O’Porto ★ 1⁄2 (Good-Very Good)
Years ago, David and I racketed around Portugal in a cute little rented car, falling in love with the country, the people, the food and each other. Dining at O’Porto in Hartford recently, I was reminded that the bold, earthy, sea-splashed food of Portugal is a distinctive cuisine in and of itself, not to be confused with or lumped in with that of Spain.
Yes, cod is king in both countries but early on Portugal began importing exotic flavors from afar: saffron, black pepper and coriander courtesy of Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea route to India; potatoes, tomatoes and Brazilian pineapples from the New World at the behest of Prince Henry the Navigator. Even earlier, the Moors planted figs, lemons and oranges all over the Algarve. All of these influences color Portuguese cuisine today, and four of us have come to O’Porto to explore it.
O’Porto is a four-year-old reincarnation of Casa Lisboa, a modest family-owned restaurant that for many years was located a few blocks away.
The menu, in Portuguese with English translations, points out that the parelhada, a mixed grill of shellfish, includes “large prawns with head on.” This delights Ann, who promptly stakes a claim to the heads: “They’re the best part.” I agree.
Except for three steaks, two pork dishes and frango sem osso, a grilled boneless game hen, O’Porto serves seafood, seafood and more seafood, in all manner of permutations—some of which may sound odd but more often than not work wonderfully well. For example, carne de porco Alentejana, a dish native to the historic, cork-forested province of Alentejo, combines pork and clams in a wonderful vino verde-sauced sauté. Retro surf and turf?
An appetizer billed as “crêpes stuffed with shrimp and crab” is lighter and brighter than it sounds. Not really a crêpe, it’s more like a spring roll, with filmy pastry enfolding a lovely mélange of minced shrimp and shards of crabmeat. The “spicy red sauce” served with fried fresh calamari is not Brazil’s fiery piri-piri, which we thought it might be. O’Porto rarely shocks your taste buds with call-the-fire-department hot stuff. Presentations, too, are unpretentiously straightforward. After all, blue-black mussel shells, pink shrimp with coral tails and ringlets of snow-white calamari are attractive au naturel.
But one of the tastiest appetizers is dramatic in spite of itself: smoked Portuguese chourico, roasted over an open fire, splashed with Aguadente (Portuguese firewater) and brought flaming to the table. I love the blend of hot and sweet spices in this sausage, and watching the dancing flames is definitely a party game.
Torre de carne, alas, is another story. Having promised a “tower of sliced filet mignon, caramelized onions, figs and greens in a port wine vinaigrette,” it delivers a haphazard heap of greenery, in which I cannot unearth a single snippet of fig. (So much for the Moors.) The steak is overcooked, and the onions are barely warmed, much less caramelized.
The parelhada is beautiful and, for the most part, tastes as good as it looks—not easy because shrimp, sea scallops, squid and prawns call for meticulously timed cooking. These are all perfectly cooked and bathed in a nice lemon-garlic sauce. But the prawns—great, gorgeous, meaty specimens—are too salty, so salty we’re forced to leave them on the plate.
The mariscada Potuguesa again does everything right with one exception. This typical Portuguese dish combines shrimp, clams, sea scallops, mussels and half a lobster in a cilantro-spiked bouillabaisse-type sauce—cooked perfectly—except for the half lobster, which sticks in the shell and tastes unpleasantly less than fresh.
Purportedly there are 365 ways (one for each day of the year) to cook bacalhau, the salted, dried codfish Portugal’s peripatetic fishermen discovered and figured out how to bring back from Newfoundland centuries ago. O’Porto does bacalau well, broiling it lightly and laving it with a clear, flavorful tomato-onion sauce. A side dish of batata fritta, Portugal’s answer to french fries, is irresistible.
Desserts are house-made except for the cheesecake and chocolate cake. I love the custardy flan flavored with 10-year-old Fonseca Tawny Port. A flawless crème brûlée is equally good. The almond tart is disappointing, more like a cookie, but for a refreshing finale, a slice of fresh pineapple marinated in ruby-red port is hard to beat.
It’s a handsome room and we have been efficiently served but I am uneasy. Missing figs, a salty prawn, half a lobster with an off-taste. Deal breakers? Hardly, but for lack of a nail, the shoe was lost and so forth. Have we come on a bad day? Is the chef away? It happens. If I knew how to say “C’est la vie” in Portuguese, I’d say it. I’m also inclined to return and give O’Porto another go. If you do, let me know.
2074 Park St., Hartford (860/233-3184
Lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:30 to 2:30. Dinner Tuesday through Friday 4:45 to 10, Saturday 4:30 to 10. Sunday brunch and dinner noon to 8. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $4 to $11, entrées $14 to $29, desserts $5 to $7.O'Porto, Hartford