RIYADH: If, like many in the region, your favorite vacation destination is Spain’s Mediterranean coast, you might well miss the taste of its regional cuisine when back in the Kingdom.
For those in Riyadh, Azure restaurant, located in the Hyatt Regency hotel in Al-Olaya, has you covered.
Azure used to offer a Greek and Turkish menu, but was relaunched last month with a new objective: “Heartwarming and traditionally-inspired” Spanish home cooking, primarily focused on seafood, “in an ambiance with suitable comfort and privacy for Saudi couples and families.”
In respect of the latter, the restaurant is well laid out, with private and shared dining areas of various sizes, all elegantly decorated with works of abstract art, and all having a clear view of the large open kitchen presided over by 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’s signature mocktail Azul, which is an exquisite shade of turquoise, highly unusual in taste, and made with an infusion of wild herbs and served on ice, with a bubble on top.
“I learned cooking from my mother and grandmother,” Cantos said. “They both loved making delicious meals for their family and I still have that same joy when I’m cooking every day. Many 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, which is famous for its seafood dishes.”
The main feature of any Spanish seafood eatery is of course paella — Rice cooked in a large flat pan with seafood or other meats.
“We make our paella individually for every table”, Cantos informed us. “But it takes about 30 minutes, so that’s when you can enjoy a few of our tapas.”
Cantos served us a succession of Azure’s tasty starters, each lovingly presented: Croquettes stuffed with chicken in bechamel sauce; braised prawns with chili flakes; tender grilled octopus with paprika on a bed of mashed potato; slices of Spanish omelet; and — his pièce de resistance — tuna tartare with fresh salad presented under a glass dome filled with oud smoke, infusing the dish with its subtle taste and adding to the glamour of the occasion. Having said that, it contained only a tiny amount of tuna, which is either a curse or a blessing, depending on whether you enjoy raw fish.
The tapas were accompanied by toasted Barceloneta wholewheat bread, rustic and dense, along with finely chopped tomatoes and olives and Cantos’ own aioli.
The key to the success of each dish was their simplicity, a welcome change to the tendency of upmarket restaurants to try and outdo one another in terms of over-involved ‘fusion’ cooking.
“(Simplicity) is exactly what we want to achieve here”, Ramon said. “Just using a few high-quality ingredients cooked as they would be in a good family kitchen in Spain.”
The highlight of the meal, as you might expect, was Cantos’ paella, which he proudly brought to the table still sizzling in the pan, mixing the rice and seafood prior to serving.
“This is important because the rice tends to be drier on top and moist underneath, as it’s cooked on the stove without a lid,” he told us. “When it’s mixed, you get exactly the right texture. I cook the rice in my own stock which I make using fishbones and the shells of lobsters and prawns.”
The short-grained Valencian rice was a yellowish red, infused with tomato, garlic, saffron and the aforementioned fresh stock, and combined with generous quantities of lobster, prawns and calamari — all peeled, to our relief.
The quantity was modest — which was fine given all the tapas we had consumed. The quality was fantastic; uncomplicated, again, but each ingredient was fresh and cooked to perfection.
My companion and I were in no rush to finish the meal, savoring each of Cantos’ creations. Over two hours had passed before we concluded with a dessert of churros — light, crispy fingers of deep-fried dough dipped in luscious melted chocolate. Any thought of diets and waistlines went straight out the window.
Azure provides a genuine taste of Mediterranean Spain in a comfortable and stylish venue and is recommended for a romantic evening out or a big family celebration.