Eu nao posso.
It means, in Portuguese, “I can’t.”
Those words occurred to me as I sat in Chinatown’s new Adega Portuguesa bar and restaurant the other night. As a Portuguese islander who learned to cook from her grandmother’s hands and has been writing about her community’s foodways for more than 20 years, I’ve been waiting for a Portuguese restaurant to open in Honolulu for a long time. There hasn’t been a Portuguese restaurant here in more than 20 years.
And I can’t. I can’t give Adega an enthusiastic food review as much as I want to.
Definitely go there for the live Brazilian or Portuguese music, a beer or cocktail (the wine list doesn’t deserve mention) and a sandwich ($8.95-$9.95, with a good-sized side of French fries). I’ve also heard they’re doing feijoada (tangy black bean stew, the national dish of Brazil) on Sundays and Fridays only. Owner Antonio “Trigo” Da Silva hopes to attract the young Brazilian surfer audience, and that’s been happening.
But if you go, don’t think you’re going to experience the powerfully and brightly flavored, fresh-ingredient-driven cuisine of Portugal, or the Portuguese Atlantic Islands from which my ancestors hailed.
I visited twice, consumed parts of six dishes and only three came close to pleasing.
At its authentic best, caldo verde, the national soup of mainland Portugal (you thought it was bean soup, didn’t you?), is a thickish but silky potato-based soup rendered bright emerald by very finely shaved Portuguese cabbage and flavored with the smoke, paprika and garlic of chourico.
But at Adega the soup is potato-colored with a few cabbage shreds. Tantalizing slices of chourico lurk at the bottom of the fairly large bowl ($4.95). Consolo (comforting, spot-hitting) on a cool night, in fact.
The soup ought to be served with some fresh-baked pao de leite (white bread) or paozinho (crusty rolls). Anything fresh, in fact. Instead, a pair of sad, sweetish rolls arrived, late, as with everything else at Adega, where the pace is that of a fado singer holding a suicidally sad note.
And this goes to the problem with Adega. The music is Portuguese (except when, as on the second time I visited, it’s reggae over the stereo system. Huh?). The food is mostly not.
At lunch on a weekday, I ordered Bifana a Portuguesa ($8.95), “traditional grilled pork topped with sauteed peppers and onions on French bread with French fries.” I munched the pork (tenderloin?), enjoying the olive oil-sauteed peppers and onions but not the bread — unremarkable. I wondered, “What makes this Portuguese and not just bland Mediterranean?”
Garlic and flat-leaf parsley, lavishly laid on, would have done it. The ubiquitous Portuguese chili sauce called piri-piri would definitely have done it.
(And here I pause for a small confession: I was so excited about this restaurant that, when it was not yet open, I traipsed in and met the owner. Later, I returned with some homemade piri-piri — both a gift and a hint. But don’t think that earned me special treatment: He never saw me when I was there. And there was no piri-piri.)
At lunch, my friend had the daily buffet ($11.95), which included chicken, pasta, soup, salad, another hot dish. The only thing that really looked good, Peito de Frango Adega (chicken breast in gravy) was good in the filling way that all things with gravy are; the rest unremarkable.
At dinner, I knew one of us had to have bacalhao (salt cod), the ingredient for which the Portuguese rumoredly have 365 dishes, one for every day of the year. I chose badly: Bacalhao a Adega, a fillet of salt cod seared with onions, peppers and (they say) garlic ($21.95). It was so full of bones it was inedible. This perplexed me. As a child, one of my first kitchen chores was to rinse the salt cod and painstakingly pull out the bones and tough membranes, flaking it. I see now why I’ve never been served a fillet; you can’t get the bones out and leave it in that form. The flesh will be dry unless it’s gently simmered or surrounded by moist ingredients, as in Pasteis de Bacalhau ($12.95), cod cakes much loved as snacks and bar food or the classic Bacalhau com Nata ($21.95), a codfish gratin. How could a Portuguese make such a mistake?
As an appetizer, I chose badly, too: Camarao ao Alho ($13.95), shrimp in garlic sauce–a pile of overcooked headless, peeled shrimp in tasteless scarlet oil (probably paprika). To make it right, you have to use perfectly fresh shrimp, cook them in the shell and get messy peeling and dipping them in the powerfully flavored oil thick with garlic and chilies.
My friend, who was smart enough to order the soup, was also smart enough to get the Bife a Adega ($19.95), a grilled sirloin topped with ham and an egg. It was supposed to come with fried potato rounds and it did: potato chips, like the kind you get in the bag! Although it wasn’t garlicky, it was a good steak, done medium-rare as requested, and the ham and egg were a nice touch. But, as my friend said, “it’s hard to ruin a good steak.”
Unfortunately, it’s easy to misrepresent a great cuisine. And so, I will again “possess myself in patience,” as my mother would say, and wait for Adega to come to its culinary senses, or another Island-Portuguese place to open.