With his tousled curly white hair, white goatee, and gregarious personality, Gerard Nebesky has long been a notable presence at Wine Country farmers’ markets, festivals and winery events. His catering set up is as impossible to miss as he is, anchored by huge pans of paella slow-cooked over open flames and wafting the seductive perfume of chiles, garlic, shellfish, sparkling lemon, sofrito and plenty of precious saffron.
And I mean huge — his pans span up to 10 feet around.
His fame only heightened when, in 2008, he beat out star chef Bobby Flay in Flay’s televised paella throwdown. Yet for nearly two decades, the only way we could get the sumptuous Spanish staple was if we found Nebesky at an event, or hired him for private catering.
I was quite happy when I learned this summer that Nebesky was going to open an actual restaurant, in downtown Santa Rosa. Then, I was even more joyous when he announced that this would be a casual operation, where, instead of sitting down for a drawn out meal (paella typically takes up to an hour to prepare) we order at the counter and are digging into steaming hot food within about 10 minutes.
Calling his Gerard’s Paella y Tapas concept “people’s paella,” Nebesky also keeps the usually pricey feast reasonable, with individual-sized skillet meals ranging from $12 to $15. Rounding out the meals are a selection of salads, Spanish sandwiches, assorted nibbles, and crème Catalan ($6) and churros ($6). We can enjoy wine and beer on tap, too, plus grape-based cocktails like Kalimotxo, a Spanish blend of red wine, cola and Chuncho bitters ($8) that is admittedly an acquired taste.
Count me in. I’d never have thought fancy paella could translate to fast food, but Nebesky has nailed it.
To keep things quick, Nebesky pre-cooks rice with seasonings liked smoked paprika, then adds each guest’s protein and vegetable choices before sliding each pan into a large, red tile lined wood-burning dome oven. The socarrat (the caramelized layer of crunchy rice that forms on the bottom of the paella pan) finishes crisping, and the toppings release more flavors into the rice. He jokes that it’s like making pizza.
To keep prices affordable, he grows his own saffron at his rural Sebastopol home. He also uses California rice instead of Spanish rice, but says that’s about the Calrose rice’s superior quality, not cost savings.
The action in the open kitchen is part of the fun, with staff, and often Nebesky himself, constantly cooking rice in giant paellas on imported Spanish burners at the ordering line entry. In fact, this the prettiest part of the eatery – besides the paella – thanks to the tile work fronting the kitchen counter.
Otherwise, the décor eschews Spanish knickknacks for a more contemporary feel, as the former Arrigoni’s and Persona Pizza space has been updated with wood floors, plain wood tables and black café chairs, with just a bit of stained glass to lighten things up.
While guests can mix-and-match ingredients as we go through the cafeteria-style line, I prefer to rely on the master, with his own four combinations.
The Senorita Rosa model is traditional, brimming with marinated Rosie chicken, lightly wilted arugula, fennel, red onion, and the star of the dish, rounds of spicy, dense, deep red imported Spanish chorizo ($13).
Where: 701 4th Street, Santa Rosa
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Friday, 11: a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday