Restaurant meals are supposed to be taken in the convivial company of one’s invited guests. They’re designed to be elegant microcosms of the at-home dining experience, where one chooses with whom to break bread. I applaud the current egalitarian impulse that seats strangers together at large tables, but that doesn’t mean I like the forced communion it encourages. I prefer my tables widely spaced enough so that any intimacies I utter are just that—intimate. Yet submit I must, so a recent evening found me listening to a my-ailment-can-top-yours riff that almost put me off my feed at a new eatery on Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue strip—a place where the feed is fine indeed and I didn’t want to miss a chomp.
Almost invisible from the street, Convivium looks as if it could be found in an alleyway in Lisbon’s Alfama or off Seville’s Sierpes. Stained-glass lanterns and flickering candles add atmosphere, and large shared tables scattered throughout the dining rooms make for the promised conviviality. With its linguistic medley of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, the menu testifies to the chef’s dexterity at mixing cultures.
On my first visit, I was taken by the communal seating, particularly as we’d almost finished before my friends and I were joined by a group of charming and voluble young men with whom we chatted briefly about selections. My friend recommended an artichoke starter ($9) that boasted two well-cooked globes in a puddle of warm olive oil richly perfumed with minced garlic, while I sang the praises of the hearty caldo verde that was that day’s market-priced soup du jour. Dense, with shreds of greens and chewy chunks of chorizo, it was the best I’d had east of El Faro. The lemon-infused plate of cold asparagus flecked with parmesan ($8) also garnered kudos, and that was before we started vying with each other in describing our mains. The broiled whole fish with olives won praise for its lightness ($19.50), while the huge gamba special was touted as well prepared and the perfect accompaniment for paella-style rice ($14). I didn’t join this competition only out of fear that our new friends would ask for a taste of my aromatic grilled chorizo topped with a slip of marinated red onion ($12).
I was early on my return trip and so was seated next to a meal in progress with little to do but nibble on the proffered pickled radishes and olives, work on my bottle of Dolcetto d’Alba ($35), and listen to a discussion that culminated as follows: “After I lost the weight, I never had acid reflux again.” It was only by recalling my professional obligations that I could make ready to dig into a replay of the artichokes while watching my chosen guest scarf down a salad of blood oranges and red onions in a citrusy vinaigrette ($7). My friend had the veal special—three hefty slices of rosemary-and-garlic-scented meat served on a bed of mashed potatoes with just enough lumps to signal homemade ($16). I finally got to taste that famously light dourado na brasa com azetunas ($19.50)—lemony-flavored grilled fish (my waiter explained that sargo had been substituted this time for dourado) that was flaky with a hint of char. It left just enough room for a lemon sorbet ($4) served in a hollowed-out lemon shell and a taste of my friend’s chilled rice pudding (was that arborio?) with its brûlée topping ($6). Nevertheless, I headed into the street thinking my next meal out would include separate tables.