…however, dear Reader, consider this a love letter of sorts to the owner and chef at Portuguese restaurant Pão, for regaling the Mavericks with the best of our Monday culinary excursions thus far. A bit spoiled by the authentic Portuguese fare I’ve feasted upon during my years in Miami, I did not expect such an all-around fine dining experience from this remote locale near Gotham City’s Holland Tunnel. Yet from the moment I stepped foot into this culinary sanctuary, a feeling that something special lay in wait portentously settled in my soul.
The worn, thickly varnished dark wood décor, stark white walls and tablecloths, and the billowing curtains on the open floor-to-ceiling trellis windows made one feel as if no longer in gritty Manhattan, but rather in old Lisbon itself, at a neighborhood haunt run by your good friend from down the street whose family came part and parcel with the cozy little bar, the little one doing homework, undisturbed by her father’s hearty greetings to newcomers and old alike. Next to the bar is a lifelike portrait of an apron-clad man wielding a knife in one hand and that day’s fresh catch of octopus in the other. This man looked quite familiar however, as if I had just glimpsed his visage mere moments ago; ah, my eyes failed me not! It was the chef in Pão’s very kitchen, painted by one of the wait staff years ago (he’s on the website’s homepage as well). This knowledge further solidified the good energy emanating from the restaurant’s pulse. We could only hope going forward that the cuisine would be just as fortifying for our bellies as the atmosphere had been for our hearts.
Our trusty friend, Groupon, provided us with two three-course meals accompanied by a bottle of wine of our choosing—I selected their green wine option which is specific to Portugal, therefore the obvious choice. Crisp, refreshing, just sweet enough and not too dry, our perfectly chilled bottle of Octavo Vinho Verde was just the thing to whet our appetites. Here is what Marissa and I ordered from our lovely and helpful waitress:
Vieiras em Tomatada com Porto – Sea Scallops on Tomato Compote with Port Wine Syrup
Pargo com Espuma Batata – Snapper with Whipped Potatoes in a White Truffle Oil
Arroz Doce – Homemade Rice Pudding
Salada de Polvo – Baked Octopus in Garlic/Parsley Vinaigrette
Bacalhau à Bráz – Sautéed Cod with Egg, Onion & Straw Potatoes
Arroz Doce – Homemade Rice Pudding
In order to accurately assess our experience, we sampled each other’s dishes and were not disappointed in any way by any course.
The Courting Stage: Since the owner told us his scallops were voted one of the best in city, we simply had to test his word—his testament proved true. Firm, succulent and fresh, they were sublime in texture and taste. The tomato compote was refreshing and light; it paired well with the port wine syrup which tempered any possible tartness, yet wasn’t too sweet in and of itself. The baked octopus (I was compelled to order it after staring at the chef’s portrait on the wall) was equally divine; perfectly grilled and seasoned, it was firm, meaty and emitted just the right amount of oceanic essence. Paired with the lovely green wine, we Mavericks were falling in love with Pão rather quickly, and were ready to fall even deeper with our entrées.
Marriage: Marissa’s snapper was light and flaky, simply grilled atop truffled airily whipped potatoes. The dish was so fine and elegant that it stroked the palette like French silk. Pão was definitely no stranger to the nuances and subtleties that comprise truly fine dining without gilding the lily. I chose the bacalhau because it’s a very traditional dish that an authentic Portuguese establishment should always create perfectly—a litmus test of sorts. The chef did not let me down; it was truly delectable. The dish smooth, mellow and moist, not too salty, and the straw potatoes (think of shoestring fries) provided just enough crunch. Rather than pile all of the potatoes over the top, the chef married them into the dish with the cod, egg, and onion—a marriage made in heaven, believe you me. What God hath joined together, let NO man put asunder!
Ever After: The rustic arroz doce summed up the entire meal in its simple and unadorned beauty. Again, they win with their subtle use of fine ingredients; tiny bits of orange peel mixed into the velvety dessert gave each bite a burst of citrusy flavor that tempered the richness of the pudding itself. The cooking of the rice was timed accurately so it wasn’t spineless, yet not too firm that it hurt to chew. Spiced just right, we couldn’t be happier…until the owner complimented us with two glasses of smooth port wine and even smoother kisses to our cheeks. What a splendid ending to our evening. Brava, brava!
You have captured our taste buds, our bellies and our hearts, Pão. I think of you fondly and anxiously await our next reservation. Until then I am…