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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Old Sichuan

With the demise of the Grand Sichuan at Ninth Ave. and 51st St., and the inflation-commensurate-with-popularity of the prices at Szechuan Gourmet (making it now essentially an expensive restaurant), there has been a void in options for reasonably-priced, good Sichuan food in Manhattan. Thankfully, that void has now been filled by a relative new-comer, Old Sichuan in Chinatown.

Occupying the space directly across the street from New Green Bo, vacated by Yeah Shanghai Deluxe when it moved to the corner, they serve some of the most pleasing Sichuan food west of Little Pepper, including some relative rarities. I'm crazy about flaky turnip cakes with ham but almost never encounter them--Old Sichuan's are excellent. Cold dishes sampled so far--spicy beef tendon and sliced pork belly with garlic sauce--are stellar, with bold, complex, fresh flavors. The same goes for the Sichuan wonton in red hot oil... I wanted to drink the remaining sauce when the delicate wontons were gone. The dry bean curd with spicy black bean is my favorite dry bean curd dish I've tried anywhere, and the sour string bean with minced pork is just what it should be: sour, spicy, delicious. Ask about the special chicken dish on the wall (and not on the regular) menu. It's a dish of which the proprietress seems especially proud: chunks of chicken dry-sauteed with three kinds of pepper flavor... a lovely dish.

Old Sichuan
65 Bayard St., New York, NY 10013
212-227-9888

website

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Meste Zé

If you head up the coast from Cascais on the Estrada do Guincho, you're in for a spectacularly beautiful drive. And if you stop at Meste Zé, you'll be in for a spectacular meal.

I first learned the name of this place years ago as "Mestre Zé"... it seems to have lost the "r" in the intervening years, making it even more like kiddie-talk for "Master José" (like "nana" for "grandma"). No matter--the food is definitely NOT child's play. Although this place is a little outside the normal purview of this blog--it's essentially an expensive restaurant--it's home to what is perhaps the single greatest dish I know of in Portugal: a truly sensational cataplana de marisco. This is basically a stew cooked in the traditional Portuguese pan called a cataplana, which looks a bit like a flying saucer and is made of copper....the top half lifts off on a hinge after being sealed up so that all the juices and aromas stay in while cooking. It's made with squid, shrimp, lobster, and various other tidbits, all done perfectly (and since they all require different cooking times, this is no small feat), simmered in a sauce of onion, wine, a bit of tomato paste, chouriço (of course!), and some cream, and served over rice. As far as I'm concerned, one of the most spectacular dishes in the whole country, and they are the only restaurant I know of to make it the way they do.

Meste Zé
Estrada do Guincho
2750-642 Cascais, Portugal
(+351) 21 487 02 75

website

Restaurante Adega O Fuso

If you're in Lisbon and have access to a car, you should definitely take a trip to Arruda dos Vinhos. Take the A1 highway from Lisbon, in the direction of Porto, and exit at Alverca. From there, follow the signs to Arruda dos Vinhos--the trip takes about half an hour from Lisbon, and takes you through some lovely and unusual terrain. The trip is well worth making because of an outstanding restaurant called O Fuso.

The heart of the restaurant is a big, stone lareira--the hearth where all of the house specialties are grilled. And these specialties justify the trip completely: bacalhau grilled over the wood fire--with liberal amounts of garlic, then doused in olive oil--and, my favorite, naturally, costela de vaca--a huge... what does one call it?... beef rib chop, also grilled over the wood fire (remember the beginning of the Flintstones cartoon, at the drive-in? This rib chop reminds you a bit of that....). A grilled chouriço to start, and you're in heaven. The wonderful, local bread they serve is made even better if you ask them to toast it (torrar) over that same fire. The restaurant is easy to find, right on the main drag in the center of the town.

Restaurante Adega O Fuso
Rua Almirante Cândido dos Reis, 94-96
2630-216 Arruda dos Vinhos, Portugal
(+351) 26 397 51 21

Cervejaria Caneca de Prata

If, while in Lisboa, you find yourself in the mood to try vinho verde, do yourself a favor and go to Caneca da Prata (Rua da Prata, 163/165, about halfway between the Praça do Comercio and the Praça da Figueira). They serve it tapped directly from the cask (de pressão), and it's the perfect accompaniment for their marvelous salgados (savory meat, chicken and fish pastries) made fresh throughout the day (almost uniquely in Lisboa....most places make them early in the day and they sit around until they're gone). Ask what's warm at the moment when you get there--their rissóis de camarão (shrimp rissoles), fresh from the fryer are the best I've ever tasted, and those things are EVERYWHERE in Lisbon (although almost never freshly-made). It's also the best place around to get a sandes de leitão (roast suckling pig sandwich). For me, this was the perfect joint for a late afternoon snack--it gets very crowded at lunch-time, and they're all closed up by 7 in the evening.

Cervejaria Caneca de Prata
Rua da Prata, 163/165
1100-416 Lisboa, Portugal
(+351) 21 342 68 05

Restaurante Carreira

If you happen to be up north in Portugal, passing through Guimarães, there are two things you must do: spend an hour or so at the Paço dos Duques de Bragança, and eat at Restaurante Carreira.

It's one of those old-fashioned restaurants I just love where you walk through the kitchen to get to your table. I've only had one meal there, but everything we tried was outstanding. I suspect you really can't go wrong here... really about the best homestyle regional cooking I had in any restaurant in Portugal. It's the kind of place where most dishes come with a nice pot of arroz de feijão (rice cooked with kidney beans, and some bacon and chouriço, of course) on the side. Try anything that sounds good--it will be, I assure you. And it's the only restaurant I ever found that has doce de aletria on the menu--a traditional Portuguese dessert made with spaghetti-like noodles, the ubiquitous sweetened egg-custard, and cinnamon.....sort of like an eggy rice pudding, except with noodles. Sounds weird, but it's delicious. The place can be a bit tricky to find: it's out from the center of town--if memory serves, to the west--in the neighborhood called Silvares (there used to be a lot of car dealerships nearby). But ask around--it's worth the trouble! You also might want to call first...the last time I tried to go there it was closed, on a day when it was supposed to be open.

Restaurante Carreira
Rua 25 de Abril, 1
Silvares 4835-400 Guimarães, Portugal
(+351) 25 341 84 48

Restaurante A Carvalheira

If you're up north in the Minho region, the town of Ponte de Lima is worth visiting for many reasons: it's picturesque, there's a great regional market, and--unsurprisingly for this blog--there's a fantastic restaurant: A Carvalheira.

It's located across the river from the center of Ponte de Lima in the neighborhood called Arcozelo--a very pleasant 5-minute walk across the bridge. It's in an old stone house, and the centerpiece of the restaurant is the big stone hearth, where some of the cooking is sometimes done--it's the perfet spot for a warming, winter evening meal. Although everything I tried was superb, the house specialty is pernil de porco assado, or roast pork shoulder (Filipinos, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are quite familiar with this cut), and it is spectacular. Crispy crackling--well, I suppose it's not skin, but fat--on the outside, perfectly tender meat on the inside, accompanied by roasted potatoes and greens (couve, something between cabbage and collard or mustard greens, wilted, then sauteed). The potatoes and greens have so much flavor that it's impossible that they're cooked in simply oil--there's definitely lard working its magic in there. One of the other house specialties is arroz de pato (duck with rice, baked in the oven), and it's also wonderful. In fact, everything is of the highest quality. And at about 30 bucks a head, VERY well worth the trip if you're in the vicinity. This place is extremely popular, especially on the weekends, so it would be worth calling ahead. Closed Mondays.

Restaurante A Carvalheira
Antepaço - Arcozelo
4990-231 Ponte de Lima, Portugal
(+351) 25 874 23 16

Restaurante O Toucinho

Another great day/evening meal trip form Lisbon is to go to Almeirim (take the A1 highway to Santarém, and it's just across the river). Almeirim is famous for its sopa da pedra, a traditional soup that evolved from the old "stone soup" legend (and sure enough, in most restaurants, each serving of soup comes with its own polished stone in the bottom of the bowl). It's a hearty, red-bean based soup fortified with potatoes and the usual suspects--chouriço, morcela, and bacon. The best place in town to sample this is the restaurant O Toucinho.

The other specialty here is grilled meats (which they do over charcoal), of which the best is a sort of thick lamb chop, but cut in a way I have never seen anywhere else, the name of which I can't for the life of me remember. Just ask which it is--it's the most popular one and, unfortunately, they're often out of it (a bit of Googling produced the word "rinzada"... I think that may be it, but do some inquiring to be sure). The bread is also spectacularly delicious here, fresh from the oven. The restaurant is a bit tricky to find if you don't know where you're going. Just head for the bull ring, then ask someone for directions. Closed Thursdays.

Restaurante O Toucinho
Rua de Timor, 20
2080-103 Almeirim, Portugal
(+351) 24 359 22 37

Restaurante "O Labrêgo"

About a half-hour-to-forty-five-minute drive from Lisbon, due north along the A8 toward Torres Vedras is a restaurant I think is truly special. It's in an old, low, stone house (which I'm sure was once a quinta) and has that unmistakable aura of "local tradition" about it....in the back, there is a porch, surrounded by grape vines, with tables....perfect for a summer afternoon. The best reason to go here: cabrito assado, their specialty: kid goat roasted in a wood oven, served bubbling in it's own juices in a clay casserole with small roasted new potatoes. This, in turn, is served with one of the most delicious side dishes I have ever tasted--the rice. But it's not just any rice....it's rice that has been cooked in the drippings and juices of the kid goat and its giblets (do goats have giblets?), which reduces to a thick, concentrated sauce. You can ask for it com or sem miúdos, miúdos being the chopped bits of innards that impart all that great flavor. I admit I prefer it sem (without). In a way, it's like in intense, meaty and smoky risotto, but the most amazing risotto I've ever had (and I love risotto to begin with).

This nirvana can be experienced at the restaurant "O Labrêgo" in a "town" (more like a wide spot in the road) called Feliteira, which is a few kilometers south of Dois Portos, which in turn is just south of Torres Vedras. It's not directly accessible from the highway--have a good map handy.

Restaurante "O Labrêgo"
Av. 25 Abril, nº 9 - Feliteira
Dois Portos 2565-182 Torres Vedras, Portugal
(+351) 26 171 22 62

Restaurante Serra da Estrela - Cantinho Regional

If you like hearty, mountain fare as I do, Restaurante Serra da Estrela is an extremely useful restaurant to know about when one is in Lisbon. At first blush, it doesn't seem like my kind of restaurant: it's a chain (albeit a small one), all the locations are in shopping centers (centros comerciais), and it's a touch on the expensive side, though not ridiculous by any means. But the food is good... better than good, and they're open when other restaurants are not. Sometimes you just need a meal outside of normal meal times, and that can be tricky in Portugal!

The food is the real deal--not like O Albertino (what is?), but very good. They use authentic enchidos (the general word for cured meat products like chouriço, morcela, etc.)--very important, since at least one variety figures into almost every dish of the region. The sopa do cantinho, a hearty bean and vegetable soup with a couple of cured pork products (naturally) is a satisfying starter, as is the chouriço stewed in red wine. Having eaten here countless times over the years, some of the memorable main courses I've had include açorda de entrecosto (a kind of thick, moistened-bread stew with pork spareribs), chanfana de borrego (lamb stewed in red wine), rancho à moda da Beira (a hearty stew of chickpeas, macaroni, chouriço, morcela, bacon, and farinheira, a type of sausage made with bread, paprika and garlic), galinha de cabidela (possibly my favorite dish in Portuguese cuisine: chicken stewed with giblets, then rice cooked in the resulting giblet broth, with chicken blood added at the end), and alheira de caça (a fried thick sausage filled with shredded pheasant and partridge meat, bread, and garlic).

And, perhaps best of all, they can always be counted on to have good queijo da serra on hand. Queijo da serra is, for me, one of THE great cheeses of the world--runny ambrosia on a plate. And, at around €4 a serving, a relative bargain.

Restaurante Serra da Estrela - Cantinho Regional
Amoreiras Shopping Center, Atrium Saldanha,
Centro Colombo, Centro Vasco da Gama,
CascaiShopping (Alcabideche - Cascais),
and other centros comerciais around Portugal

Ginginha Transmontana

When visiting Lisbon, it's definitely worthwhile to check out Cascais--the 40-minute train ride along the water is extremely pleasant--and if you do, there's a restaurant out there that should not be missed: Ginginha Transmontana.

It's a tiny place (so it's best to call ahead and reserve), with décor best described as "funky"--a bit like a cluttered, yet well-organized, basement, rounded out with Christmas lights and candles stuck on top of wine bottles. When you sit down, they will automatically bring you their house white wine and the house appetizer: mussels that have been steamed with white wine, onions, garlic, chouriço, and bacon. Accept them. They specialize in meats and seafood grelhado na telha, or grilled on a roofing tile. They set up a piece of terra cotta roofing tile on a salver, on which to grill filet mignon the size of a softball, or scrupulously fresh lobster, squid, shrimp, or fish over flaming aguardiente (brandy). When it is brought to the table, garlic butter is liberally applied, and, in the case of seafood, lemon, to douse the flames. They also do a killer chanfana (kid goat stewed with red wine, onions, and chouriço).

It's a rather long walk from the train station, so it's best to take a taxi (they're cheap). If there is any question about the address, direct the cab driver to the Largo das Fontainhas. It'll run you about $35-$40 a head, and well worth it. Closed Sundays.

Ginginha Transmontana
Rua de Alvide, 366
2750 Cascais, Portugal
(+351) 21 483 26 55

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Restaurante Zé Maria

Valença do Minho is a funky border town in the north of Portugal, right on the Minho river at an important crossing point into Spain. It's got a great old fortaleza (fortress), reasonably-priced accommodations--I thought the Hotel Lara, right at the entrance to the International Bridge, was great--and some excellent food, if you know where to find it (that big "if" is true of Portugal in general). Cozinha minhota has a lot of wonderful dishes in its canon... the trick is to convince someone to make any of them for you. Most restaurants stick to the same boring stuff.

Luckily, there is Restaurante Zé Maria. It seems to be the best-known restaurant in town, and although I passed through Valença twice in the last couple of weeks, I only managed one meal there because the second time was a Tuesday, and they are closed on Tuesdays (I have a special knack for that). But the one meal I did manage bespoke of a kitchen that knew what it was doing. If cabrito is on the menu, I'm probably going to order it... and that's just what I did. It was cabrito no forno: oven-roasted pieces of kid goat with roasted potatoes (that were surely coated in lard before roasting... mmm...), served in a traditional alguidar de barro full of rice.


Not exactly spectacular, but a it was cooking true to its exceptional ingredients, and deeply satisfying. I so wanted to go back and try other things... I kept seeing beautiful bacalhau, seafood, and meat dishes going by, and some great-looking fried potato rounds. Next time.

If you end up staying in the Hotel Lara on a Tuesday, whatever you do, DON'T go to Restaurante Cristina next door. I had a meal there so unbearably mediocre I was not interested enough to even finish it.

Restaurante Zé Maria
Centro Comercial Bruxelas - Av. Dr. Tito Fontes
4930-673 Valença do Minho, Portugal
(+351) 251 82 53 64

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Casa Juanín

There is a restaurant in the mountains of eastern Asturias that I have been going to for at least 17 years. Taken there by my dear friend and Asturian food guru José Ángel, from the very first visit it took its place as my favorite restaurant in Spain, and, therefore, the world. It’s a very small, family-run place that I tried to keep a secret for years, to impart to only the truly worthy. But since there is now a detailed listing for it in the latest edition of the Guía Azul for Asturias, I guess word can safely be considered to be "out". It seems to be called Casa Isabel now, although it used to be called Casa Juanín, named for the dueño, her father, even though Isabel has always done all the cooking--at least since I've been going there.

I returned there today, and am delighted to see that nothing has changed—most notably, the quality—in 17 years. It’s in a tiny pueblo called Pendones--a handful of houses perched up on a mountainside above AS-117 on the way to the Puerto de Tarna. The restaurant is nothing more than two small rooms that comprise (along with the third small room, the kitchen) the ground floor of their house. Everything is homemade, with what are palpably local ingredients. It’s heavy, mountain fare, so perhaps best enjoyed in cooler weather… but I’ve got to grab my visits when I can! The offerings are always the same, plus or minus a dish or two, but you can generally count on: sopa de pescado (fish soup), fabes con jabalí (the oversized white haricot beans used in fabada, stewed with wild boar), picadillo de venado (sauté of minced venison seasoned with paprika and garlic), callos (tripe), and cabrito (stewed kid goat). As great as the cabrito is, somehow that venison picadillo is even more amazing. Sometimes there’s pitu de caleya (stewed free-range chicken). There’s always arroz con leche for dessert, and Isabel makes the best flan I have ever had. Because every bit of it is local and real and prepared by an expert, the food all has more flavor than one would think possible.

Pendones can be a bit tricky to find—it’s not even on a lot of maps. Heading southeast on AS-117, head past Campo de Caso another 5 kilometers or so to La Foz. Keep going another kilometer or two and keep a sharp lookout for small sign pointing you up the mountainside to the left. And because of the tiny size of the restaurant, definitely call ahead for a reservation.

Casa Juanín (aka Casa Isabel)
Pendones, s/n
Pendones 33997 Caso, Spain
(+34) 985 61 37 25

Saturday, July 10, 2010

El Bulevar de la Sidra

The Calle Gascona in Oviedo has traditionally been home to a bunch of sidrerías over the years, but it’s only been in the last decade or so that someone had the bright idea of marketing the two quaint blocks that comprise it as “El Bulevar de la Sidra”. There's even an official website, run by the “Asociación de Hosteleros de la Calle Gascona”. By no means all of the sidrerías on the street are members, and the ones that are seem to me to be more notable for their desire for self-promotion and a certain mediocrity of fare rather than real quality.

I readily admit to a certain perverseness when it comes to these things, so, predictably enough, my two favorites on the street are the oldest and the newest of the sidrerías. Starting with the newest (though it didn't last very long - it's now closed), Sidrería Zandarín (named for a pueblo near Cangas del Narcea) has been open for business just over nine months and has already distinguished itself as one of the better cocinas on the street. I chose it randomly—on the basis of its appealing menú del día, coupled with its appealing price of €10 —when I arrived in Oviedo Sunday afternoon and needed to find a place to eat lunch quickly before everything closed. One of the primero platos was fabada asturiana… I hadn’t had fabada in over a year, and it was a cool afternoon (most important), so I went for it. And to my great surprise, it was excellent. REALLY excellent. I have been served some shockingly mediocre fabadas in the past, in places that should have been serving something much better than goop that could have come from a can, so for years I have confined my fabada-eating to places like La Máquina in Lugones and Casa Gerardo. I was, admittedly, flying blind. But luck was with me: tender, almost perfectly-cooked fabes (beans), and embutidos (chorizo, morcilla, lacon, and tocino) worthy of the very best places. It was good enough to remind me what a great dish it really is. This was followed by an entrecot de buey that actually tasted like ox and not just generic cattle. I went back the next evening for some of the best pollo al ajillo (bone-in chunks of chicken fried with garlic) I’ve ever had.

Sidrería Ferroviario has been around for almost 6 decades, making it about the oldest establishment on the street. And it’s holding up beautifully… no flash, no glitz—just good, reasonably-priced food and, as one review I read said, “buena sidra, bien escanciada” (good sidra, well-poured). After spending time in lesser sidrerías--I even got to watch my friend José Ángel school the waiter in the proper way to escanciar la sídra the other day--it’s easy to forget what a difference this can make. On my most recent visit, they were pouring Peñón sidra (for my tastes, an excellent maker), and these guys know what they’re doing… officially: Ferroviario is well-known for having on its staff winners of international concursos de escanciadores (sidra-pouring competitions). And with sidra, it really does make a difference. Try it for yourself sometime: hit a few of the sidrerías in the c/Gascona, ending with Ferroviario. See if it doesn’t actually taste the best. They also boast an excellent, traditional Asturian kitchen with a great €9 menú del día. And this is one of the few places around you can still get traditional jamón asado. It’s yet another Spanish dish with jamón in the name, but it’s unlike any other: slices of a roast ham, but it is the ham BEFORE being cured. It’s not pink, it’s not salty—just a spectacularly moist, delicious pork roast. It may exist outside of Asturias, but I have never encountered it anywhere else. I had fidegüa there today: a stew of seafood with thick noodles. You NEVER see that on menus any more. And when I ordered arroz con leche for dessert (one of the glories of Asturian cooking—there’s a great recipe for it here), I was asked if I wanted it quemado (with its traditional sugar crust burned on top, like crême brulée). I almost fell off my chair… such a nicety is rarely offered at this price point.

Sidrería Zandarín (closed permanently)
c/Gascona, 22
33001 Oviedo, Spain
(+34) 985 22 77  80

Sidrería Ferroviario
c/Gascona, 5
33001 Oviedo, Spain
(+34) 985 22 52 15

website

Friday, July 9, 2010

Tierra Astur

If there is one restaurant that sums up what is for me the essence of Asturias and its food and drink, it is Tierra Astur in Colloto, on the outskirts of Oviedo. If you’re anywhere nearby, grab as many people as you can and GO, and be prepared for a hedonistic binge of consumption. It’s one hell of a party!

It is, first and foremost, a sidrería (pictures from their website):


The design of the Colloto location—converted from the old Águila Negra beer factory—is fantastic, and the “wall of water” is an ingenious modern take on a traditional way keeping the sidra at the proper temperature, which I first experienced at an outdoor chigre in Soto de Agues, tucked next to a puente de piedra with the bottles chilling in the stream.


Here one can enjoy sidra escanciado, or “de espicha” (from the tap):


You won’t find sidra de espicha just anywhere, so I suggest trying it here. It also has the advantage of being “all-you-can-drink” for one quite modest price, as opposed to paying by the bottle.

The menu is huge, and everything is listed, charmingly, in bable asturiano and castellano. Stick as closely as you can to the traditional parrilla fare—it’s what they do best. For starters, they have a wide selection Asturian embutidos (cured meats of various kinds)… try everything. As much as I love it, this probably isn’t the place to get jamón ibérico. It’s decent quality—not the best—but sliced by machine and not by hand. The same weight goes farther that way, but the texture, and therefore the flavor, isn’t right. But with all the other great cured meats and sausages you shouldn’t miss it.

Hopefully you’ve arrived with enough people to warrant ordering the parrillada, a veritable avalanche of food that easily feeds 5-6, and a bargain at €38: chorizu criollu (light-colored pork sausage), chorizu roju (red, paprika chorizo), morciella fresca (blood sausage), pitu (chicken), costiella de gochu (pork ribs), costiella de xata (beef ribs), llacón (pork hock), churrascu (cross-cut beef rib), entrecó de carne roxa (beef entrecote), paletilla de corderu (lamb), pimientos (roasted red peppers) and fried potatoes. They do a good chuletón de güe (ox chop) here, too. It may not be up to the high quality of Nozana, or even El Quesu in nearby Bobes (Siero), but it's better than adequate. The items from kitchen (as opposed to the grill) tend not to be nearly as good. There’s an incredible selection of Asturian cheeses for postre (once again, don’t bother with the kitchen dessert items).

There are three locations at this point, and for my money the Colloto one is by far the best (if you go, you may be lucky enough to be waited on by Cristina, who will give you some cheeky auténtico asturiano banter while doing a great job). There’s also one in El Bulevar de la Sidra (calle Gascona) in Oviedo, and a newly-opened location on the Playa de la Poniente in Gijón—say hello to my friend Saulo if you hit that one!

Tierra Astur
Antigua Fábrica del Águila Negra
Colloto 33010 Oviedo, Spain
(+34) 985 79 12 28

website

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mesón de Nozana

The parrilla of central Asturias is, predictably, probably my favorite genre of restaurant in the world. The most traditional ones are open, airy structures, the nerve-centers of which are big, wood-burning stone hearths where the meats are grilled in plain view of anyone who cares to watch.


One of the very best of these is Mesón de Nozana in Viella, just a few kilometers east of Oviedo.

Their parrillada is a mountain of grilled meats that easily feeds 3-4 people: beef ribs, pork ribs, sirloin, lacón (like what Americans think of as ham), grilled chicken with lemon, chorizo criollo (white-pink seasoned pork sausage), and chorizo rojo (semi-cured paprika pork sausage).


At 28€, an unbelievable bargain, especially considering the high quality of the meats. They also have a full selection of appetizers, salads, and other basic Asturian dishes, plus a a wine list that covers all the Spanish bases (Ramón Bilbao is an especially good choice with all that meat), and, of course, sidra.

Mesón de Nozana
c/Iglesia, 2
Viella 33429 Siero, Spain
(+34) 985 26 05 36

a bare-bones website

Casa Gervasio

Ah, sidra! You can't go to Asturias without trying sidra, a kind of hard apple cider, and Asturias is almost the only place you can drink it. The cider is fermented for about six months, at which point it should be drunk almost immediately, and it doesn't travel well. It's not sweet, and doesn't taste particularly strongly of apples--it's more reminiscent of new wine than anything. And it can only be had in a certain kind of place--sidra is almost its own subculture, and has its rules. Each green glass bottle has about six small servings' worth. The cider must be aerated for it to be at its best, so for each serving, the escanciador must echar un culín: the bottle must be held above the head so that it can be poured into a large, wide-mouth glass tumbler held below the waist so it breaks against the side of the glass--just enough for one big gulp (folklore has it that if globules present in the bottled sidra aren't broken up this way, they can make you nauseous). When drinking, leave just a bit in the glass, and pour out the dregs (into the troughs built into the bar for this purpose, or a wooden bucket, or the floor, which will probably have some sawdust on it). Because this libation is fairly messy, it's generally not served in fancy restaurants, but in sidrerías only (other key words to look for on signs if thirsty for sidra: chigre and llagar).

Casa Gervasio is a real old-fashioned llagar--it looks like it hasn't changed in 60 years. The decor is clean and simple, and somehow you just know you're going to get something special there. And indeed you do--sidra, of course, and some of the best, simple, Asturian cooking you'll find in Oviedo. Word is they make the best fritos de pixín around here, and it's difficult to imagine better: lightly-battered chunks of monkfish perfectly fried. They make a stupendously good chorizo a la sidra (a soft, Asturian-style chorizo stewed in--what else?--sidra), and the freshly-made tortilla española (the potato-egg cake kind of tortilla, almost like a frittata) is almost a revelation. And don't miss the homemade potato chips... look around and you'll notice a plate of them on almost every table, for good reason. Someone in that kitchen REALLY knows their way around puff pastry (hojaldre) and pastry cream... the milhojas de crema con natas is perhaps the most exquisitely delicate dessert I've had in years (even better than the tarta de hojaldre at Restaurante Panduku, just outside of Oviedo in Granda, for years my gold standard for such desserts), and the canutillos--same ingredients, different shape--are equally good. Ask what they have that day--at any one time they prepare only a portion of the large menu. You can rest assured anything you order will be fresh and expertly-prepared.

Casa Gervasio
c/de Fuente de la Plata, 68
La Argoñesa 33013 Oviedo, Spain
(+34) 985 23 42 55

Restaurante A Coutada

Although the quality has slipped a bit in recent years, Restaurante A Coutada was my overall favorite restaurant when I lived in Lisbon, and it is still one of the most reliable traditional kitchens in the city.

Although soups aren't the most inspired creations of Portuguese cuisine, the sopa campesina is lovely:  bits of cabbage, some macaroni, and red beans in a light broth of puréed potatoes and carrot.


Everything is good: check the pratos do dia (daily specials) first, and if they have the chicken cabidela, grab it (best version of the dish I ever tasted anywhere, including the north), although it will most likely be masking under the picturesque name "frango á tripeirinho". Usually there will be a rice dish special, like an arroz de marisco, arroz de polvo (octopus), arroz de corvina (firm-fleshed white fish--can't remember the English equivalent), or arroz de pato (duck rice). One the house specialties is balchão de gambas--a Goa-inspired, kurma-esque creamy curry of shrimp served in a green pepper with rice (they also do this with chicken). Also excellent are grilled meats on huge skewers--I particularly like the thick pork tenderloins wrapped in bacon, served with arroz de feijão (rice stewed with red kidney beans).


You'll really have to work to spend more than $25 a head here.

It's near the Campo dos Martires do Patria, which is easily reached by the No. 760 bus from Praça da Figueira or Cais do Sodré...from, there it's best to ask, as the side streets go off in odd directions. Closed Sundays.

Restaurante A Coutada
Rua da Bempostinha, 18
1150-066 Lisboa, Portugal
(+351) 21 885 20 94