Despite my being born and raised right here in Massachusetts, my family comes from a rather small country at the edge of Western Europe: Portugal. Both my parents grew up in a small village north of Lisbon. When they came to this country, they not only brought their hopes for the future of their family, but also their culture and their cuisine.
Typical Portuguese food is usually rich, filling and very full-flavored. It’s similar to Mediterranean cuisine, making heavy use of local olive oils, garlic, wine and herbs like coriander and parsley. If you prefer bland or lightly seasoned food, consider yourself forewarned. Portuguese food may not be for you.
Unless of course you decide to eat at Atasca (http://www.atasca.com/) in Cambridge.
I found my recent visit to Atasca to be hit and miss. As I mentioned above, typical Portuguese cuisine is full-flavored, something to be remembered. The appetizers lived up to that. The entrees, however, fell very short of the mark.
Hosting and Service
Upon arrival, we were promptly seated in the main dining room, which was mostly quiet due to the vast majority of diners choosing to eat outdoors. Our waiter was attentive, but made some very basic mistakes. The most amusing for us was his strange manner of splitting the check, but he was quick to redo it for us. If nothing else, he was entertaining (even though I’m sure that was not his intention), and extremely polite.
The decor of the main dining room was very simple with typical Portuguese tile, and vases on various shelves and tables. The whole restaurant was “spic and span” clean, well maintained, and very comfortable.
The night started off with such promise. First, we nibbled on appetizers accompanied by a white corn bread with Portuguese olive oil with garlic. For our appetizers we had Pasteis Atasca and Gambas Grelhadas. Both were quite tasty. The Pasteis Atasca, which are small fried cakes, some made with cod and others with shrimp, had an excellent breading, with well seasoned fillings. The Gambas Grelhadas, or grilled shrimp to the non-Portuguese speakers in the house, come in a spicy piri-piri sauce. Piri-piri is the name used for the African bird’s-eye chili which is native to Mozambique, a former colony of Portugal. Sauce of this kind is quite smooth, but has an excellent kick of spice and flavor. The one served at Atasca was excellent!
At this point, I was even more excited for the main courses.
I had the opportunity to try two entrees. First, the Bife a Alfacinha, is served with Portuguese-style fried potatoes (think potato chips, but thick cut and not crunchy) in a cream garlic sauce. While I appreciate the chef’s concern for my blood pressure, some kind of salt would have been welcome. This goes for both the steak itself as well as the sauce. Once I added a bit of salt, the plate improved, but in my experience with restaurants, the good ones don’t need ME to meddle with the dish for it to taste good. My other complaint, and this goes for certain other Portuguese restaurants as well, had to do with the cut of beef that was served It seems like the meat was not properly butchered as there were some extremely chewy, and almost tough, bits to get through. This despite the fact of having ordered the steak medium rare. Being a major carnivore, this is just a no-no for me.
The other dish I sampled was the Cataplana dish. A cataplana is a traditional copper Portuguese cooking pot, primarily used to cook seafood. As you would expect, that is exactly what this dish is. Seafood, including shrimp, mussels and clams, served in the actual cooking dish itself. The seafood itself was well cooked and served with a side of rice and vegetables. The broth, again, was a little low on seasoning. I was able to pick up the flavor of the wine and of garlic, but little else. Again, adding salt improved the dish a bit, but as the diner, should I really be the one to think about this?
Overall, the entrees were a significant disappointment.
Now, I have to say that this is the second time I’ve dined at Atasca. My first experience was much better than this one, but as is the case with all restaurants, it really has to be about “what have you done for me lately?”
Dining in a Portuguese restaurant, for me, will always be like “going home” without ever actually having to leave my state. There are smells, flavors and emotions I expect when I’m dining on Portuguese food. Unfortunately, on this night, my expectations were not met… and in the end, I was just left to feel a little home sick.
50 Hampshire Street
Cambridge, MA 02139-1548