The Valencian rice-based specialty known as paella is, to its core, a social dish: traditionally cooked over an open fire in a giant round paella pan called a paellera, the cooking of paella is an occasion to gather together to socialize and enjoy the intensifying aroma of the meal.

In fact, paella is such a community-driven meal that chefs have repeatedly vied to break records for feeding the greatest number of people out of the same paellera. Fun fact: One such feat was performed by Valencian Juan Galbis in 1992, when Galbis fed paella to some 100,000 people using more than 11,000 pounds of rice.

Venga Paella, which quietly opened for lunch service on October 7, does not go so far as to serve its paella out of a communal paellera. But in all other respects, Venga Paella preserves a thoroughly Catalonian tradition and aesthetic, true to the roots of executive chef and owner Eduardo Balaguer.

Balaguer, 47, has been the proprietor of a catering business (also called Venga Paella) for a decade. Before that, he spent a summer working at his family’s paella restaurant in Valencia, Spain, and traveling around the region delving into its deep culinary tradition. When it comes to authentic paella chefs, Balaguer is as much of a real deal as you can hope to encounter outside of Spain.

That authenticity comes through clearly in Venga Paella’s food. The menu is short and straightforward, offering a selection of tapas-style appetizers including prawns in a sherry garlic reduction ($11) and a house salad ($4 for a small, $7 for a large) and three paella options ($10 – $12).

Of the tapas offerings, I tried the tortilla ($7), a Spanish-style frittata made with potato, egg and onion and served with aioli. The frittata was mild and nicely layered, though I wished the dollop of aioli were more sizable. The piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, caramelized onion and green olives ($7) were a more distinct-tasting opener; the goat cheese was a nice sharp contrast to the sweetness of the peppers.

Then came the stars of the evening: Venga Paella’s paella. The individual paella servings were hearty, the quality impeccable. The traditional paella, flavored with saffron and smoked paprika and sprinkled throughout with prawns, calamari, mussels, clams and pork chorizo, had a bright, fresh taste and a good ratio of rice versus bivalve-y morsels. Meanwhile, the paella de arroz negro, which gets its distinct black hue thanks to the addition of black squid ink, was mouth-wateringly savory in a way more reminiscent of risotto. Both came with a side of mixed greens, paired exceedingly well with beer and the house-made sangria, and, at $12, were well-priced for their portions. Venga Paella also makes a vegan paella that substitutes organic mixed veggies and chiles for the sea and land animals.

The dessert menu is as uncomplicated as the rest of the menu: a choice of Manchego con Membrillo, a classic Spanish pairing of Manchego cheese topped with thick slivers of quince paste, then drizzled with honey; and a sweet, custardy flan. The two dessert offerings make a nice choice for diners who want either a more mild dessert — really almost an after-dinner palate-cleanser — or a more usual dessert option.

Given Balaguer’s decade-long experience making paella in the kitchen, the brick-and-mortar version of Venga Paella has the food down pat. It’s the aspects of the restaurant that are not associated with Balaguer’s catering experience, i.e. the ambiance and service, that need time to develop. My friend and I found that the serving staff seemed unfamiliar with the specifics of the menu, such as what kind of wine the sangria was made with, and the timing was off (our paella arrived when we were only halfway through our tapas) — though we did sit down to Venga Paella’s very first dinner service, so it’s safe to expect that the service will improve over subsequent lunch and dinner seatings.

And, while the 49-seat taverna-style restaurant was intimately lit with romantic string lights and candles, the communal tables and gray cement floor make Venga Paella fall short of a top-notch Friday night date spot, at least for now. (Currently, Venga Paella is closed on Saturdays and Sundays because Balaguer continues to run the catering business on weekends.)

When it comes to lunch, though — especially if you happen to work in Jack London or the Warehouse District — the paella shines. You can even order it to go or bring a bunch of servings back to the office to serve communally, in the Catalonian tradition.

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IF YOU GO:

Venga Paella

WHERE: 229 Brush St. (at 3rd St.), Oakland
HOURS: Monday through Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Friday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Saturday and Sundays
PHONE: (510) 628-0018
MORE INFO: www.vengapaella.com

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Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact goingout@oaklandlocal.com.

2 Responses

  1. susan

    I beg to differ about the ambiance. I went to Eduardo’s opening and thought very specifically when I walked in that it would be a great date place. Just too bad he’s not open more evenings yet. After all — if the date is at all worthwhile, you sure aren’t gonna be lookin’ at the floor, and even a communal table can work to your benefit. You just have to know how to handle the date! 🙂

    Reply
  2. Bonnie

    True that, Susan, true that. Any place can be a good date place if the date is good… especially a place that serves great food.

    Reply

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