The Eel Has Landed at Sol-Mar
Sol-Mar flaunts two dining rooms, darkened precincts where waiters stand at attention in cream-colored coats and black cummerbunds. Frigates, antique weapons, and squat windmills line the walls, interspersed with brass plaques commemorating local events long forgotten. If a fork drops, a dozen faces jerk upward in momentary alarm. By contrast, the raucous barroom is lit up like a crime scene, as red-faced men belly up to the bar tippling brandy and port, while pale Portuguese women and their darker Brazilian counterparts sit at tables sipping vinho verde ($10 to $18 per bottle), a light and fizzy white that goes down easy on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Sol-Mar ("Sun-Sea") is one of two marisqueiras in Newark's Ironbound region, urbane Lisbon-style spots that specialize in seafood. Despite the noise and brightness, you'll be much happier dining in the blue-tiled barroom. Why? Because in the barroom, the daily menu favors seasonal and local seafood at a discount that amounts to about $5 per entrée. Besides, the barroom is more convivial, as local characters dart in and out for drinks and snacks, and wide-screen TVs highlight soccer matches from Europe and South America.
If you intend to pursue an entire meal, skip the apps, which tend to be imports from other cuisines, anyway. Instead, take the intriguing-sounding "squids French-style." What materializes is a plain platter of fried calamari, a dish more properly attributed to Sicily. But this rendition isn't quite normal: Sol-Mar has managed to snare specimens that produce rings the size of hula hoops. Served in an elegant gravy boat, the accompanying sauce is a lifeless marinara, providing moisture and little else.
If you need to snack, a better choice is the chourico sausage, sourced from nearby Lopes Sausage Company. It presents quite a spectacle as the waiter spritzes it with brandy and sets it aflame in a brazier shaped like a pig. But the best appetizer by far—and it would make a great cheap entrée for one—is amêijoas à Espanhola ("clams, Spanish-style," $10.95). Ten large cherrystones cavort in a brick-red broth with slices of smoky sausage. Sop it up with tapered Portuguese rolls, which are delivered to the table with a free plug of white cheese much like ricotta, but a bit more rubbery.
The entrées are so huge that you'll be taking lots home unless you order two for every three diners. The sympathetic waiters gladly furnish extra place settings at no charge. Shake the plastic-coated regular menu and out falls a sheet of specials—plan on doing most of your ordering from that. One exception to this rule is the salt cod, an iconic fish for the Portuguese. (Every little town in Portugal has a favorite recipe.) Order it house-style ($19.95) from the regular menu, and find hunks of desalinated fish heaped with olives and pickled vegetables in a shallow ceramic vessel. Crisp cottage fries ring the casserole, deliciously soaking up the juices.
There are two or three fish per day on the specials menu. Grouper has been in season the past few weeks, and a large steak ($16.95), a good two inches thick, arrives nicely browned in the broiler, bathed in olive oil and heaped with an astonishing quantity of crushed garlic. Flanking it are boiled potatoes and several branches of broccoli. On another evening, the grouper was available boiled, which tastes much better than it sounds. For lovers of plain fish, plainly cooked, boiled is the ticket.
Tile fish was our favorite on another day, cooked in the manner of the Algarve, the southern region of Portugal. The oily white fish came stewed with clams, which imparted a sharp and complex flavor. If you thought the squid was scary, wait till you see the conger eel ($15.95)—an Atlantic fish found from Norway to Senegal that can attain lengths of nine feet and weigh up to 200 pounds. The shallow crock it's served in can barely contain the slices, which are the size of a bodybuilder's bicep. Stewed with tomatoes, potatoes, and onions, the skin is rubbery and the flesh delicate and flavorful. The only drawback to this splendid main course is the small bones you'll be unceremoniously picking out of your teeth.
The special menu also features land-borne treats, including roast piglet, goat in wine sauce, and grilled skirt steak. Especially tempting is the rabbit stew—tender, bone-in morsels in a garlicky tomato sauce shot with green peas. The predictable response of one member of our party: "It tastes like chicken."
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