Ocean-block eatery goes all out when it comes to paella
The Spanish word for saffron is azafrán. A member of the iris family, saffron is harvested from the Crocus sativus flower. The deep-red stigmas are collected and dried as a seasoning and food coloring. It takes about 210,000 of those tiny orange threads to yield one pound of saffron – which retails for anywhere between $2,000 and $10,000. And it is a required ingredient in traditional Valencian paella.
Back when I was a skinny (did say waaayy back…?), long-haired keyboard player at a cavernous rock ‘n’ roll club in Ocean City, big restaurants (akin to what some might call “food halls”) were king. The Bonfire. Embers. Mario’s. Melvin’s. Phillips. Paul Revere. Big, noisy, beachy rooms full of happy vacationers. Some had buffets; others dished up heaping plates of comfort food. One of my favorites from that era was Libby’s on Fenwick Island. The big white structure was all about polka dots and families with about a million kids scarfing down everything from pancakes to chicken to burgers.
The restaurant was owned and operated by the late Ruth Steele, and the concept became so popular that she opened another near Rehoboth Beach in 1970 in the space now occupied by Crabby Dick’s. It wasn’t long before Libby’s Cottage in Rehoboth morphed into the Lamp Post restaurant in 1979. Ruth’s grandsons Rich and Mark literally grew up there, doing everything from washing dishes to running food to seating guests. In December 2002 they decided to go out on their own and open what would become the wildly popular Café Azafrán in Lewes (in the space where Eggcellent restaurant is now). The Mediterranean-flavored menu reflected Mark’s travels abroad as Rich kept a close eye on the kitchen. Things did so well in Lewes that in 2010 they opened a second Café Azafrán on the ocean block of Rehoboth’s Baltimore Avenue. In 2013, they closed the Lewes location in order to concentrate on the success of the Rehoboth spot. And just a few years ago, Rich returned to his roots by opening Olive & Oats, a mini-Azafrán right next door to their original Lewes location on Market Street.
So back to our Spanish lesson. (You thought I forgot, didn’t you?) Valencian paella – if it’s made properly – is considered a delicacy around the world. And for good reason. Rather than risk the possible “restaurantization” of his cherished recipe as a nightly menu offering, Steele reserves the construction of his paella for reservations-only occasions. He generally offers one or two a week at the height of the season, and they sometimes even pop up in the winter. Steele brings out the big guns, sprinkling upwards of $120 worth of saffron onto the sizzling contents of a 4-foot-diameter pan teeming with onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, green beans, mushrooms, the exceptionally absorbent Arroz Calasparra rice imported from Spain, along with generous portions of snow-white calamari, spicy chorizo, scallops, shrimp, chicken, clams and Indian River mussels. The house-made stock is generously spiced to complement the mélange of delicate proteins. When it’s ready – and only Chef Richard knows when that occurs – heaping plates of the impossibly fresh concoction are distributed to all in the room. It’s not unusual to see attendees leaving with carryout containers for what will probably be a late-night snack or the innards of an omelet the next morning.
Rich has been performing the hallowed paella ceremony for more than eight years, and you can stay informed about the off-season pop-up feasts simply by entering your email address at their website. Café Azafrán is open every day except Sunday. Happy hour is still from 3 ‘til 5 p.m., and dinner starts at 5. For what it’s worth, my pick hits on the regular menu include the still-crispy haricots verts bubbled in blue cheese, hazelnuts and butter; the Niçoise salad; and the veal sausage simmered with plump cannellinis. Lewes’ Olive & Oats is open for breakfast every morning from 8 to 11 and for lunch from 11 ‘til 3 p.m.
Café Azafrán is yet another longtime Cape Region eatery that has managed to brave the hardships of the past couple of years. So get out there and support them and all the others. If you select carefully, your reward will be happy dining just steps from the ocean.