Garishly decorated, the long trestle table is lined with wooden chairs, blue and pink balloons tethered to their backs with ribbon. Grannies sit in the corners and chat, poking fingers in the air for emphasis, while boys and middle-aged men become transfixed by a soccer game on the big-screen TV. Occasionally, they send up a whoop. Other guests appear after the Festival of the Virgin of Fatima, in which girls celebrating their first Communion carry lighted candles in single file up Newark’s Ferry Street. Suddenly the door swings open and the Communion girl floats in, pulling a white shawl around her white lace dress, a crown dazzling her dark hair.
As we gape, our own dishes begin to arrive. I’d been turned on to Poeta (the “Poet”) by a punk Portuguese friend from Ironbound, now exiled to Brooklyn. She told me it was a place her family frequented, and indeed, as we entered, half the folks in the place warmly greeted her. She also told us that the food represents typical fare of Estremadura, a seaside region north of Lisbon. Such is the primacy of salt cod—the staple that made long ocean voyages possible—that it is offered in several versions at Poeta 97, where the regular menu is supplemented by a list of daily specials. One is Baccalao a Braz ($14.50), named after some dude named Braz, his identity now otherwise lost in the murk of history. It arrives heaped generously on the plate, a yellowish mountain of cod, matchstick potatoes, flat-leaf parsley, garlic, and eggs scrambled with olive oil. Garnished with black olives, the dish is so briny and delicious it’s difficult to put your fork down.
Another corker is the lamb-and-wine stew, which comes hot from the oven in a brown ceramic vessel. As with many of the crock-based concoctions, potatoes, oil, and tomatoes play an important part. The function of the spuds seems to be to soak up as much gravy as possible. It’s all about gravy. Of similar construction is eel stew, a frequent special offered in small ($9.50) and large ($11.50) sizes. It’s a bit bony, though the eels provide undeniable visual appeal and the fumet becomes more deeply flavored than broth made from other types of fish. Bones make the broth.
Speaking of corks, the wine list is nearly all Portuguese, at prices mainly in the $12 to $30 range. A favorite of mine is the deeply flavored Monte Velho tinto (“red”) from the Alentejano, a dryish region of rolling hills in the south, where most of the wine is produced cooperatively. If you pick one of the daily fish specials like stickleback, monkfish, or Portuguese sea bass, you’re better off with a vinho verde—”green” wine with a slight fizz made to be drunk very young, the Iberian answer to Beaujolais nouveau.
We were enjoying a vinho verde one evening when the waiter, apparently impressed by our ordering, asked if we wanted to try a truly Portuguese dish. He soon appeared with an aluminum cauldron filled with chicken and rice in a rusty broth. We attributed the unusual color to red wine. The dish was enthralling, and we were picking the poultry bones clean when one of us thought to ask our host as he proudly looked on, “What makes the gravy so red?” His unhesitating reply: “chicken blood.”