It was impossible to miss the prawns. I’d jostled my way into the seafood section of Mercado Central, the main market in the port city of Valencia, Spain. Immediately, my senses were overcome by the whiff of sea emanating from the glistening piles of fish and clams on beds of ice. Among them, a patch of red prawns stood out like a bright red beacon.
Each was the length of a human palm, with a luminous shell, a burgundy head, and a fiery sunset of a tail. A small sign revealed them to be gambas roja de Dénia, named after the fishing town where the prawns are sourced. Mesmerized, I asked the vendor how much they cost, and my jaw dropped when she revealed the price. In the high summer season, the prawns sell for US$40 each—making them the most expensive in the world.
A sweet, sweet tale
I was in Valencia to meet with Michelin-starred chef Danny Lledó, who grew up eating the joyas rojas (“red jewels”) straight from his uncle’s fishing boat. As we sat down at a local restaurant, Lledó shared his childhood memories of waiting eagerly for his uncle to return to shore—if there was a good catch, he could look forward to a special dinner that evening.
Decades later, when he opened his restaurant Xiquet DL in Washington, D.C., Lledó was determined to create a menu that honored his beloved hometown. That meant doing something no chef had ever achieved: bringing the rare Dénia prawn to America.
I wondered: What makes these prawns so special?
“There’s a surprising sweetness in the head,” Lledó told me. “If you go slightly north, you’ll find the same species living in cooler waters. But you won’t get the same sweet flavor in the head like the ones in my hometown’s warmer waters.”
I eyed my tiny plate, which held my first Dénia prawn, while Lledó showed me how to tear off the head and squeeze out the brown and pink juices. I slowly savored a bite, enthralled by the flavors: a concentration of salt and iodine that made it taste remarkably like the sea—and yes, a pronounced sweetness.
About that price tag
There’s a reason I’d never heard of these red jewels. Historically, they’ve only been sold close to the port town—and they are extremely difficult to source. Only prawns caught in the 80-mile stretch the Balearic Sea that extends from Dénia to the island of Ibiza have that deliciously sweet head. As a result, only four or five commercial boats are permitted to fish within this limited area. While the prawns can be sourced year round, the size of the haul fluctuates dramatically.
“I have seen boats go out and come back, and none of them has gotten a single prawn,” Lledó recalled.
After leaving Dénia, Lledó became a chef, honing his craft at Spanish restaurants including José Andrés’s Cafe Atlántico, Jaleo, and MiniBar. At each place, he tried to persuade his bosses to import and serve the Dénia prawn but couldn’t convince them it was worth the price and hassle. (Fine dining restaurants tend to buy the better-known gambas de Palamos, found in the waters near Barcelona and Costa Brava.)
In 2013, Lledó moved to the United States and, in 2019, he became the sole owner of D.C.’s Slate Wine Bar. The following year, he opened his Valencian restaurant Xiquet above it. At last, he was ready to make his decades-long dream a reality and prove to American diners that his hometown’s red prawns deserved the title of best in the world.
From Spanish sea to American table
Right away, Lledó encountered choppy waters. It took him months to find a reliable importer and to convince Dénia’s fishermen to sell the prawns to someone based in America.
“They’re usually not available for anybody else,” he said, explaining that the limited catch has traditionally been promised to long-standing buyers in Spain. Lledó had to gain their trust—which he did thanks to his hometown connection and uncle’s legacy—and precisely determine the order timing and quantities to stay within budget.
“I couldn’t buy all summer long because the price was so high due to increased tourism coming off of the pandemic,” he said.
After much trial and error, a shipment of Dénia prawns arrived in America for the first time. In May 2021, Lledó added the decapods to Xiquet’s tasting menu so that every diner could try one at no extra cost. He chose to present them as simply as possible because “the beautiful thing is that very little needs to be done,” he said. “You can either boil the prawns in seawater for more of a cocktail experience or sauté them with olive oil and sea salt.”
To the chef’s delight, his customers were blown away. “They could really tell the difference,” he says. “It was something they had never tasted before.” The 2021 Michelin Guide’s inspectors were as enthused by Lledó’s vision and awarded him one star.
Xiquet remains the only restaurant in America to serve red Dénia prawns. However, as a restaurateur who strives for perfection, Lledó feels his journey is far from over. He returned to his hometown in November 2021, intent on finding even larger ones this time and having more of them be available for customers.
“I feel proud and fortunate to be able to share the gamba roja de Dénia with my guests,” he said. “Partly because it’s the most highly valued prawn from Spain, but also because of the link it provides to my family’s hometown.”
Despite now living halfway across the world, Lledó has found a heartfelt way to stay connected to the flavors of his childhood.