Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch, 5:30 to 11 p.m. for dinner. AE, CB, MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Main dishes at lunch about $5 to $7, at dinner $7 to $15.
Put Paella on your list, somewhere in the middle. Group it with those restaurants off the beaten track that are neither first rank nor best buys, but promise a change of pace and a favorite dish or two.
Paella is the kind of restaurant one might miss altogether, since it is downstairs and overshadowed by the fast food establishment that yanks your attention at street level. It looks a slick and glassy extension of the burger house house upstairs, and even when you enter, it hides its restaurant pretensions behind a bar. At night the lights are jaundice yellow, and the bar stools have been better populated than the tables. But beneath the brassy exterior is a heart of bold Latin character.
A few Latin artifacts hang on the walls, but mirrors predominate. The mirrors, however, have been painstakingly edged with semicircles of tile to match the floor pattern. It is in the same vein as those handkerchiefs hand-rolled with thousands of tiny stitches that once blinded peasant seamstresses, or towers built of 30 million pieces of colored glass. One can't help but be fascinated that anyone would bother to do all that.
And therein lies the quality of Paella. There is no wizard in the kitchen. There is not a master of subtlety and texture blending sauces. There are simply people putting enthusiastic hand-work into the making of soups and seafoods and stews and grills, culinary folk art.
Any restaurant that lists five homemade soups on its menu can be expected to come from good stock. And when the menu lists more soups than appetizers, you should take the hint. Garlic soup, for instance, is one of those devilish concoctions that can taste like dishwater with heartburn even in good restaurants. But Paella's version is made with chicken broth and lemon, tinged paprika red, thickened with bread and given texture from shreds of egg. It is a robust and tangy broth. White bean soup one night needed seasoning and more broth to moisten the beans, but was off to a good start. At one day's lunch the noodle soup with ham, chorizo and blood sausage warranted permanently installing it on the menu.
Lunch offers fried squid, tender and pleasant but not crisp enough, as well as the dinner appetizers of sliced fried chorizo -- simple and good -- and shrimps in garlic, decently cooked and heavily garlicked.
In moving downtown from upper Connecticut Avenue and dropping the "La" from its name, Paella has lost dinning room space and replaced its evening entertainment with recorded Latin and Italian music. It has also dropped its identification as an Argentinian restaurant, but forunately has left a few Argentinian dishes on the menu.
Argentinians do wonderful tricks with short ribs, paring away their fat and grilling them over a fire hot enough to crisp their surface. The inside is rare, juicy and tender. The crusty outside is seasoned with a garlic-herb-vinegar dressing called here "chimbi-churri." The short ribs at Paella, at $6.95, are one of the least expensive and best main dishes. For $9.95 at dinner you can embellish the short ribs with superb spicy blood sausage, chorizo, sweetbreads and kidneys, all charcoal-grilled. The kidneys are leathery, but otherwise it is a succulent array of meats served with fried potato slices that are excellent. For $10.95, the same treatment is given to steak. A lighter dish at the same price is trout, usually sauteed with mushrooms, garlic and pimientos with shrimps, white wine and brandy. Sometimes the trout is prepared Asturianos style, sauteed until the skin is crackling, covered with crisp bacon, mushrooms and shrimps. Viva Asturia! Otherwise, the menu is a repeat of most local Spanish menus: hake with green sauce, sole with lemon butter, seafood casserole and seafood mixed grill, chicken casseroles with sausage, saffron, wines and the like. Among meat dishes are rabbit in a thick spicy stew, a little stringy and oversalted one night, but exuding wonderful aroma. Tripe is stewed with sausage and tomatoes. Veal is sauteed with garlic, brandy and mushrooms or sauced with orange juice and Grand Marnier, as is duck. In other words, the kitchen makes bold use of wines, brandies, juices, cream, olive oil and tomatoes to moisten; garlic, saffron, pimiento, herbs and peppers to season; seafoods to garnish. Success is mixed, and the food is more satisfying than remarkable, for here and there the sauce is indifferent and the meat overcooked. And the paella, $8.95 at dinner and grandly served from a metal casserole, has had overcooked fish and oversalted rice on occasion, though the rice has consistently maintained a proper chewy texture.
It is pretty good food, though more expensive than it warrants, given the casual appointments and service. Also, Paella ought to respect its own kitchen more than to insult honest-to-goodness Spanish specialties with a garnish of frozen peas and carrots, as it sometimes does. Dessert is also short-changed, with only a tasteless flan or guava with cheese, despite the menu's more extensive suggestions that never seem to actually be available. The espresso is strong, the best of the endings.
Paella has a small wine list, fairly priced and appropriately Spinish. Of course, it serves sangria, a too-sweet version. If sweetness does not offend you, try the white sangria, a refreshing light wine with plenty of fruit -- oranges, apples, pears and limes -- and cinnamon sticks scenting it.
Since Paella has been nearly empty on my visits, it is hard to tell about the service. The waiter and waitress have been indulgent and agreeable. But the kitchen is slow, which often seems to follow when business is lax. And by the end of the meal the waiter has tired of hovering and is taking a rest, and you have trouble getting dessert or the check.
Paella seems the kind of restaurant that, since it exhibits innate ability, would probably be a better restaurant if it had more people to attend to. And given the need for earthy homestyle food in the downtown lunch belt, it could undoubtedly survive on the fallout from fast food fanatics who one day just can't pass by that olive oil and garlic aroma one more time on the way to buying a hamburger. Down they will stumble, to eat at a table with a cloth, to gorge on bean and ham soup, to savor the buttery flesh of a trout, to sip thick espresso. Even burger fans deserve a break today.