In the Presence of Cod
Monday's amazing three-course special plucks Portuguese peasant dishes from the regular menu. Among the apps are wild boar meatballs wallowing in bright orange squash, and caldo verde, a limpid soup of kale and smoked sausage. It's something like drinking pork barbecue. For entrées, my date and I selected a crumb-dotted casserole of salt cod and potatoessided with a salad so small, you could have inhaled it accidentallyand açorda, seafood bread pudding textured like Thanksgiving stuffing. Ringed with shrimp, mussels, clams, and a pair of giant scallops, it arose like a volcano out of the rich seafood broth. "This is as good as bouillabaisse or bourride," my date mused, delighted with our bargain dinner, which also included amuses, a choice of desserts, and farewell chocolate bonbonsall for $25.
The restaurant's açorda had once been a bone of contention with me. When Alfama first opened in the West Village six years ago, intent on attracting a gay clientele by dressing waiters in white sailor suits with blue-ribboned hats, the chef created a menu of transformed Portuguese standards that resembled their originals in name only. Açordaa homely dish I'd learned to love in Portugalwas transformed into a fancy shrimp flan, with none of the comfort-food value of the original. Other Portuguese fare I earnestly craved was nowhere to be found.
The dining room at Alfama has always been charming. Tables flank a long bar in front of the L-shaped room, while more tables run along a banquette at the rear. A Brazilian guitarist doodles samba, doubling on a kazoo that makes him sound like Satchmo. A picture composed of cerulean ceramic tiles, showing houses massed on a hillside overlooking the sea, dominates the rear wall. Welcome to Alfama, the ancient Lisbon neighborhood for which the restaurant is named.
Tuesday offers another special menu. The $35 repast encompasses four courses reflecting Portugal's colonial past. This time there are no options. A marvelous appetizer of pork-shrimp meatballs with a sweet and salty dipping sauce comes from Macau, the former Portuguese colony adjacent to Hong Kong. The second course is a Brazilian muqueca, a seafood assortment swimming in coconut milk. Having been seduced by the hot crusty rolls in the breadbasket, I was nearly full after scarfing the muqueca. Which is lucky, because the next coursean Angolan piri-piri chickenwas edible, but not spectacular. Chewing the denuded chicken breast dabbed with hot sauce I wondered, who ate the crispy skin? But the meal ended satisfactorily with a Malaysian jelly drink as good as anything found in Chinatown.
Those memorable meals led me to return to Alfama on a regular evening. The appetizers proved every bit as good as we hoped, especially a plump chourico sausage ($9) grilled tableside in a clay contraption over flaming brandy, and an assortment of three cheeses aged to perfection, one a creamy goat with a cracked-pepper crust. The entrées, though, turned out disappointing. A lamb shank ($28) served with mashed potatoes, while generous and well prepared in its dark wine sauce, could have been carried out from a French bistro; ditto for a doctrinaire duck confit. Finally, a traditional dish of salt cod, skin intact, in a vinegar-laced broth was too austere to be satisfying. The moral of the story: Alfama is best visited on a Monday or a Tuesday.
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