A Taste of Home

Former Valencia star Gaizka Mendieta has always had a big appetite for life – and his latest venture aims to bring perfect paella to the UK at a new London restaurant

WORDS Graham HunteR | PHOTOGRAPHY Eduardo Zappia

Food
Back when he was a footballer, it wasn’t hard to categorise Gaizka Mendieta. Exceptional Spanish midfielder. That would do it. The filigree detail might be that his perpetual-motion brilliance drove Valencia to consecutive Champions League finals. Or that he twice won UEFA’s midfielder of the year award.

Five times he played in a Valencia side that put four past Barcelona, and he scored when Los Che inflicted a historic 6-0 defeat on Real Madrid. Throw in a handful of world-class goals, notably in the 1999 Copa del Rey final against Atlético Madrid, and it’s clear why Valencia’s own website lauds Gaizka’s “iconic status”, celebrating his “dishevelled hair, exquisite touch and charismatic leadership”.

Try to pigeonhole him now and you’ll find the Basque as elusive as did any of the players who tried to contain his footballing effervescence for Castellón, Valencia, Lazio, Barcelona, Middlesbrough and Spain. His lifelong passion for music has made him an in-demand DJ, keeping audiences dancing in Ibiza’s summer clubs and the world-renowned Benicàssim International Festival. He’s a Liga ambassador, incisive TV football analyst, regular for the Barça Legends team and a fanatical cyclist. Now, however, he’s reinvented himself again. In style.

Mendieta, with friends and fellow investors, has opened Arros QD – a beautiful restaurant in the heart of London’s West End, dedicated to creating – and educating about – the best paella in Europe. Having sampled, I can promise you it’s exceptional.

Moreover, the new venture is powered by the skills, vision and excellence of multiple-Michelin-starred Spanish chef Quique Dacosta. It’s his award-winning brain behind the conception of just about everything at Arros QD – tastes, aesthetics, the cocktail list, the architecture, the cutlery and the space-age kitchen. Gaizka has been involved, in painstaking detail, across the near four years needed to bring this idea to the boil. So let’s allow him to explain things his way.

“Particularly in the UK, the whole concept of how we understand paella is wrong,” he grimaces. “Sadly, that often stems from what people have experienced in Spain itself, where a bar-restaurant simply emphasises the word ‘paella’ on their menu rather than respecting the original concept of the dish or striving for excellence of taste and texture. Many people are settling for something that’s just rice with added ingredients.”

Most aficionados would consider Valencia the spiritual home of paella, which, by the way, actually refers to the skillet in which the dish is made. Given that some of Dacosta’s Michelin stars are from the same south-eastern region of Spain, and Mendieta spent the most glorious years of his football career there, it’s little wonder the two men preach the gospel evangelically.

“It’s not exaggerated to make a Pep Guardiola comparison with head chef Quique Dacosta. In culinary terms, he’s a genius and super-obsessed with every single detail. But when he insists on something, it’s never egotistically because ‘I’m a genius!’ Everything has a clear, meaningful reason”
"My family were all about quality, how you cook something. Whatever you cook must be fresh, the best you can find from the local market, the local fishmonger"

“Growing up, the paella culture was in my home,” says Gaizka. “My step gran would make it with snails, artichokes, whatever was in season. El caldo (the stock) is the key and the ingredients on our menu are determinedly sourced locally.

“In paella, the rice should just be a medium – it absorbs the flavour. But some of the common mistakes that you will see anywhere people make this dish badly are a conglomeration of flavours that drown each other. There is also a requirement that the paella needs to be served to four or more people, and that it is often far too dry.

“You’ll see places serving chorizo, fish and meat all together in the one dish. Prawns, for example, have amazing flavour! Why on earth put chicken in with them? Honestly, that’s NOT paella, it’s just another rice dish.

“Another big difference is that you’ll often find paella dishes thick with rice while ours here are thinner and slightly crusty and the ingredients are bound together by the caldo.

‘Here’ is in London’s Fitzrovia, about a five or six-minute walk from Oxford Circus, but the vast, elegant, cool space is tucked away from the hurly-burly. Between the lines, in football parlance. Gaizka and I chat upstairs in the cocktail bar. Down below, the lunch hour is served at a cross-section of traditional tables, plus a row of New-York-in-the-1950s barstools where solo diners can eat on a lunch break and pre- or post-theatre. Across the first floor, it’s like being in a London club (without the membership fees) – quieter, more languorous dining for those with time on their hands and perhaps a lunch or dinner meeting to conduct.

Rice, naturally, is the leitmotif. Outlines of grains dot the menu and drinks lists and there are frames all over the walls with phrases in Morse code spelled out granularly. Rice rules. The ‘robot’ kitchen is Dacosta’s baby; a vast range of timings, heats and portion-sizes can be controlled automatically and the whole golden array of flames, aromas, steam –dotted with white-uniformed kitchen staff flitting about like clouds across a Mediterranean sky – plays out in front of your eyes because the kitchen is open and butts on to the downstairs dining area.

It’s glorious Food theatre.

Gaizka again: “It’s not exaggerated to make a Pep Guardiola comparison with Quique Dacosta. In culinary terms, he’s a genius and super-obsessed with every single detail. But when he insists on something, it’s never egotistically because ‘I’m a genius!’ Everything has a clear, meaningful reason.”

The kitchen-monster chef, now such an iconic presence on our televisions? Forget it. “This is Quique’s first restaurant venture outside Spain. The goal was to bring truly great paella to the UK. Since opening, we’ve had Spanish tourists coming here and admitting: ‘This is the best paella I’ve tasted,’ which is a big compliment.”

Mendieta, the second-best 1,000m athlete in Spain as a kid and a relentless runner as a world-class footballer, is still in great shape. Not a masterchef himself (“Pasta!”), he grew up in a house where nature, the land and seasons were respected. “My family were all about quality, how you cook something. Whatever you cook must be fresh, the best you can find from the local market, the local fishmonger. To this day, I’ve never ever bought or eaten anything in a tray, precooked or from the microwave.”

Was his introduction to English football’s food culture …bracing?

“Back then, it was a process of educating and changing,” he says, recalling his five years at Middlesbrough from 2003 to 2008. “I’d see team-mates who had training in half an hour eat two slices of toast with beans and two fried eggs plus brown sauce. I’d wonder: ‘How you gonna run in half an hour? I had my breakfast two hours ago!’”

The first UK dish he liked? “Shepherd’s pie with mashed potatoes.” The UK cuisine he least understands? “I see the shops which sell those pastry rolls queued out, and to me it’s literally unbelievable.”

You won’t find any of that at Arros QD, but you will thrill to the taste of 40-day-aged grass‑fed Cornwall tomahawk steaks; whole brill with grilled lemon and parsley; fresh Canadian lobster with chili crab dressing; marinated Scottish skate wing with sweet chili miso; Lincolnshire rack of pork glazed with purple shiso and tomato crust. Oh, and every flavour and variety of modern and traditional paella you can imagine. Prepare your taste buds.  

Taking Charge

Only one man in Champions League history has scored in three of his four semi-final games and twice put his team 1-0 up in the same final …without winning the competition. An unwanted record, but testament to Gaizka Mendieta’s importance when Valencia stormed to the showpiece in back-to-back seasons: the 2000 final against Real Madrid and their tussle with Bayern München a year later.

Mendieta joined Valencia from Castellón in 1992 and later represented Lazio, Barcelona and Middlesbrough. However, it was his nine-year stint with Los Che that truly made his name – and not least in the latter of his two Champions League finals, where he tucked a third-minute penalty past Oliver Kahn and later struck in the shoot-out after Bayern’s first taker, Paulo Sérgio, had missed.

“My technique sounds so difficult to me now,” says the 45-year-old, winner of 40 caps with Spain and a spot-kick specialist. “I’d run, wait for the goalkeeper, then once you’re just about to kick the ball, it’s: ‘Has he moved? Has he chosen one side?’ All I needed, literally, was one second of information – keepers always have to move.”

Five times he played in a Valencia side that put four past Barcelona, and he scored when Los Che inflicted a historic 6-0 defeat on Real Madrid. Throw in a handful of world-class goals, notably in the 1999 Copa del Rey final against Atlético Madrid, and it’s clear why Valencia’s own website lauds Gaizka’s “iconic status”, celebrating his “dishevelled hair, exquisite touch and charismatic leadership”.

Try to pigeonhole him now and you’ll find the Basque as elusive as did any of the players who tried to contain his footballing effervescence for Castellón, Valencia, Lazio, Barcelona, Middlesbrough and Spain. His lifelong passion for music has made him an in-demand DJ, keeping audiences dancing in Ibiza’s summer clubs and the world-renowned Benicàssim International Festival. He’s a Liga ambassador, incisive TV football analyst, regular for the Barça Legends team and a fanatical cyclist. Now, however, he’s reinvented himself again. In style.

Mendieta, with friends and fellow investors, has opened Arros QD – a beautiful restaurant in the heart of London’s West End, dedicated to creating – and educating about – the best paella in Europe. Having sampled, I can promise you it’s exceptional.

Moreover, the new venture is powered by the skills, vision and excellence of multiple-Michelin-starred Spanish chef Quique Dacosta. It’s his award-winning brain behind the conception of just about everything at Arros QD – tastes, aesthetics, the cocktail list, the architecture, the cutlery and the space-age kitchen. Gaizka has been involved, in painstaking detail, across the near four years needed to bring this idea to the boil. So let’s allow him to explain things his way.

“Particularly in the UK, the whole concept of how we understand paella is wrong,” he grimaces. “Sadly, that often stems from what people have experienced in Spain itself, where a bar-restaurant simply emphasises the word ‘paella’ on their menu rather than respecting the original concept of the dish or striving for excellence of taste and texture. Many people are settling for something that’s just rice with added ingredients.”

Most aficionados would consider Valencia the spiritual home of paella, which, by the way, actually refers to the skillet in which the dish is made. Given that some of Dacosta’s Michelin stars are from the same south-eastern region of Spain, and Mendieta spent the most glorious years of his football career there, it’s little wonder the two men preach the gospel evangelically.

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“It’s not exaggerated to make a Pep Guardiola comparison with head chef Quique Dacosta. In culinary terms, he’s a genius and super-obsessed with every single detail. But when he insists on something, it’s never egotistically because ‘I’m a genius!’ Everything has a clear, meaningful reason”
"My family were all about quality, how you cook something. Whatever you cook must be fresh, the best you can find from the local market, the local fishmonger"

“Growing up, the paella culture was in my home,” says Gaizka. “My step gran would make it with snails, artichokes, whatever was in season. El caldo (the stock) is the key and the ingredients on our menu are determinedly sourced locally.

“In paella, the rice should just be a medium – it absorbs the flavour. But some of the common mistakes that you will see anywhere people make this dish badly are a conglomeration of flavours that drown each other. There is also a requirement that the paella needs to be served to four or more people, and that it is often far too dry.

“You’ll see places serving chorizo, fish and meat all together in the one dish. Prawns, for example, have amazing flavour! Why on earth put chicken in with them? Honestly, that’s NOT paella, it’s just another rice dish.

“Another big difference is that you’ll often find paella dishes thick with rice while ours here are thinner and slightly crusty and the ingredients are bound together by the caldo.

‘Here’ is in London’s Fitzrovia, about a five or six-minute walk from Oxford Circus, but the vast, elegant, cool space is tucked away from the hurly-burly. Between the lines, in football parlance. Gaizka and I chat upstairs in the cocktail bar. Down below, the lunch hour is served at a cross-section of traditional tables, plus a row of New-York-in-the-1950s barstools where solo diners can eat on a lunch break and pre- or post-theatre. Across the first floor, it’s like being in a London club (without the membership fees) – quieter, more languorous dining for those with time on their hands and perhaps a lunch or dinner meeting to conduct.

Rice, naturally, is the leitmotif. Outlines of grains dot the menu and drinks lists and there are frames all over the walls with phrases in Morse code spelled out granularly. Rice rules. The ‘robot’ kitchen is Dacosta’s baby; a vast range of timings, heats and portion-sizes can be controlled automatically and the whole golden array of flames, aromas, steam –dotted with white-uniformed kitchen staff flitting about like clouds across a Mediterranean sky – plays out in front of your eyes because the kitchen is open and butts on to the downstairs dining area.

It’s glorious Food theatre.

Gaizka again: “It’s not exaggerated to make a Pep Guardiola comparison with Quique Dacosta. In culinary terms, he’s a genius and super-obsessed with every single detail. But when he insists on something, it’s never egotistically because ‘I’m a genius!’ Everything has a clear, meaningful reason.”

The kitchen-monster chef, now such an iconic presence on our televisions? Forget it. “This is Quique’s first restaurant venture outside Spain. The goal was to bring truly great paella to the UK. Since opening, we’ve had Spanish tourists coming here and admitting: ‘This is the best paella I’ve tasted,’ which is a big compliment.”

Mendieta, the second-best 1,000m athlete in Spain as a kid and a relentless runner as a world-class footballer, is still in great shape. Not a masterchef himself (“Pasta!”), he grew up in a house where nature, the land and seasons were respected. “My family were all about quality, how you cook something. Whatever you cook must be fresh, the best you can find from the local market, the local fishmonger. To this day, I’ve never ever bought or eaten anything in a tray, precooked or from the microwave.”

Was his introduction to English football’s food culture …bracing?

“Back then, it was a process of educating and changing,” he says, recalling his five years at Middlesbrough from 2003 to 2008. “I’d see team-mates who had training in half an hour eat two slices of toast with beans and two fried eggs plus brown sauce. I’d wonder: ‘How you gonna run in half an hour? I had my breakfast two hours ago!’”

The first UK dish he liked? “Shepherd’s pie with mashed potatoes.” The UK cuisine he least understands? “I see the shops which sell those pastry rolls queued out, and to me it’s literally unbelievable.”

You won’t find any of that at Arros QD, but you will thrill to the taste of 40-day-aged grass‑fed Cornwall tomahawk steaks; whole brill with grilled lemon and parsley; fresh Canadian lobster with chili crab dressing; marinated Scottish skate wing with sweet chili miso; Lincolnshire rack of pork glazed with purple shiso and tomato crust. Oh, and every flavour and variety of modern and traditional paella you can imagine. Prepare your taste buds.  

Taking Charge

Only one man in Champions League history has scored in three of his four semi-final games and twice put his team 1-0 up in the same final …without winning the competition. An unwanted record, but testament to Gaizka Mendieta’s importance when Valencia stormed to the showpiece in back-to-back seasons: the 2000 final against Real Madrid and their tussle with Bayern München a year later.

Mendieta joined Valencia from Castellón in 1992 and later represented Lazio, Barcelona and Middlesbrough. However, it was his nine-year stint with Los Che that truly made his name – and not least in the latter of his two Champions League finals, where he tucked a third-minute penalty past Oliver Kahn and later struck in the shoot-out after Bayern’s first taker, Paulo Sérgio, had missed.

“My technique sounds so difficult to me now,” says the 45-year-old, winner of 40 caps with Spain and a spot-kick specialist. “I’d run, wait for the goalkeeper, then once you’re just about to kick the ball, it’s: ‘Has he moved? Has he chosen one side?’ All I needed, literally, was one second of information – keepers always have to move.”

Five times he played in a Valencia side that put four past Barcelona, and he scored when Los Che inflicted a historic 6-0 defeat on Real Madrid. Throw in a handful of world-class goals, notably in the 1999 Copa del Rey final against Atlético Madrid, and it’s clear why Valencia’s own website lauds Gaizka’s “iconic status”, celebrating his “dishevelled hair, exquisite touch and charismatic leadership”.

Try to pigeonhole him now and you’ll find the Basque as elusive as did any of the players who tried to contain his footballing effervescence for Castellón, Valencia, Lazio, Barcelona, Middlesbrough and Spain. His lifelong passion for music has made him an in-demand DJ, keeping audiences dancing in Ibiza’s summer clubs and the world-renowned Benicàssim International Festival. He’s a Liga ambassador, incisive TV football analyst, regular for the Barça Legends team and a fanatical cyclist. Now, however, he’s reinvented himself again. In style.

Mendieta, with friends and fellow investors, has opened Arros QD – a beautiful restaurant in the heart of London’s West End, dedicated to creating – and educating about – the best paella in Europe. Having sampled, I can promise you it’s exceptional.

Moreover, the new venture is powered by the skills, vision and excellence of multiple-Michelin-starred Spanish chef Quique Dacosta. It’s his award-winning brain behind the conception of just about everything at Arros QD – tastes, aesthetics, the cocktail list, the architecture, the cutlery and the space-age kitchen. Gaizka has been involved, in painstaking detail, across the near four years needed to bring this idea to the boil. So let’s allow him to explain things his way.

“Particularly in the UK, the whole concept of how we understand paella is wrong,” he grimaces. “Sadly, that often stems from what people have experienced in Spain itself, where a bar-restaurant simply emphasises the word ‘paella’ on their menu rather than respecting the original concept of the dish or striving for excellence of taste and texture. Many people are settling for something that’s just rice with added ingredients.”

Most aficionados would consider Valencia the spiritual home of paella, which, by the way, actually refers to the skillet in which the dish is made. Given that some of Dacosta’s Michelin stars are from the same south-eastern region of Spain, and Mendieta spent the most glorious years of his football career there, it’s little wonder the two men preach the gospel evangelically.

“It’s not exaggerated to make a Pep Guardiola comparison with head chef Quique Dacosta. In culinary terms, he’s a genius and super-obsessed with every single detail. But when he insists on something, it’s never egotistically because ‘I’m a genius!’ Everything has a clear, meaningful reason”
"My family were all about quality, how you cook something. Whatever you cook must be fresh, the best you can find from the local market, the local fishmonger"

“Growing up, the paella culture was in my home,” says Gaizka. “My step gran would make it with snails, artichokes, whatever was in season. El caldo (the stock) is the key and the ingredients on our menu are determinedly sourced locally.

“In paella, the rice should just be a medium – it absorbs the flavour. But some of the common mistakes that you will see anywhere people make this dish badly are a conglomeration of flavours that drown each other. There is also a requirement that the paella needs to be served to four or more people, and that it is often far too dry.

“You’ll see places serving chorizo, fish and meat all together in the one dish. Prawns, for example, have amazing flavour! Why on earth put chicken in with them? Honestly, that’s NOT paella, it’s just another rice dish.

“Another big difference is that you’ll often find paella dishes thick with rice while ours here are thinner and slightly crusty and the ingredients are bound together by the caldo.

‘Here’ is in London’s Fitzrovia, about a five or six-minute walk from Oxford Circus, but the vast, elegant, cool space is tucked away from the hurly-burly. Between the lines, in football parlance. Gaizka and I chat upstairs in the cocktail bar. Down below, the lunch hour is served at a cross-section of traditional tables, plus a row of New-York-in-the-1950s barstools where solo diners can eat on a lunch break and pre- or post-theatre. Across the first floor, it’s like being in a London club (without the membership fees) – quieter, more languorous dining for those with time on their hands and perhaps a lunch or dinner meeting to conduct.

Rice, naturally, is the leitmotif. Outlines of grains dot the menu and drinks lists and there are frames all over the walls with phrases in Morse code spelled out granularly. Rice rules. The ‘robot’ kitchen is Dacosta’s baby; a vast range of timings, heats and portion-sizes can be controlled automatically and the whole golden array of flames, aromas, steam –dotted with white-uniformed kitchen staff flitting about like clouds across a Mediterranean sky – plays out in front of your eyes because the kitchen is open and butts on to the downstairs dining area.

It’s glorious Food theatre.

Gaizka again: “It’s not exaggerated to make a Pep Guardiola comparison with Quique Dacosta. In culinary terms, he’s a genius and super-obsessed with every single detail. But when he insists on something, it’s never egotistically because ‘I’m a genius!’ Everything has a clear, meaningful reason.”

The kitchen-monster chef, now such an iconic presence on our televisions? Forget it. “This is Quique’s first restaurant venture outside Spain. The goal was to bring truly great paella to the UK. Since opening, we’ve had Spanish tourists coming here and admitting: ‘This is the best paella I’ve tasted,’ which is a big compliment.”

Mendieta, the second-best 1,000m athlete in Spain as a kid and a relentless runner as a world-class footballer, is still in great shape. Not a masterchef himself (“Pasta!”), he grew up in a house where nature, the land and seasons were respected. “My family were all about quality, how you cook something. Whatever you cook must be fresh, the best you can find from the local market, the local fishmonger. To this day, I’ve never ever bought or eaten anything in a tray, precooked or from the microwave.”

Was his introduction to English football’s food culture …bracing?

“Back then, it was a process of educating and changing,” he says, recalling his five years at Middlesbrough from 2003 to 2008. “I’d see team-mates who had training in half an hour eat two slices of toast with beans and two fried eggs plus brown sauce. I’d wonder: ‘How you gonna run in half an hour? I had my breakfast two hours ago!’”

The first UK dish he liked? “Shepherd’s pie with mashed potatoes.” The UK cuisine he least understands? “I see the shops which sell those pastry rolls queued out, and to me it’s literally unbelievable.”

You won’t find any of that at Arros QD, but you will thrill to the taste of 40-day-aged grass‑fed Cornwall tomahawk steaks; whole brill with grilled lemon and parsley; fresh Canadian lobster with chili crab dressing; marinated Scottish skate wing with sweet chili miso; Lincolnshire rack of pork glazed with purple shiso and tomato crust. Oh, and every flavour and variety of modern and traditional paella you can imagine. Prepare your taste buds.  

Taking Charge

Only one man in Champions League history has scored in three of his four semi-final games and twice put his team 1-0 up in the same final …without winning the competition. An unwanted record, but testament to Gaizka Mendieta’s importance when Valencia stormed to the showpiece in back-to-back seasons: the 2000 final against Real Madrid and their tussle with Bayern München a year later.

Mendieta joined Valencia from Castellón in 1992 and later represented Lazio, Barcelona and Middlesbrough. However, it was his nine-year stint with Los Che that truly made his name – and not least in the latter of his two Champions League finals, where he tucked a third-minute penalty past Oliver Kahn and later struck in the shoot-out after Bayern’s first taker, Paulo Sérgio, had missed.

“My technique sounds so difficult to me now,” says the 45-year-old, winner of 40 caps with Spain and a spot-kick specialist. “I’d run, wait for the goalkeeper, then once you’re just about to kick the ball, it’s: ‘Has he moved? Has he chosen one side?’ All I needed, literally, was one second of information – keepers always have to move.”

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