All the "skewered" dishes (espetadas) are available as both appetizers and entrées. The server brings a picturesque wrought-iron stand fitted with a tall, arched meat-hook to hang the skewers, in the style of some rodizios. Among the choices are espetada de vieira, tender grilled scallops served with a charming sauce of lemon-butter and crisply caramelized onion-crumbs. Also appealing to those curious about the origins of rodizio was the espetada madeirense, skewered beef "Madeira style," marinated with bay leaf and wine. Had the beef been cooked a minute or two less, it would have been terrific. (But it wasn't, so it wasn't.)
My familiarity with Portugal's famed caldo verdhe soup (of sausage, kale, and potatoes) stems mainly from the robust recipe in Emeril Lagasse's first cookbook. (Mister "Bam!" is, by birth, another Portuguese-American New Englander.) I've usually cooked this soup as a main course. At Portugalia, it deserves its demotion to a starter. At least at our first dinner, it was thin and watery, the sausage mushy and sparse.
Most entrées come with your choice of starch (boiled potatoes or rice) and vegetables or salad. The first night we said, "Mix and match." Now we know: Go for the salads and rice. The salads are an ebullient mixture of shredded carrots and mushrooms, julienned lettuce, and canned black olives. You have to ruin the painterly composition to toss it with its delicate red-wine vinaigrette. It's worth the desecration. We thoroughly enjoyed the red rice, too -- done pilaf-style and just moist enough, with subtle seasonings. Potatoes and mixed vegetables are plain and uninteresting.
Our outstanding entrée the first dinner was bife de moçambicana -- "African"-style steak from Mozambique, with shrimps and scallops in a garlic-lemon sauce. (In Africa, it's all seafood, no steak.) We requested rare, and the beef came almost rare, accompanied by huge, sweet Bangladeshi shrimp and sliced sea scallops, with a garlicky sauce good enough to dip your rolls into. The boiled potatoes eventually were sufficiently steeped in it to be worth a few carbs.
However, in the real Mozambique this is a very spicy dish, with lots of piri piri (the local hot chilies). Portugalia's kitchen does make a piri piri sauce, but they don't automatically include it with this plate. (The old menu didn't even mention its availability.) You have to ask for it. Do. We ordered some with our second meal (in case the Brazilian dishes were "de-spiced for gringos"). It was beautiful to look at and to taste -- a rich, dark-red mixture of bell peppers, hot chilies, and garlic, faintly smoky, with a long, slow burn, the kind of heat that doesn't smash your taste buds but excites them.
At our return, our smart waitress recommended gomes de sá, one of her favorites -- fresh cod with oil, vinegar, garbanzo beans, and shredded hard-cooked eggs. It was the rave of the evening, rich and complex, earthy but sophisticated in a way that reminded me of the cuisine of Provence. It tasted less like fish than some wonderful light meat, and the garnishes never for a moment lost their fascination.
My own favorite was bife apimentado, a Brazilian dish of beef sautéed with onions, peppers, and chilies. Jason brought us a saucer of farofa to sprinkle on it -- toasted, seasoned manioc flour (made from ground, dried cassava root), which Brazilians sprinkle on almost everything they eat. I've sampled farofa often but never appreciated it before. Whether it was Jason's rendition of the dish or its matchup with the beef, this time it was gold dust, a lively, crunchy, perfect garnish.
Once we tasted them, my posse and I were less excited by two Bahian classics, moqueca de peixe (fish stew) and bobo de camarão (shrimp stew), both lush, slightly spicy dishes based on coconut milk. But Jason had cooked both stews with potatoes, and the spuds' heavy starchiness overpowered the sensuous tastes and textures, turning them dull and coarse. Traditionally (both at other Brazilian restaurants and in the recommendations in Brazilian cookbooks), the coconut-milk-based seafood dishes of Bahia are served over self-effacing plain white rice.
Several entrées at the first dinner flopped harder. Bacalhau assado (grilled fresh codfish with peppers and onions) was slightly overcooked and oversalted and generally less exciting than it sounded. As for lombo de porco assado (pork loin) and frango assado (marinated chicken breast), the first was shoe leather and the second, the sole of the shoe. (Jason, clearing the table, asked us why we'd left these over. When I phoned him, he told me that he'd taken the remains to the kitchen to bring their toughness to the attention of the new Brazilian cook who had prepared the dishes. However, he didn't take either dish off our bill.)
Desserts were excellent -- even at the first dinner. Jason brought out a pastry tray to choose from, all made by his mom -- some from old family recipes, some from cookbook recipes adapted to family tastes. The array included his mother's rice pudding, which she'd slaved over a hot stove for two hours to cook, from the owner's great-grandmother's recipe. On its surface, she'd drawn the silhouette of a rooster in cinnamon. Who could refuse? It was a charmer, light and none-too-sweet. A passion-fruit mousse was tart and intense, topped with barely sweetened whipped cream. And pasteis de nata, a pair of miniature pastries with red bottoms from implanted strawberries, proved to be made of puff pastry, concealing a custard filling. We gave them three cheers and four stars for flawless craftsmanship. Jason took our order for coffee, too, but never came back with it. (At least he didn't charge us for it.) The pasteis weren't available at the second dinner (a customer had bought out the day's supply), so we tried the Portuguese pound cake, which was pleasant, with whipped cream and huge ripe strawberries -- but not in the class of the glorious custard puffs.
I can't guarantee that Portugalia will always be free from amateurish glitches, particularly at busy times. When a restaurant has been in business for three or four years and nobody has reviewed it (or even blogged about it), there's usually a reason; my guess here is that the restaurant's performance may be inconsistent even without a surprise invasion. It's basically an inflated Mom 'n' Pop -- run by Junior. The chef-owner is young (although I've known many French chefs with 17 years' hard knocks in professional kitchens at his age). He's better-looking than is good for him and struck me and the posses at both dinners as rather taken with himself. (As our Commander in Chief has amply demonstrated, that's a characteristic that can inhibit the ability to learn from one's mistakes.) He has neither been to culinary school nor worked in other peoples' restaurants, missing out on all the slaving and suffering, saving and hustling that most chefs undergo before they finally get to open their own places.