As the time of year arrives when I usually travel to Portugal I get a hankering to feast on the traditional Portuguese foods I savor there.
I daydream about the plate of sizzling grilled fresh-caught sardines I always have for lunch a couple of hours after my TAP flight touches the runway in Lisbon. I thirst for a well-rounded Dao or a crisp cool Vinho Verde in my glass. No sweet tastes as good to me as a quivering pudim flan.
All of which led me to steer my family to an unusual venue for a dinner celebrating my daughter’s graduation – at a cervejaria in the little mill town of Valley Falls, Rhode Island. Cervejaria translates literally as “a place for beer,” but “beer joint” is not quite the right description for the Valley Falls Cervejaria.
Yes, you walk into a friendly bar filled with men standing or sitting at little tables watching television beamed in from Portugal, but the smiling Anna opens the door to the adjoining diningroom – very much like entering a restaurant in any small town in Portugal.
At 3 pm on a Sunday afternoon we are the only family there. Would it be easier if we ate in the other room, we ask? No, it’s quieter in here, Anna tells us, so we stay in our private diningroom with its cheery sunflower-yellow walls and big windows.
She brings menus and tells us that the day’s specials are Porco Alentejo and cabrito – roast kid. We order both, and a bottle of red wine from the Alentejo. With the wine comes a dish of Portuguese olives and a rondelle of white cheese that she has just made. It is delicious, and we nibble until the entrees arrive.
First the cabrito – a platter-sized plate (one serving) of tender, juicy kid with potatoes and roasted red peppers, slightly hot, but not fiery. Then come the platters of pork for the rest of us, each the size I would serve as dinner for two.
Maybe it was just because it had been a year since I’d last tucked into this traditional dish in Portugal, but a few bites convinced me that this was the best Porco Alentejo I had ever eaten. The pork was meltingly tender and the clams, instead of the fresh-water clams used in Portugal, were tiny Narragansett Bay quahogs. Added at the last minute and steamed only until the shells sprang open, the tiny morsels were redolent of the sea.
The juices of the pork and clams joined into a rich puddle at the bottom, flavoring the French-fried potato cubes underneath. But Anna’s husband Jose Almeida– the entrée chef – had a few more tricks of his own besides the saltwater mollusks. Unlike any we’d tasted in Portugal, his Porco Alentejo had black olives, roasted red peppers and a few lightly pickled vegetables sprinkled across the top.
These delectable plates-full were more than we could eat, but no one would forgo dessert. So we order one each of three choices – chocolate mousse, a creamy rice pudding and sorpressa (surprise), a not-too-sweet light peach pudding. The espresso arrives with it, rich and steaming.
Anna Almeida, we learn, is the dessert chef, and she is from the mountains – the Serra da Estrela, near Guarda. “Cold,” she says with a mock shiver.
“Fria, forte, feia”, we laugh and her face lights at meeting someone who knows her home, even though the nickname we quote means “cold, strong and ugly.” We discover that she, like us had last been to Guarda on an Easter Sunday, and nearly frozen on the way to the great fortress-like cathedral.
“Even the inside is cold,” she adds, and I suggest that the best time to go is in late spring when the cherries are ripe. Her eyes grow dreamy. “Yes, the cherries ... sometimes I make this sorpresso from cherries…sometimes strawberries. Always a surprise.”
No more of a surprise than our check: under $80 for dinner for four with two bottles of wine, tip included. The little trip to Portugal was free.
If You Go: Call ahead (401-723-4490) to be sure they don’t have a private party in the diningroom. And ask if they are serving leitao – roast suckling pig. If so, be sure to reserve your share when you call.