Night and Day in Portugal

This restaurant is closed.


"Point Loma and Ocean Beach were the traditional centers for the Portuguese in San Diego," said my friend Laura, a native San Diegan, as we settled down to our first meal at Portugalia. "They were tuna fishermen who settled here close to the coast." It's hardly surprising, then, that Jason Nascimento, himself the scion of a New England Portuguese fishing family that relocated here, would choose the neighborhood for his restaurant, Portugalia. More surprising, given local history, is that it's the only Portuguese restaurant in the county.

Portuguese cuisine is best known through its currently chic culinary offshoot from its former colony, Brazil. Unfortunately, the most popular Brazilian genre in the States is not its most alluring or exotic (that is, the lush, spicy tropicalia of Afro-Brazilian Bahian cuisine) but its simple "cowboy cooking" -- the churrascaria or rodizio grilled meat-o-rama (represented locally by Rei do Gado and Samba Grille). Portugalia's current menu includes both Brazilian genres, with several Bahian dishes, along with a new option for a rodizio-style meal of skewered proteins. In addition, it offers the nearly unknown food of the Portuguese homeland, which has plenty to offer. Remember -- it was the world-sailing 16th-century Portuguese, not the Spaniards, who recognized the allure of South America's native hot peppers and spread them to Africa and Asia, causing a revolution in world cuisine and nutrition. Those sailors must have been born foodies -- or at least very food-savvy traders.

The street-face of Portugalia is colorfully painted with Portuguese motifs, and the walls on the flight of stairs up from street level are lined with the flags of the country's many previous colonies in Africa, Asia, and South America, conquered during the age of its seafaring, slave-trading might in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The restaurant itself is a spacious, informal room decorated with strings of Christmas lights. It resembles an ethnic community center, with a dining room at the street end, a bar (next to the kitchen) in the middle, and a dance floor with some chairs and a platform for entertainers in the back. Eclectic music from Portugal's empire -- from fado (Portugal's mellower equivalent of Spanish flamenco) to Cape Verde's Cesária Évora -- plays softly on the sound system. At our first meal, several tables had been set up in the entertainment section to accommodate a party of 40 white-haired Portuguese. Laura asked if they were a tour group. "No," said our waitress, "local people." What the waitress didn't mention was that they'd all waltzed in without a reservation, calling to announce their imminent arrival while already en route to the restaurant. This plunged the kitchen (including Jason) into a frenzy of cutting and cooking as the invasion gobbled its way through the restaurant's food stocks. The food and service that night reflected the panic of dealing with a sudden plague of human locusts (no insult intended to the Portuguese nation, just to nonreserving large parties). My original title for this review was "Amateur Night in Portugal."

Our waitress that evening was a lovely, languid little blonde with an enchanting accent. (She has since flown off to become an air hostess, which is worse luck for passengers but good news for Portugalia's patrons.) When we asked for a wine list, she answered, "Our wines are Portuguese. You want white or red?" We ordered a white to start. It was so-so but cheap ($13). Sometime later we noticed the owner, Jason, a handsome, bearded 31-year-old, bringing a six-bottle rack of reds to a pair of pretty girls at the next table and squatting by their table to describe each wine. The girls split a pizza (compared to our party of five, ordering 13 dishes), but they probably had a good wine with their pie. Fortunately for us, Sam had brought a fine California red with him and got the waitress to open it early, while she was still occasionally paying attention to us.

She steered clear of our table for nearly half an hour until finally bringing us a basket of savory, warm soft rolls. The basket held wrapped butter pats, too, so we didn't have to wait another half hour. A few minutes later, the real food began to arrive. All of it was new and interesting, and much of it was delicious. (Details soon.)

After increasingly frantic calls, I reached Jason by phone a few days later (see "About the Chef"), ready to turn in my review as soon as I'd gotten the interview. He told me about the invasion by the party of Portuguese and about training a brand-new cook from Brazil who usually worked days but was called on to stay for that night's crisis. Even more relevant, he disclosed that shortly after our dinner, he'd totally changed the menu, introducing numerous Brazilian dishes, including several of Bahia's best. Realizing it wouldn't be fair to base a review solely on the Night of the Locusts, particularly with the menu changes, I rushed off to Bite for a last-minute substitute review. Promising Bahian delicacies, I lured the Bite posse (who hadn't suffered the first meal) into a visit to Portugalia early the next week. And that second visit went fine -- better food, much superior service. Even the wine tasted better. (Jason had just changed distributors for his wine, so it was better.) Night and day.

At that visit, a Tuesday, there were only a few occupied tables (but a lot of family members hanging out at the bar, including kiddies), and Jason himself was cooking -- and cooking very well. The food was mainly terrific. We were served by a cheerful, bustling Portuguese-American brunette who knew the menu and the wines, understood the food, and was as professional and efficient as she was helpful.

A number of Portugalia's offerings do double duty (in appropriately sized portions) as both appetizers and entrées, and these are among the kitchen's best dishes. Bolinhos de bacalhau (salt-cod fritters) are superb -- airy, salty puffs of flavor, with a spicy coral dip on the side. You want these, oh yes! Camarãos alhinho consist of large, sweet shrimp dressed in a light garlic sauce (served over a salad in the appetizer version), and they're lovely. Linguiça com batatas and calabresa con batatas are the same dish, basically (linguiça is Portuguese sausage; calabresa is Brazilian). The slices of savory sausage mingle with sautéed potatoes, garlic, onion, herbs, and red peppers. This is better as an appetizer than entrée, because the plethora of potatoes can wear out its welcome, although it was much improved (fewer spuds, more onions) the second night. We also wanted the rissóis de camarão, fried pastry pockets filled with shrimp, but the Portuguese elders had hoovered up the first night's supply, and the pastry wasn't ready on the return visit.

All the "skewered" dishes (espetadas) are available as both appetizers and entrées. The server brings a picturesque wrought-iron stand fitted with a tall, arched meat-hook to hang the skewers, in the style of some rodizios. Among the choices are espetada de vieira, tender grilled scallops served with a charming sauce of lemon-butter and crisply caramelized onion-crumbs. Also appealing to those curious about the origins of rodizio was the espetada madeirense, skewered beef "Madeira style," marinated with bay leaf and wine. Had the beef been cooked a minute or two less, it would have been terrific. (But it wasn't, so it wasn't.)

My familiarity with Portugal's famed caldo verdhe soup (of sausage, kale, and potatoes) stems mainly from the robust recipe in Emeril Lagasse's first cookbook. (Mister "Bam!" is, by birth, another Portuguese-American New Englander.) I've usually cooked this soup as a main course. At Portugalia, it deserves its demotion to a starter. At least at our first dinner, it was thin and watery, the sausage mushy and sparse.

Most entrées come with your choice of starch (boiled potatoes or rice) and vegetables or salad. The first night we said, "Mix and match." Now we know: Go for the salads and rice. The salads are an ebullient mixture of shredded carrots and mushrooms, julienned lettuce, and canned black olives. You have to ruin the painterly composition to toss it with its delicate red-wine vinaigrette. It's worth the desecration. We thoroughly enjoyed the red rice, too -- done pilaf-style and just moist enough, with subtle seasonings. Potatoes and mixed vegetables are plain and uninteresting.

Our outstanding entrée the first dinner was bife de moçambicana -- "African"-style steak from Mozambique, with shrimps and scallops in a garlic-lemon sauce. (In Africa, it's all seafood, no steak.) We requested rare, and the beef came almost rare, accompanied by huge, sweet Bangladeshi shrimp and sliced sea scallops, with a garlicky sauce good enough to dip your rolls into. The boiled potatoes eventually were sufficiently steeped in it to be worth a few carbs.

However, in the real Mozambique this is a very spicy dish, with lots of piri piri (the local hot chilies). Portugalia's kitchen does make a piri piri sauce, but they don't automatically include it with this plate. (The old menu didn't even mention its availability.) You have to ask for it. Do. We ordered some with our second meal (in case the Brazilian dishes were "de-spiced for gringos"). It was beautiful to look at and to taste -- a rich, dark-red mixture of bell peppers, hot chilies, and garlic, faintly smoky, with a long, slow burn, the kind of heat that doesn't smash your taste buds but excites them.

At our return, our smart waitress recommended gomes de sá, one of her favorites -- fresh cod with oil, vinegar, garbanzo beans, and shredded hard-cooked eggs. It was the rave of the evening, rich and complex, earthy but sophisticated in a way that reminded me of the cuisine of Provence. It tasted less like fish than some wonderful light meat, and the garnishes never for a moment lost their fascination.

My own favorite was bife apimentado, a Brazilian dish of beef sautéed with onions, peppers, and chilies. Jason brought us a saucer of farofa to sprinkle on it -- toasted, seasoned manioc flour (made from ground, dried cassava root), which Brazilians sprinkle on almost everything they eat. I've sampled farofa often but never appreciated it before. Whether it was Jason's rendition of the dish or its matchup with the beef, this time it was gold dust, a lively, crunchy, perfect garnish.

Once we tasted them, my posse and I were less excited by two Bahian classics, moqueca de peixe (fish stew) and bobo de camarão (shrimp stew), both lush, slightly spicy dishes based on coconut milk. But Jason had cooked both stews with potatoes, and the spuds' heavy starchiness overpowered the sensuous tastes and textures, turning them dull and coarse. Traditionally (both at other Brazilian restaurants and in the recommendations in Brazilian cookbooks), the coconut-milk-based seafood dishes of Bahia are served over self-effacing plain white rice.

Several entrées at the first dinner flopped harder. Bacalhau assado (grilled fresh codfish with peppers and onions) was slightly overcooked and oversalted and generally less exciting than it sounded. As for lombo de porco assado (pork loin) and frango assado (marinated chicken breast), the first was shoe leather and the second, the sole of the shoe. (Jason, clearing the table, asked us why we'd left these over. When I phoned him, he told me that he'd taken the remains to the kitchen to bring their toughness to the attention of the new Brazilian cook who had prepared the dishes. However, he didn't take either dish off our bill.)

Desserts were excellent -- even at the first dinner. Jason brought out a pastry tray to choose from, all made by his mom -- some from old family recipes, some from cookbook recipes adapted to family tastes. The array included his mother's rice pudding, which she'd slaved over a hot stove for two hours to cook, from the owner's great-grandmother's recipe. On its surface, she'd drawn the silhouette of a rooster in cinnamon. Who could refuse? It was a charmer, light and none-too-sweet. A passion-fruit mousse was tart and intense, topped with barely sweetened whipped cream. And pasteis de nata, a pair of miniature pastries with red bottoms from implanted strawberries, proved to be made of puff pastry, concealing a custard filling. We gave them three cheers and four stars for flawless craftsmanship. Jason took our order for coffee, too, but never came back with it. (At least he didn't charge us for it.) The pasteis weren't available at the second dinner (a customer had bought out the day's supply), so we tried the Portuguese pound cake, which was pleasant, with whipped cream and huge ripe strawberries -- but not in the class of the glorious custard puffs.

I can't guarantee that Portugalia will always be free from amateurish glitches, particularly at busy times. When a restaurant has been in business for three or four years and nobody has reviewed it (or even blogged about it), there's usually a reason; my guess here is that the restaurant's performance may be inconsistent even without a surprise invasion. It's basically an inflated Mom 'n' Pop -- run by Junior. The chef-owner is young (although I've known many French chefs with 17 years' hard knocks in professional kitchens at his age). He's better-looking than is good for him and struck me and the posses at both dinners as rather taken with himself. (As our Commander in Chief has amply demonstrated, that's a characteristic that can inhibit the ability to learn from one's mistakes.) He has neither been to culinary school nor worked in other peoples' restaurants, missing out on all the slaving and suffering, saving and hustling that most chefs undergo before they finally get to open their own places.

But when he cooks, he's cookin'! If a meal at Portugalia may be something of a gamble, it's also an adventure, with fascinating dishes to discover and enjoy. Like the old nursery rhyme, when it is good, it is very, very good. With its moderate prices, comfortable atmosphere, and exciting, little-known cuisine, I'm betting that it's worth the risk.

ABOUT THE CHEF-OWNER

"It has been my dream to own a Portuguese restaurant, to enhance the Portuguese community in Point Loma and Ocean Beach and keep the unique traditions alive," writes chef-owner Jason Manoel Agrella Nascimento on Portugalia's website.

Soon after my first dinner at the restaurant, I started phoning Jason for an interview. Evidently, the blonde waitress didn't pass my messages on. (No surprise, she hadn't written down our reservation either.) Five days after the meal, on a Tuesday (not normally a busy restaurant night), I finally reached Jason. "I'm too busy cooking to talk right now," he said, and gave me his cell phone number to call the next afternoon. When I phoned at the specified time, he told me to call back in two hours. (I heard what sounded like a loud foreign-language TV program in the background, but maybe it was his mom yelling at him.) Next three calls, he'd turned the ringer off his cell phone. I left messages on voice mail but received no call-backs. Finally, I tried the restaurant number again. The blonde lied that Jason wasn't there, but he grabbed the phone and was ready to talk at last -- on my ninth attempt to reach him. (For a guy with a degree in international relations, his public-relations acumen seems less than impressive. Restaurant professionals are usually eager to talk to reviewers. Several hot-shot chefs have even taken an hour out of their well-earned vacations to return calls before press deadline.)

"I grew up here in Ocean Beach and Point Loma," he said, speaking rapidly. "There never was a Portuguese restaurant here. My family was from back East, a fishing family. There were a lot of Portuguese restaurants back there. And when I was doing my master's degree thesis in Portugal, I hung out with an aunt, and she taught me a lot of Portugal's cooking -- different meats and so forth, and I always sorted of wanted to do that.

"I'm kind of self-taught. I love to talk to people, and I knew I'd be great with customers. I earned a master's degree in international relations; it really helped me too. When I look at people, what I talk about, I get their interests going and things like that. I tell people a lot about the history and the food, the history of Portugal. I bring in a lot of Portuguese fusion with its previous colonies. I'm the executive chef, I cook three times a week, and the other three nights I have other cooks using my recipes, but I'm always here. The other chefs are all Portuguese or Brazilian. I wanted to keep it as traditional as possible.

"My restaurant's new menu is definitely Brazilian food -- Portuguese food is Brazilian food, but Brazilian food is not Portuguese food. I added everything together. My Portuguese clientele is very happy because I have all the Portuguese staples, six different ways of doing the bacalhau [codfish]...

"We make everything fresh. We're a mom 'n' pop, not a corporation, we don't have bags of stuff premade. I consider myself to be a conductor in an orchestra. Why did I do this? I want my culture to shine, my community to shine, my family to shine. Owning a restaurant, every day you throw a party. Some days, not enough show up -- other days, too many show up."

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