Where Cod Is God
It seems Portugal has never quite gotten out of the shadow of its bigger, more renowned, more influential Spanish neighbor. Think Sonoma to Napa, St. Paul to Minneapolis, Shrub to Darth Cheney.
It's too bad, really, because Portugal is a fascinating country in its own right, with a distinctive culinary and viticultural heritage. The former is based largely on salt cod (bacalhau), which occupies roughly the same position in the Portuguese gastronomic hierarchy as the almighty hamburger on our own foodie chain. As for the country's viticulture, it has rested mostly on fortified wines like port and Madeira, though new-style Portuguese still wines from the Douro and Alentejano regions in particular are getting the attention of the grape-stained wretches of the world wine press.
Though at one time the Portuguese empire extended all the way to Africa, India, and South America, in our own little corner of paradise the country's cuisine is about as common as July snowstorms and free-flowing traffic on Ocean Drive. Which is why anyone who loves the hearty, rustic, soul-satisfying cuisine of Portugal or anyone who loves hearty, rustic, soul-satisfying food in general should get their taste buds over to Coimbra Restaurant, at the corner of West Flagler Street and Le Jeune Road, and treat them to all the salt cod and wine they can stand.
That will probably be a lot, but it will not cost a lot of money. Entrée portions are as prodigious as they are modestly priced, and if you're not lugging food home for lunch or dinner the next day, either you or your tapeworm need to look up the word gluttony.
Truth be told, it's difficult not to stuff yourself with Coimbra's salt cod fritters, which sell for the princely sum of 85 cents each. It's a tribute to the quality of the fish and the kitchen's care in the lengthy soaking and desalting process that the cod flavor is mild and briny rather than fishy and salty. It's also a tribute to careful frying that thumb-size nuggets are light, crisp, and greaseless.
More luscious than its Spanish counterpart is the Portuguese version of garlic shrimp a wealth of plump, fresh-tasting crustaceans swimming in a rich, pungent, cream-enhanced sauce instead of the other's chili- and garlic-fired olive oil. And if you're in the mood for something a little heartier, a brace of seriously porky links of chorizo, nicely charred from the grill, should satisfy your hunger for good, tasty pig.
Pig with clams is another Portuguese specialty. Carne de porco à alentejana brings together cubes of lean, tender pork with crusty fried potatoes and fat in-shell clams moistened with a bit of tangy, bronzed broth. It's a combination that might seem a little sketchy until you put it in your mouth, where it makes such uncommonly delicious sense you'd think pigs and clams were members of the same species.
Then, of course, there's bacalhau. Coimbra's menu boasts more than a dozen such entrées, just a few of Portugal's supposedly 365 dishes featuring salt cod (one for each day of the year). Bacalhau à gomes de sá is a Portuguese classic shredded salt cod sautéed with potatoes, onions, hard-cooked eggs, and plenty of olive oil, garnished with a few black olives. It's robust, filling, deeply savory fare, though like the fritters surprisingly mild in flavor and not nearly as salty as one might imagine.
For dessert there are custard tarts and meringue cake and caramel flan with the density of filet mignon and the richness of cheesecake, drizzled with an insipid, Hershey's-like chocolate sauce that served no good purpose.
Kind of like Darth Cheney.
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