Here’s a question I hear again and again: After the Basque food boom and the culinary revolution sparked by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli in Catalonia, what’s the next great dining destination in Spain? Right now, all compasses point to El Levante, a region along the eastern coast that includes the provinces of Valencia and Alicante. Famous for its vegetable gardens and orange groves, rice paddies and fishing ports, El Levante is where Spanish cuisine shows off its vibrantly Mediterranean side. Here, too, a new generation of chefs is marrying traditional flavors with futuristic techniques, and, in many cases, completely reimagining the area’s numerous rice dishes—including its famous paella. Curious to see what these contemporary chefs are doing with rice, I recently charted a trip from Valencia south to Alicante that would take me to some of the region’s most noteworthy restaurants—and one incredible pastry shop.
Valencia Comes of Age
My odyssey began in Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city and the site of an ongoing, dramatic urban renewal. One major catalyst for Valencia’s boom was the City of Arts and Sciences, a futuristic museum and cultural complex partly designed by the city’s visionary son, Santiago Calatrava, and completed in 2005. Valencia is also constructing a glitzy marina and waterfront area in preparation for the America’s Cup this summer. Style-watchers who are proclaiming the city the next Barcelona are not far off their mark, though I rather miss Valencia’s former ramshackle charm.
Before plunging into the world of avant-garde architecture and experimental cuisine, I decided to revisit some of Valencia’s classic attractions. I ambled through the main market, Mercado Central, housed in a soaring Art Nouveau building; sipped some horchata, a milky drink made with pressed tiger nuts, at Horchatería el Siglo; then headed over to the Gothic chapel at the cathedral to peek at what some consider to be the remains of the Holy Grail.