In recent years, Spain’s most famous dish has left behind its humble origins as a saffron-and-rice feast for the family and transformed into a highbrow delicacy for the sophisticated set. Crowned with luxurious toppings, cooked in specialty ovens, and brightened with an international array of spices, today’s complex paellas have become vehicles for happening chefs to show off their skills. Grab a spoon—preferably wooden—and dig into the most memorable paellas in town.
The Best! Perry Hendrix pours the braising liquid from a paprika-roasted pork shoulder over sofrito-sauced rice and bakes the smoky mix in a wood-fired oven until every grain crisps up like a miniature chicharrón. He then gilds his rice with, chicken confit, snail boudin, mussels, fennel, and a slightly acidic tangerine aïoli, laying on enough richness to rival the most extravagant of French cassoulets. The spellbinding results fuse Old World Spanish soul and American ingenuity ($24). 615 W. Randolph St., 312-377-2002
Think of this Macanese specialty as paella gone playfully rogue. Abraham Conlon bakes jasmine rice in a clay pot—not the traditional shallow steel pan—mixes in salted duck, and piles on Chinese and Portuguese goodies, including sausage, jumbo prawns, and char siu pork. Conlon’s inspired use of vinegar-soaked raisins and oil-cured black olives results in a piquant, briny-sweet relish that marries the brightness of Spanish olive oil with the dark fermented notes of an aged sherry ($48). 2957 W. Diversey Ave., 773-661-9170
Pascal Lorange says he perfected his sunny paella while sailing around the world as a personal chef for singer Julio Iglesias. No wonder this dish sings. Texturally, it feels like a creamy Italian risotto, but the spice-rubbed shrimp and calamari prove so fragrant you’d swear they spent the weekend in Provence bathing in a cloud of lavender, thyme, and rosemary. Add the delightful Spanish saffron aïoli and you have something rare: a light, healthy riff on a dark, hunky classic ($29). 104 E. Oak St., 312-445-0060
Cory Morris’s meaty paella certainly has crunch. By rendering highly absorbent short-grained Calasparra rice in chorizo fat, he forms a beautiful crimson-colored underbelly of socarrat (the thin crust of caramelized rice that sticks to the bottom of a paella pan). But that crispness turns wonderfully supple as you move your way up the pan, ensnaring garlicky tufts of chicken ropa, plump chorizo, and thick slices of juicy sous vide chicken that add a touch of subtlety to a dish brimming with saffron and spices ($42). 638 S. Michigan Ave., 312-765-0524