As we were winding up dinner, the maître d’ put on a tape of a woman singing fado, the plaintive Portuguese ballads about fate (always an unhappy one). “That’s the chef!” he said, as he set down a tray of small glasses filled with port. “And these are on the house.”
The rather soft soundtrack was hard to hear, but whatever the tale of woe the chef had been singing, all appeared to be well now–in the kitchen, at least. Carmen Santos, who was born in O Porto and moved to Brazilasa teenager, was a fado singer before she became a chef after marrying the owner of one of the restaurants where she used to perform. Most recently she cooked at Pão, a small Portuguese restaurant in SoHo, and last month she opened Alfama on the corner of Hudson and Perry streets in the West Village.
Alfama is named after one of the oldest parts of Lisbon, a hilly section of narrow, winding alleyways that meander through a jumble of houses down to the river (and where, I’m told, the trams still have wooden seats).The restaurant is a charming, idiosyncratic place, hung with delicate Portuguese wrought-iron lanterns and blue-and-white painted tiles, in a landmark building dating from 1900. The wide storefront windows, painted white, give out onto a street that is picturesque in its own right. From where we sat, near the entrance by the bar, on a dark blue velvet banquette piled with cushions, we had a view of small red brick houses and trees. It felt very much of the neighborhood.
What Alfama serves is not of the neighborhood, however, starting with the extraordinary list of 62 Portuguese wines accompanied by an explanation under each entry. The list includes an extensive selection of vinhos verdes, young “green” wines that go very well with robust seafood dishes, some first-rate reds, many in the $30 range that are real bargains, such as the J.P. Garrafeira ’90 (private stock from an outstanding vintage) and the Sogrape Vinha do Monte “Alentejo” for $28, and over two dozen choices of port. Our waiter was extremely helpful in recommending cheaper wines that turned out to be delicious. (What a difference from my experience in a fancy midtown restaurant the following evening, when I ordered the house white–the choice was between Mâcon Lugny or California chardonnay–and discovered, when I got the bill, that the price per glass was $15.)
Alfama bills its food as a modern adaptation of Portuguese cuisine, in other words, traditional dishes made lighter. For most people Portugal’s cooking means sardines–sardines eaten on a summer holiday, grilled over charcoal in the Algarve or, as in my case when I was growing up, consumed once a week on toast, from a can. At Alfama they are fresh, marinated with red peppers and carrots in a spicy onion vinaigrette so they turn a burnished gold, like something out of a Venetian painting, and are plump, chewy and good.
The other famous Portuguese specialty is, of course, bacalhau, salt cod, for which there are enough recipes to make a different dish every day of the year. (It’s odd to think that, for centuries, to catch this fish the fishermen sailed all the way to the coast of Newfoundland in one-man dories, bringing it home for salting and drying.) Ms. Santos cooks bacalhau in a traditional stew with scrambled eggs and shoestring potatoes, and bakes it with potatoes, green peppers and eggs. She also whips it into a soufflé that may not be the lightest I’ve ever had but is as satisfying as a bowl of buttery mashed potatoes, and her codfish cakes are crisp but moist and creamy inside. Like codfish cakes, rossois (rissoles) are a popular Portuguese snack, bites of deep-fried turnover that she fills with shrimp and cilantro.
It was a cold night, and I couldn’t resist a bowl of Portugal’s national soup, caldo verde, a hot, satisfying broth laced with shredded collard greens, spicy Portuguese sausage and potatoes. Manila clams were steamed with cilantro, lemon and white wine; the clams themselves didn’t have a great deal of taste, but the garlicky sauce made up for it.
One of my favorite dishes on the menu is açorda, a lemon and shellfish bread pudding that usually comes in a bowl but here is gentrified (molded and tipped out) an airy pudding topped with large tiger prawns that hang over it like the shrimp in a cocktail. The famous Portuguese combination of pork and clams is given a new twist (I read that the dish was devised centuries ago by Portuguese Christians to annoy Moors and Jews whose dietary laws it violated on every level): Slices of pork are cooked a golden brown and served in a cataplana, a copper dish with a hinged lid, with mussels and shrimp, along with puréed collard greens and potatoes. Rabbit stew is made with tiny onions and almonds in a nicely tart white wine sauce, heaped on mashed potatoes. The complex cinnamon sauce served with the duck is interesting, but the meat is a little dry.
There’s an innocence–sweetness even–about the food at Alfama, just as there is about the place itself. Linen napkins hand-embroidered with the letter “A” line the bread baskets filled with crumbly Portuguese rolls and white bread, and the menus are printed on blue-and-white paper that looks like a Portuguese tile. They must have a giant vat of chopped mixed salad greens in the kitchen (brought trendily up to date with some purple leaves of radicchio, a habit I wish chefs would drop since the leaves are inevitably tough and bitter). The same greens come with the soufflé, with the first courses, with almost everything, sometimes garnished with slices of orange and cucumber. Similarly, desserts are relentlessly garnished with unpeeled kiwi and unhusked strawberries, presumably to add color to the plate, which along with squiggles of two-tone sauces is overkill.
Portuguese desserts are of Arab origin and tend to be quite sweet. At Alfama they include a crunchy and very sugary walnut-and-almond tart, pineapple mousse layered with graham cracker crumbs, and a rich creamy chocolate mousse with almonds and lady fingers dipped in port. The best is the pudim de laranja, an orange sponge roulade with candied orange peel. There are also Portuguese cheeses that are good with port.
After we heard the chef singing fado, we asked the maître d’ to see if she would come out. But she never did. Women fado singers traditionally perform with a black shawl draped over their heads, in deference to the memory of Maria Severa, a famous fadista of earlier days. Apparently, the fadista came to a sad end at the age of only 26, after eating too many roasted pigeons.
551 Hudson Street, at Perry Street
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Excellent and modestly priced, with 62 Portuguese bottles, some French and Italian wines and over two dozen ports
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses dinner
$15.95 to $26.95, brunch $6.95 to $12.95
Brunch: Sunday 11:30 P.M. to 3 P.M.
Dinner: Tuesday to Sunday 6 P.M. to 11 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor