imperceptible sound. “Hear the crackle?” The tell-tale sign that paella is finished: a perfect socarrat, or crispy (bun not burnt) crust that forms on the bottom of the paella pan. And not a single prawn out of place, as pretty as it is delicious.

You can find Castaneda’s paella each Friday afternoon after 4:30pm at Castenada’s Market, 8465 Old Redwood Hwy, Windsor, (707) 838-8820. He’ll also be serving up paella at the upcoming Catalan Festival at Gloria Ferrar, July 24 and 25, and is available for private events at paellaguy.com.

Gerard’s Paella: A shock of blonde surfer-dude curls are often all you can see of paella-master Gerard Nebesky through the saffron-scented steam and oogling crowds gathered around his five-foot pans. He’s used to the attention, and in fact it’s kind of his raison d’etre.  “I’m kind of a social creature,” said the Occidental-based chef, who’s as much outdoor adventurer as cook. “The reason paella is so successful is because it takes a couple of hours to make it and while I’m doing that, it’s me talking with people about my trips to Spain or winemaking. People just love to go toe to toe on storytelling. It’s mesmerizing standing around and you get a real community. Everyone starts reflecting and all these anecdotes start coming out,” Nebesky added. “Socially, the paella is always successful.”

But it isn’t just his stories of daring-do across several continents that captivate. Nebesky’s paella bested culinary rock star Bobby Flay several years ago on his show, “Throwdown”, and has become the local posterboy for the Spanish one-pot dish, book months in advance for his services. “He’s made it for 15 years and was set to win that day. But his was more of a jambalaya. We do ours completely traditional. Hey, we don’t want Spaniards showing up at our  events and busting our chops,” he said.

Two of his favorite paellas: Black paella, which uses squid ink to color the rice a dark purplish-black shade, and his vegetarian paella, made with an ever-rotating lineup of seasonal produce including beans, squash, peppers, asparagus and plenty of garlic.

You can find Gerard at the Occidental Farmer’s Market most Fridays, and he’ll be at the California State Fair in Sacramento with his impressive 10-foot pans July 14-August 1. Late this summer, Nebesky is planning a special community paella event in Occidental (check his site for details( gerardspaella.com) and he’ll return to the Healdsburg outpost of Oakville Grocery where he’s been a Tuesday night regular for several years.

Jackson’s Bar & Oven: Taking advantage of his massive wood-fired oven, Chef Josh Silvers recently added paella to his summer menu. the dish is made with saffron rice, prawns, mussels, peas, Spanish chorizo and piquillo peppers. “I just love the comforting flavor of this dish right now,” said Silvers. 135 Fourth Street, Santa Rosa, 545-6900

Paella del Reyes: Chef Tom Meckfessel is one of the only paella-makers to use a wood-fired grill for his portable paella parties throughout Wine Country. Using authentic Bomba or Calasparra rice from Spain, along with bilbao chorizo and local chicken, wild caught prawns and Hog Island shellfish, Tom’s artisan paella is a top pick. “It’s all about the rice,” said Meckfessel. Available for parties: 415-990-9653 or paelladelreyes.com.

Zuzu Restaurant: Locals can’t say enough about Chef Tamura’s authentic Paella del Dia made with pricey Spanish Bomba rice after 4pm daily. 829 Main St., Napa, 224-8555.

Vineyards Inn: This Kenwood tapas-spot features authentic Spanish dishes, including a paella made with chicken, clams, mussels and housemade chorizo or a fish, calamari and clam version. 8445 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, 833-4500.

Author: biteclub

Food Dining and Restaurants in Sonoma County and beyond, BiteClubEats.com is Wine Country dining with Drive-Thru Sensibility.

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3 Comments

  1. Any chance we get we are at events where Gerard is the main event, and have never been let down. In two words: SIMPLY AMAZING.
    We recently went to Vineyard Inn for a nice low key meal and were very pleased with the paella. We also popped into Jackson’s after word of paella being served there hit the streets and although we were not pleased with our dish we have to give the cook applause for trying. Lack of seasoning and product is a common mistake when one is not in tune with any dish. Anyone can cook a pizza and it will be good, but there has to be a level of respect for paella that some places just don’t have.

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  2. I love Gerard’s especially because he makes a vegetarian paella. I wish more chef’s would prepare paella without shellfish. I know I am not the only paella lover out there who is allergic to shellfish. I would totally eat a paella with chicken and chorizo, but our friend’s from the sea make it impossible! More shellfish-free paella, please!

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  3. I had Gerard’s paella at the Occidental Farmer’s market last year and it was AMAZING – I can’t wait to go back and have it again. But – have you actually tried the Paella at Jackson’s Bar and Oven? I am a total fan of Jackson’s Bar and Oven – have been there for brunch twice and dinner three times, and every time the dish I ordered was perfect. Their wild mushroom pizza is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. But, last time we were there, my husband ordered the paella, and we were totally underwhelmed. We actually almost sent it back because it, in no way, resembled paella….but he was so hungry that he ate it anyway. To give them credit, it wasn’t a bad tasting dish or anything – the fish, sausage, and rice was all tasty. It’s just that it was essentially a bed of very lightly flavored rice (looked almost like white rice) with a somewhat meager portion of shrimp, mussels, and sausage on top. It wasn’t the amazing, colorful, flavorful, almost stew-like concoction that Gerard serves, or that I’ve had on other occassions. To the credit of Jackson’s Bar and Oven, we did mention that we thought the dish was sub-par after the waitress asked us how everything was, and when we did, the waitress was really sweet and actually gave us a free dessert even though he had eaten the entire dish. So, don’t let this review stop you from going to Jackson’s Bar and Oven, b/c I love that place – just be cautious about ordering the paella unless there is evidence that they’ve changed their recipe, esp. given that there are so many other, less expensive and WAY yummier things on their menu. And definitely get those beingets for dessert – delish!!

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