As I’m sure most large cities do, Austin has hidden gems in terms of restaurants, watering holes and traditions. Sunday night paella at Vino Vino is a mixture of all three.
Paella. I don’t recall the first time I had it, but I know it was before I left Idaho. I grew up in Boise where there is a healthy Basque population and culture. So even though I ate a lot of potatoes (still do) I was also exposed to a lot of Basque and other Spanish-influenced cuisine. Lucky me.
It seems every major and influential culinary culture has a dish like paella. In Cajun-Creole cuisine it is gumbo or jambalaya; in France, it is ratatouille; in America, I believe we call it a… casserole? It’s the practice of taking what’s on hand, as in seasonal vegetables and whatever you gathered, hunted or fished that day, and putting it together with readily available staples and local seasonings and spices. Of course these signature dishes have suggested ingredients, but go from recipe to recipe, restaurant to restaurant, and family to family, and you’ll see a lot of variation in terms of ingredients, if not execution.
In modern America, we use Velveeta and tater tots, but a century ago it was probably venison and, in Idaho at least, potatoes.
When you consider the roots and history involved, there’s something very communal about a dish like paella, which is why it’s so wonderful to share with friends. This recipe was a staple of sustenance, so much so that it has been preserved and passed down for centuries. Scooping a spoonful onto your plate or into your bowl is experiencing history.
Vino Vino is a wine bar in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin. I discovered it shortly after moving here. There is little décor, just large mirrors lining one wall and racks and racks of wine lining the other three. It’s a sight to behold. My visits usually entail getting a table, and then walking the walls to find just the right bottle, as every one is labeled with a note card describing it. Some of my favorite wines were discovered at Vino Vino using this method.
I learned about paella night via word of mouth, but don’t remember the exact path. All I know is I know, and I am grateful. A reservation is wise. I always make one. Paella is served at 7:00 p.m. on the nose. It is cooked in and served from traditional 3-foot paellas that are casually but ceremoniously carried by two people from the kitchen to rest on the bar. Plates are served from there. I always experience anxiety at this point, because even though I’ve placed my order, I’m afraid the paella might somehow be gone, consumed by the gluttonous greed of others before my server claims my portion.
Every time I have gone, there have been two paellas: seafood and meat. I have both (you can do a half-and-half order, calm down). This past Sunday night the seafood option was shrimp and mussels and something else, which I regret to say, I can’t remember. In the past it’s been scallops, squid and various fish. The meat paella was three kinds of pork, topped with short ribs. Again, in the past they’ve included rabbit, sausage and myriad other meats.
The selections on my most recent trip did not disappoint. Joel and I invited another couple to join us. We started off with Vino Vino’s charcuterie plate, which is also a rotating selection. We enjoyed duck ham, Wagyu beef terrine, and lamb sausage. It was all brilliant.
The wine we selected was the 2012 nebbiolo from Negro Angelo. It is light-bodied and very well-balanced, proven by its going very well with meat and seafood paella. The nose was very blackberry to me. It was easy to drink – not a show stealer. It’s as if this wine knew and appreciated that the paella was the star and its job was to enhance. Here is some additional info on the wine and the estate.
As with Cotes du Rhone, plastic cups and pizza at a picnic table, paella night is another picturesque example of how food, wine and friends complement one another. You can certainly enjoy them separately, but when you bring them all together, something magical happens. And in the case of a traditional dish like paella, I think past generations of families and friends are looking down and smiling on the occasion.