RIYADH: If, like many in the region, your favorite holiday destination is Spain’s Mediterranean coast, you might well miss a taste of its regional cuisine once back in the Kingdom.
For those in Riyadh, Azure Restaurant, located in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Al-Olaya, has you covered.
Azure once offered a Greek and Turkish menu, but was relaunched last month with a new focus: “comforting and traditionally inspired” Spanish home cooking, with a primary focus on seafood, “in an ambience offering comfort and privacy suitable for Saudi couples and families.”
As for the latter, the restaurant is well laid out, with private and communal dining rooms of varying sizes, all elegantly decorated with abstract artwork, and all with unobstructed views of the large open kitchen presided over by the Chef Ramon Cantos.
Cantos was born in Madrid but honed his culinary skills in Alicante on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, he told us over a glass of Azure Azul’s signature mocktail, which is an exquisite shade of turquoise, with a very unusual and made with an infusion of wild herbs and served over ice, with a bubble on top.
“I learned cooking from my mother and my grandmother,” Cantos said. “They both loved cooking delicious meals for their family and I still have that same joy when I cook every day. Most of the dishes I serve here are based on their recipes. But I developed my culinary skills in Alicante, in the Murcia region of Spain, famous for its seafood dishes.”
The main feature of any Spanish seafood restaurant is of course paella – rice cooked in a large flat pan with seafood or other meats.
“We make our paella individually for each table,” Cantos informed us. “But it takes about 30 minutes, so that’s when you can enjoy some of our tapas.”
Cantos served us a succession of tasty starters from Azure, each beautifully presented: Croquettes stuffed with chicken with béchamel sauce; braised prawns with chili flakes; tender octopus grilled with paprika on a bed of mashed potatoes; Spanish omelet slices; and — its piece de resistance — tuna tartare with fresh salad presented under a glass dome filled with oud smoke, infusing the dish with its subtle flavor and adding to the glamor of the occasion. That said, it only had a tiny amount of tuna in it, which is either a curse or a blessing, depending on whether you like raw fish.
The tapas were accompanied by toasted, rustic and dense whole wheat Barceloneta bread, along with finely chopped tomatoes and olives and Cantos aioli.
Key to each dish’s success was their simplicity, a welcome change from the trend of high-end restaurants trying to outdo themselves in terms of overly involved “fusion” cuisine.
“(Simplicity) is exactly what we want to achieve here,” Ramon said. “Just use a few high quality ingredients cooked as they would be in a good home kitchen in Spain.”
The highlight of the meal, predictably, was the Paella de Cantos, which he proudly brought to the table still sizzling in the pan, tossing the rice and seafood together before serving.
“It’s important because the rice tends to be drier on top and moister on the bottom because it’s cooked on the stove without a lid,” he told us. “When mixed, you get exactly the right texture. I cook the rice in my own broth which I prepare with fish bones and lobster and shrimp shells.
The short grain Valencian rice was a yellowish red, infused with tomato, garlic, saffron and the aforementioned fresh broth, and combined with generous amounts of lobster, prawns and calamari – all shelled, to our great relief.
The quantity was modest – which was good considering all the tapas we had consumed. The quality was fantastic; Simple, again, but every ingredient was fresh and cooked to perfection.
My companion and I were in no rush to finish the meal enjoying each of Cantos’ creations. Over two hours passed before we finished with a dessert of churros – light, crispy fingers of fried dough dipped in luscious melted chocolate. Any thought of diets and waistlines went straight out the window.
Azure offers a true taste of Mediterranean Spain in a comfortable and stylish venue and is recommended for a romantic evening or a large family celebration.