It’s hard not to grimace a little at the cliché of yet another Spanish restaurant in Sanlitun greeting you with cheesy power ballads, but the cheerful charm of the colourful striped curtains, wicker furniture and the honest menu at Niajo save it from making a bad first impression.
Chef and owner Alex Sanchez presents menu highlights from the best of Valencia. The surprisingly good manchego is the only Spaniard on the cheese plate (95RMB), while patatas a la Riojana (40RMB) is a dry stew of roast potatoes with real chorizo and just enough sauce for baguette dipping.
The bacalao (codfish, 110RMB) are gorgeously cooked and served with a salsa verde that is everything it should be: a light sauce with heaps of parsley, infused with the flavour of tiny shelled clams, and balanced with the acidity of white wine. Sanchez learned the art of paella from Michelin-starred chef Oscar Torrijos in Valencia. Served in a classic paellera, the paella Valenciana (145RMB serves two) consists of chunks of meaty chicken, a little tough (perhaps due to being sourced locally), with fresh romano, runner and dried giant white beans.
While the dish may need a generous drizzle of lemon, the rice is perfectly cooked. Connoisseurs may require a little more socarrat (the crust from the bottom of the pan) for it to be absolutely perfect. Spanish bottles dominate the wine list – as they should.
Call ahead the night before and Sanchez promises he’ll add a cinnamon stick to the sangria for ‘a little aphrodisiac’.