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I have never dipped my feet into the cool blue waters of Portugal, but I did once put them in my mouth by suggesting to a Portuguese fellow that his national fare was pretty much the same as Spain's. His brief but emotional lecture enlightened me as to a few differences (for example fresh herbs and spices are used more abundantly in Portugal, but the spices themselves are less dominant), yet I still maintain that similarities exist. Both cuisines, for instance, rely on fish, shellfish, pork products, rice, garlic, potatoes, and tomatoes. Naturally the fondness for these ingredients varies from region to region, though one food that all of Portugal loves, perhaps because they invented it, is salt cod (bacalhau). Tasca Lisboa, a 50-seat Portuguese restaurant in Coral Gables, reflects this national infatuation by offering a dozen different codfish dishes on its menu. The place also prepares numerous other homespun specialties from the mother country, in a charming, Old World setting.
The rectangular room is simply decorated, the most attention-grabbing feature four red-heart-centered stained glass windows spaced evenly along one of the pale yellow walls. The tables, draped in white linen, adorned with fresh orchids, and lit by flickering candles, coalesce with oak wainscotting, red-brick floors, and some homey Portuguese appointments to create a warm and inviting space.
I don't mean this as a knock on Tasca's main courses, but an ideal way to enjoy a dining experience here would be to share half a dozen or more of the mostly seafood starters. They're delectable, generously portioned, and, if washed down with a glass of Portuguese beer (Sagres) or wine, would sate any appetite. (The wine list here, by the way, is rather limited, especially considering how many wines there are to choose from. Portugal produces 170 million gallons each year, with an unrivaled ratio of 1000 gallons exported for every one imported.) The appetizers sampled: four fat sardines, charred on the outside and succulent within, served with ripe slices of tomato and lime; ten medium-size shrimps, perfectly cooked, awash in creamy garlic sauce; a stellar octopus salad imbued with the flavors of paprika, garlic, and olive oil; and a hefty, garlicky, and juicy Portuguese sausage, which arrived aflame on a small, ceramic, pig-shape grill, evidently made just for this purpose. The waiter adeptly sliced the sausage tableside.
While nine of the starters are priced at either $7.95 or $8.95, the tenth, codfish cakes, cost 85 cents apiece. No doubt salted cod costs less than shrimp, but that's quite a price differential. The thumb-size croquettes of cod were breaded and deep fried, served with black olives rolling beside them on the plate. Tasca might consider upping the price a bit and, as they do in Portugal, flavoring the cakes with coriander, mint, and parsley, and topping them with poached eggs. Or else maybe just adding a dipping sauce, because as presently served, these are pretty bland. At this cost, though, it would be in bad taste to quibble further.
Half of the seafood entrées are based on salt cod, which comes grilled, boiled, baked in cream sauce, braised with potatoes and onions and topped with hard-boiled eggs, and -- I'll stop now before I sound like Bubba from Forrest Gump. We tried the cod stew ($16.95), large squares of the moist, flaky fish baked with hunks of half-potatoes, onions, garlic, and cilantro in a tomato sauce that, considering the assertive flavor of salt cod, could have been perkier. The fishy taste of bacalhau isn't for everyone, but there are other ways to go here, like various seafood and rice dishes (arroz de mariscos), grilled red snapper, and a limited selection of steak, chicken, veal, and pork dishes.
One direction this menu doesn't go in is toward fresh vegetables. There are no green salads (octopus salad is the only cold dish), and the main courses come accompanied mainly with various combinations of the potatoes and tomatoes with which they get cooked. Tomatoes, incidentally, are predominant enough in Portuguese fare that the French use the term à la portugaise to denote a tomato garniture.
The Portuguese (and, might I add, the Spanish) use some pretty surprising combinations of ingredients in their cooking, one example being pickled pork with clams. Tasca serves their version unpickled, which is probably a good marketing move, seeing how this is strange enough surf and turf as it is. The pork is roasted with potatoes, garlic, and a little white wine, and topped with sweet and tiny littleneck clams ($16.95). The flavor was fine, but the pork was cut into stew-size pieces before being roasted, which made it very tough. Strip steak ($15.75 small; $17.95 large) was better, cooked just right and smothered with a seductive garlic sauce and fried egg. Saffron rice to the right of the meat, and roast potatoes to the left, were deftly prepared.
Three of the four desserts ($4.60) are made on the premises. I was intrigued by our waiter's description of one of them as being composed of a "cracker" with vanilla sauce and whipped cream. Turned out to be a dessert glass of vanilla custard with a thin layer of cake underneath, whipped cream on top. Bad translation, but a light and tasty treat. A rectangle of chocolate cake layered with chocolate buttercream and bittersweet chips likewise was pleasing. What I appreciated most about both desserts was their subtlety of sweetness. The mass-produced cakes that many restaurants use are boosted with abnormal amounts of sugar, which not only help keep the cakes moister for longer periods of time, but also make my teeth ache. Of course the proper way to finish things up would be to sip on one of five ports offered by the glass. Oporto, Portugal, after all, is the world's ultimate "port" town.
One waiter may have had difficulty with the language, but he and the rest of the staff were professionally mannered and sharp; they refilled our water glasses so quickly that it appeared as though we weren't drinking any. The kitchen is fast at putting out the food as well -- too fast, as on both visits our main courses arrived just as the appetizer plates were being cleared. Tasca Lisboa has its flaws, but until I actually make it to Portugal, it will do quite nicely.