Before even a short vacation in any foreign country, I always try to learn about the food of the place, in the language of the place -- nothing really daunting in terms of grammar or vocabulary but enough to cover the basic amenities and practicalities of negotiating a meal. This minimal preparation serves the dual purpose of avoiding arrogance (because I do believe it is inexcusably arrogant not to bother learning language basics) and, equally important, of avoiding missing out on a nation's most tasty typical dishes.
Thus a recent trip to Spain and Portugal proved distressing to me in terms of trip prep (no, not the Spain part). When I could find virtually no authoritative information on Portuguese cuisine that included accurate and specific translations in Portuguese, I was worried.
But I shouldn't have been. After several weeks in Portugal, I can guarantee you that there are no major insect- or innards-type landmine dishes in Portuguese cuisine. The reason is that, for the most part, Portuguese cuisine can be described in one word: bacalao. In other words when some Portuguese waiter natters on forever in a language with lots of weird sh sounds in it that you can't understand, you can rest assured that all he will be basically saying is, "And which of this miniscule five-table joint's five-dozen preparations of bacalao would you like today?" Five dozen, though, is a vast underestimate. The rule in Portugal is that there are 365 recipes using bacalao, one for each day of the year. Exactly why reconstituted dried salt cod that isn't even caught locally (it's imported from northern Atlantic waters, mainly around Norway) is a national addiction in an Atlantic/Mediterranean seacoast country, where catching fabulous fresh fish is a major industry, is a mystery. But it's true.
The bacalao rule continues at Old Lisbon, a small and casual but, as is typical of equally humble restaurants in Portugal, abundantly tiled spot that's one of only a few Portuguese restaurants in Miami. Of twenty listed seafood specialties, half feature bacalao. And with both unusual versions such as bacalhau à northena, a fresh shrimp-garnished baked piece of dried cod with mashed potatoes, and familiar classics like bacalhau à gomes de sa (dried cod fried with onions, potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and black olives -- a reassuringly easy intro for diners not quite sure of their feelings about a fish that looks like a piece of petrified corrugated cardboard that went through the washer and dryer), it was hard to choose just one. But at the request of a tablemate who'd lived in Lisbon for two years, we went for her favorite, bacalhau com natas (with cream). What the menu described as a "succulent cream sauce" seemed to have mostly been absorbed by the fish, making for more of a concentrated milk-fat coating than a sauce, and the cod itself resembled a rather dry Jewish-deli smoked mackerel. Although pleasant enough to explain why sailors on monthslong voyages without fresh food once christened bacalao "the faithful friend," the bland dish hardly inspired one to stand up and salute; why o fiel amigo remains a Portuguese national anthem today remained, I'm afraid, a mystery to our table.
For the rest of our fish dishes we stuck to fresh seafood, including sardines, a close second in popularity to bacalao in Portugal, where the fresh sardinhas are much meatier and larger than those one can catch along Florida shores. Old Lisbon serves its sardines either fried or, our choice, grilled, a more typical treatment along the Portuguese seacoast, where even the tiniest mom-and-pop eateries cook the small whole fish to simple savoriness. Old Lisbon's imported sardines were indeed big, but the flesh was overcooked to dryness and mushy rather than firm, suggesting that the fresh fish could've been fresher.
A far superior grilled item was lulas grelhadas, tender yet satisfyingly chewy whole squid with an abundant olive oil-and-garlic garnish perfect for mopping up with the warm bread -- not Portugal's typical dense maize broa but a respectable French loaf.
Probably the most basic principle of traditional Portuguese cuisine after that of the bacalao one, is remarkably similar to Alice Waters's recent New American cuisine tenet of using impeccably fresh seasonal ingredients simply but perfectly prepared. The difference is that most Portuguese chefs haven't gotten around to taking their preparations one step further and transforming tradition into cutting-edge creativity. For instance taking ameijoas à bulhao pato, a popular preparation of delectably delicate baby clams bathed in garlic and cilantro-spiked olive oil usually served just plonked in a bowl, and plonking it on some handmade langoustine raviolis instead. But regrettably, Old Lisbon's version was more of a stroke waiting to happen: The only discernable taste in its plentiful and pervasive "white wine consommé" was salt. Additionally the saline-soaked clams were not the typical tiny tender Venetian types found in Portugal but big tough types from New Zealand.
Porco à alentejana, Portugal's unusual but absolutely inspired combination of pork and clams, featured the same fairly formidable kiwi clams and jerkylike pork chunks to match. The dish's white-wine sauce, however, was far less salty and thus far more satisfying.
Arroz de mariscos, usually the highest-ticket item on any Portuguese menu, was an excellent value at Old Lisbon in the quantity of clams, mussels, squid rings, and jumbo Florida shrimp served; a one-person portion fed four. The seafood was impeccably fresh, too. And while the rice base itself was fairly flavorless, lacking the intense concentrated-tomato taste found in top versions of this Portuguese paella, Lisbon's arroz definitely was superior to most found in Portugal when it comes to vegetables. Namely, that there were some. Portugal's climate is ideal for agriculture, but its restaurants are largely vegetable-free zones, at least in terms of nonstarch crisp things. The typical vegetable accompaniments to almost all entrées in Portugal (and at Old Lisbon as well) are a mound of boiled or very greasy fried potatoes, a mountain of rice, or both.
Naturally this means that American systems scream for salad. And here, Old Lisbon was authentically Portuguese, too. The salada Portuguesa's lettuce, described on the menu as mixed greens, consisted exclusively of iceberg. A few carrot shreds completed the crunch quotient. A generous sprinkling of diced Portuguese cheese and brined olives added the piquancy that the oil-and-vinegar salad dressing lacked.
Portuguese desserts, typically just sweet puddings, disappoint most people with sophisticated tastes. Diners with severely serious sweet teeth, though, will adore delicia de Fatima, an over-the-top affair of layered condensed milk, whipped cream, and crushed galletas Maria cookies. And for those who prefer to drink dessert, an even more overwhelmingly sweet treat awaits: The restaurant carries several dozen ports, guaranteeing a warm-fuzzy festive-meal ending even for those who find Portuguese food in general, and Old Lisbon's take in particular, somewhat a work in progress.
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