Uma Casa Portuguesa: Lusitano brings Lisbon close to home
Oporto, Portugal, thirty years ago: We stroll along the forlorn, misty port, past desolate docks, our shadows thrown long by dim streetlights. From afar I hear faint strains of a voice singing an achingly sad fado. Round the bend, an arched window reflects a warm glow; there's laughter and merriment within. “That’s it!” my friend exclaims, relieved.
We'd been searching for a tasca, a simple local eatery described by our hotelkeeper, but weren’t quite sure of its location, as the description was in Portuguese and we only spoke Spanish and French. Inside, a local family, perhaps fishermen, was dining on an enormous plate of bacalau (salt cod) accompanied by greens, carrots, onions, lots of olive oil, a huge crusty peasant bread and pitchers of fresh white vinho verde. This tableau stayed with me, and became an iconic memory of what was then a simple and poor country. Needless to say, our meal was also memorable. It would be many years before I returned, this time to a different Portugal, one discovered by tourists and considerably more globalized.
Portuguese cuisine is not well known outside the mother country. Nor is its culture. “Fado (see link) is our national music,” explains Pedro Leitào Oliveira, the Lisbon-born owner of Lusitano, Mexico City's excellent new Portuguese restaurant, “It comes from the same gypsy roots as flamenco, but it's more rhythmic and lyrical. Many people have never heard of it, but when they’re introduced they love it.” Same goes for the food, I'd say.
Lusitano, whose name refers to the area’s Roman moniker, is an informal bistro offering fine Portuguese cooking; it's both homey and creative. Portuguese, like all Iberian cuisine is unpretentious and relatively uncomplicated; it’s about basic ingredients simply combined and balanced.
Captured in the cold waters of the northern Europe and preserved with salt, cod has been feeding the Iberian peninsula, (and to a lesser degree the rest of southern Europe) for centuries. But it's Portugal that has taken it on full steam, and developed innumerable variations of its preparation. A typical supermarket in Lisbon will have a bacalau counter as wide as the space allows, where hair-netted ladies help you select from dozens of cuts and qualities.
Bacalau is in no way inferior to fresh fish--it's just different. Prepared correctly, it is succulent and tender, just a bit salty (most of the salt is extracted by soaking the fish in water before cooking), and richly concentrated in fish flavor, lending itself to myriad preparations.
Two traditional, heart warming casseroles are offered here: bacalau a brás, shredded with potato and egg, and bacalau com natas, with béchamel, cream and a nice brown crust. Chef Bruno Silva’s creative riffs on this traditional ingredient are outstanding. For bacalau assado com molho cremoso de figos e camarão, a good quality lomo (the thick belly and the best cut) is grilled and set in fig-infused honey, surrounded by sautéed fresh figs and crowned with a large shrimp. Sweet, salt and umami are perfectly juggled in this dish. Or, even better, bacalao marinado em porto is marinated in white port and placed on a round pillow of very un-Mexican, albeit picante, frijoles.
Beef dishes are well done, if a bit less distinctively Portuguese. Bife a Café, a filet in a coffee-flavored sauce, is intriguing. More traditional is the bife à portuguesa, which wraps a filet in good jamon Serrano.
Portions are ample here (we shared several), but be sure to leave room for dessert. Abade de priscos, an egg pudding flavored with port and bacon (!) is on the menu - if you have a Portuguese friend, try this and tell them you loved it. Even better is the ananás caramelizdo com gin (think pineapple upside-down cake without the cake), served with rich home-made ice cream – a family recipe.
Wines are exclusively Portuguese and fairly priced. While a bottle of vinho verde is tempting, don’t overlook the high quality reds from the Douro and Alentejo regions. These wines are sleepers, and the owner promises to bring more in: “My dad’s in Lisbon getting an order together right now,” beams Pedro. And of course, a well-chosen array of ports are available as well.
The smallish space is simple and cozy, befitting the fare, with a few tables spilling out onto the street for smokers. Musical accompaniment is the aforementioned fado, with occasional live performance on weekends.
Lusitano is reasonably priced – a full meal will be around $400 to 500 pesos, but a fixed price comida for $120 is also offered weekdays.
Also excellent is Lusitana, the new bakery, which offers great rustic breads and the iconic pasteis de Belem, little custard tarts.
Obrigado to this family of Lusitanos for bringing these fabulous tastes of the old country to our new world.
Sabores de Portugal
Guanajuato 239, just east of Av. Insurgentes
Open Monday- Saturday 1:30 - midnight, Sunday 1:30 - 6 p.m.
Valladolid 76, Roma Nte.
Café Manuel, On Calzada Tlapan, to the left as you exit metro Viaducto, is one of the few authentic Cafés de chinos left in the city. And the chop suey is actually GOOD!
Casa Virginia is chef Mónica Patiño's latest venture, located above Delirio at the corner of Alvaro Obregón & Monterrey, the Porfiriana house is beautifully restored and home-style food is delicious - but noise can be a problem. Tel. 5207 1813; you'll need a reservation.
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