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Our experience dining at Picasso’s Tapas and Restaurant in San Jose had gone so well, that my friend and I were still miring in our Spanish-food craving phase. The tradeoff of trying many tapas is that you don’t get to try the paella, which is traditionally doled out in massive servings for at least 2. Realistically, if you’re getting a few more tapas to share, the paella for two can usually feed 4 easily. We had read so many raves about both the black and the seafood paella at Picasso’s and had been unable to try either.

To make up for our paella deprivation, we both thought about checking out another tapas establishment, this time just focusing on the paella and maybe one other tapa as an appetizer at the most. Great idea, right? We thought so too. So the following weekend, we decided to bookend our tapas experience with a spot in San Francisco this time. Of course, Zarzuella jumped off the charts and was impossible to ignore.

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The menu was pretty streamlined, which was a blessing, since we did not have to feel deprived of all the other tapas option at this establishment! We honed into our focus-zone of paellas, and found one that appealed to both of us – a mixed seafood paella.

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Normally the complimentary bread isn’t really much to write home about, and Zarzuella was not an exception. Good bread, but you know, good bread. What was rather amazing was the complimentary bowl of olive yumminess. Oh the tart bites: a bit of a pucker, a bit of concentration maneuvering around the pit, and just a bit of chew. Rather a treat with the bread and olive oil, lightly salted. Ah.

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We were feeling particularly adventurous. When our server rattled off a long list of the day’s specials, we latched onto one: small fish dipped in a light batter and deep fried. Our friendly server kept highlighting how fresh the fish was, and that we wouldn’t regret the choice. A shrug and a why-not later, we were faced with a heap of fritter-like whole fish fries, with the requisite lemon wedges, piled casually onto an inverted (and hollowed out) pyramid vessel. I quite liked the service dish myself.

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I don’t remember what the fish were. Maybe smelt? They were smelt-sized for sure. Maybe a smelt cousin? Definitely a smelt-like bone structure, but I am not sure that it tasted like smelt. The fish was flaky, almost like teeny baby cod. The fish was surprisingly close in shape, taste and texture to a favorite fish of mine from Bangladesh – a fresh water fish we can “kajoli” or “batashi” (depending on whether they are golden or silver or what size they are or any number of other reasons none of which I am familiar with). We just never deep fry that particular fish because its considered so delicate, and so we can taste the fresh flavors without masking with a heavy handed technique such as batter-frying.

But Zarzuella took all my preconceived notions to the shredder. Not only was the delicate flavors and textures of the fish amazingly well preserved, the batter-frying was not even as heavy handed and dominating as I had anticipated. The batter was lightweight and airy – almost a paper thin skin rather than a coat. The crisp was muted – there definitely was that one layer of crispiness, but no crunchiness. I am doing a terrible job of trying to explain it – but suffice it to say that this fish would have challenged all expectations of deep frying you hold dear.

The layer beneath the paper thin crisp was all flaky and moist fish. Exceptionally moist – not the soggy drippity mess of drowning in some marinade or sauce, but the genuine moistness of the fresh catch that has been minimally messed with! You can see how we picked the fish clean, savoring every crispy buttery lemony morsel.

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When the paella arrived, we were so eager to dig in, that all thoughts of capturing a shot prior to breaking into the dish had evaporated. So what you see here is after we were midway into inhaling the food. Flavorful, moist, with the rice just the right doneness that I prefer. Generous services of both seafood and peppers, all melding well together and highlighting each other. Did I mention how much I love a paella pan?

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So, was Zarzuella’s paella amazing? Yes. Did it hit the spot? Decidedly? Was it by far, hands down, the ultimate best paella I have had the pleasure of tasting? No – that would be the paella at Cascal, Mountain View (sorry SFers). Did that stop be from running back for seconds and picking at all the bits and pieces of amazing good eats that were stuck to the paella pan? Hahah, are you kidding?

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Ah Zarzuella – such a satisfying foray into your culinary kingdom, an adventure fraught with the perils of continually being distracted by all the other amazing sounding tapas available, and yet with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow as the lip-smacking stick-to-your-ribs goodness of the food that you do end up sampling!

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