The Chaless family, from left, Emily, Stanley, Asher, 10, and Gideon, 12, have dinner at Paella Seafood on Forest Avenue in Portland. Their order included haddock skewer, chicken wings, seafood paella and fried chicken sandwiches. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor

At a dinner party recently, a new acquaintance asked me an excellent question: “What are the chances that there’s a four-star restaurant in Portland that you aren’t familiar with yet?” I hadn’t thought in exactly those terms before, but the answer was easy. “Probably close to 100%,” I said.

My editor and I try to be completists as much as we can, but as closely as we follow new openings, closings, changes of venue or chef, there’s always something new and exciting happening just slightly off-stage. Usually, when an amazing restaurant eludes me, it’s because it’s a tightly kept secret that locals are loath to divulge, or it’s a new business that hasn’t gotten much (or any) attention on social media.

The newly rebooted Paella Seafood represents a bit of both, but spoiler alert: It’s a four-star gem with a multi-talented chef who brings international experience to a spacious restaurant, and not many people know it exists.

Let’s see if we can change that.

The original Paella Seafood wasn’t around for long: 14 months, and all of them during the first stop-and-go years of the pandemic. A fire in the restaurant’s original building (the same disaster that shut down Thai Esaan) gave owners Casey and Dahlia Jabrawi a two-year breather to reconsider their strategy and menu.

Seafood paella at Paella Seafood on Forest Avenue in Portland. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor

Naturally, one dish was never going anywhere. “The minute my husband suggested it, I knew paella was the right choice for a friendly restaurant,” front-of-house manager Dahlia Jabrawi said. “You can eat it for just one person, of course, but it’s more fun when you’re talking, chatting and laughing with friends or family. It should take time so you can really enjoy it. And paella is for everyone, so it should not cost too much money.”

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Chef Casey Jabrawi earned his paella-making stripes during a stint helming a luxury hotel kitchen in Bahrain, where he cooked alongside a Spanish chef. Purists take note: Jabrawi’s Iberian colleague taught him the classic Valencian version of paella that acquires its smokey flavors from smoked paprika rather than chorizo, which can overwhelm the dish. You won’t miss it. Need proof? Jabrawi’s seafood paella ($21.95) is a terrific place to start. His starts with a bespoke blend of bomba- and arborio rice, two varieties short-grained-and-starchy enough to absorb copious ladlesful of golden, saffron-infused house-made lobster stock. Jabrawi then layers on chicken, mussels, jumbo shrimp and still-tender calamari to complete a stunning display of abundance.

Peas are the canary in the coal mine for any simmered food. They’re the first thing I look at when I’m eating a risotto, pilaf or springtime pasta. If the peas are shriveled and chalky, it’s a bad omen (and a reliable one) that the dish is overcooked. Not here, though. When I peered down into the landscape of protein and rice in the paella Dahlia Jabrawi set in front of me (paella means both the dish and the double-handled pan it is prepared and served in), I spotted plump, glossy green peas. Whew, was my first thought. Followed by another: This is the best paella I’ve eaten in Maine, no question.

Casey Jabrawi makes seafood paella at Paella Seafood on Forest Avenue in Portland. He learned from a Spanish chef he worked with in Bahrain. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor

I did not expect to be quite so wowed by the cooking at Paella Seafood. Neither did my dinner guest. “This guy knows how to cook seafood. You have to try this haddock,” he said, pointing at a cube of fish bobbing in fresh tomato stock with matchsticks of fideos pasta and dill-flecked baby shrimp coiled like frilly red commas. I dunked my spoon into his bowl of seafood soup ($9.75) and nodded in vigorous agreement. I don’t know how I missed the Jabrawis during Paella Seafood’s original run, but I’m just grateful they came back.

Seafood soup at Paella Seafood. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor

Indeed, after Pizzaiolo vacated the 100-plus seat venue a few doors down from their former home, the couple wasn’t certain they could make the large, full-service space work for their needs. But as chef Casey Jabrawi hammered out an expanded menu of Spanish-and-Mediterranean-inspired dishes, Dahlia Jabrawi deployed fresh coats of off-white paint and new benches to make the cavernous dining room look brighter and a little less like a sleepaway camp field house.

The dining room remains a work in progress, especially a sizeable, currently unused room near the front that will soon become a beer, wine and Turkish coffee bar, pending approval of the restaurant’s liquor license. It’s hard to predict what it’ll look like, but that zone sounds like a great place to sit-and-sip while devouring a plate of custardy, astoundingly light, cinnamon-sugar-dusted churros ($9.99 for six), a dish that chef Jabrawi mastered during a gig cooking in a Mexican kitchen for the Swiss hotel and restaurant conglomerate Movenpick.

Fried clams with jalapenos at Paella Seafood. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor

Outside though, the 12-seat deck is already ready for summer dining, for baskets of deep-fried local belly clams ($23.99) breaded in flour, sweet paprika and turmeric. A little tint and spice in the batter isn’t chef Jabrawi’s only addition to the fried-food canon, however. He scatters translucent green discs of razor-thin jalapeno over the clams, imparting both punchy heat and freshness to the dish. It’s a revelatory combination – a must-try for anyone who loves clams.

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For the haddock sandwich ($16.95), Paella Seafood uses the same breading to good effect. You can even specify how dark and crispy you prefer your fish be fried before the kitchen slips the fillet into the crevice of one of the restaurant’s homemade sandwich rolls.

“When my husband said he wanted to make sandwiches, I agreed that was a good idea, and I said I would buy some beautiful bread from one of the wonderful bakeries here in Portland. But he said no; he wanted to make the bread himself. I was not surprised. He even makes extra so that he can make homemade croutons and bread crisps for the soups and chowder,” Dahlia Jabrawi said, adding with a laugh: “I’ll tell you a secret. I think he just likes to cook, and well, he’s good at it.”

No argument from me. I love secrets, especially ones I get to share.

Paella Seafood moved to a larger space on Forest Avenue after a fire shut down its original location. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor

RATING: ****
WHERE: 865 Forest Ave., Portland, 207-536-1021 paellaseafoodmenu.com
SERVING: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $9.75-$25.25, Sandwiches and entrees: $15.75-$21.95
NOISE LEVEL: Clacking castanets
VEGETARIAN: Few dishes
RESERVATIONS: No
BAR: None
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: The 2021 electrical fire that closed down Paella Seafood might have been a blessing in disguise for owners Casey and Dahlia Jabrawi. During the intervening two-and-a-half-years, the couple honed their seafood-focused, Mediterranean-meets-Maine-with-a-Spanish-accent concept and have reopened in a spacious new building on the same block. And now, the restaurant is a full-service joint, a showcase for chef Casey Jabrawi’s skill and experience in the kitchen. His Valencian-style, traditional paella is smokey (even without chorizo), with patches of crusty soccarat rice on the bottom and precision-cooked proteins (chicken, shrimp, calamari, mussels) that highlight why this deserves to be the restaurant’s eponymous dish. Other standouts include dill-flecked seafood soup; a sandwich of fried pollock nestled into a home-baked roll; and turmeric-tinted, deep-fried whole belly clams served scattered with almost translucent discs of thin-sliced jalapeno peppers. Paella Seafood might be under the radar for the moment, but it won’t be for long.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of seven recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: andrewross.maine@gmail.com
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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