Portugal’s best-kept secret

I’d expected rough. Coarse. Peasant.

Portuguese food is the fare of fishermen: cod, potatoes, and spicy linguica sausage, right?

Well, yes. And no.

Three days into my visit to Portugal, I’ve had giant chunks of fried cod with gills attached and spread like wings, the chewy flesh and mound of mashed potatoes resting in a puddle of butter redolent of rosemary–the dish’s only saving grace besides the price, at 12 euros proving that you do, indeed, get what you pay for.

I’ve chawed “veal” reminiscent of pot roast served in a rustic sauce with boiled potatoes and a coarse and hearty house-made wine.

But also, in Portugal, I’ve tasted sublimity. The delicate oxtail ravioli at Cozinha (Co-ZIN-ya) da Clara at the Quinta de la Rosa wine hotel in Pinhao (Pin-YAO) offered three delicate pillows of tender, juicy shredded beef in a light cream sauce with two button shiitake mushrooms that served as a perfect, chewy, umami counterpoint.

Ever since tasting the ravioli at L’Osteria del Forno in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood a trillion years ago–its pastry melting on the tongue and filling me with ecstasy–I’ve tried in vain to replicate that tender nirvana in the kitchen. In restaurants, I’ve ordered, my mouth optimistically watering, only to bite down on al dente–hardly the texture for ravioli, IMO.

This creamy, ethereal pasta felt like a cloud in my mouth, and the flavors of sweet cream, fragrant basil oil, and savory meat made me wish I could dine on its deliciousness all day.

More delights awaited my palate in the Vintage House Hotel restaurant, however, where a pricey menu had sent most of my entourage to the bar for finger food. I ventured forth in pursuit of the acclaimed cauliflower soup, and never looked back.

A thing of beauty, right? And what you see here is much, much less than what you get.

Yes, this delectable dish has a fork-tender shrimp that pops with flavor.

Yes, it has a divine broth and crispy crumbs of bread that somehow hold their crunch even while swimming in cream–deconstructed toasted croutons.

But under that shrimp is a sweet, tender little mound of cauliflower shredded into grains and cooked until, upon contact with the tongue, it melts away, leaving you wanting another spoonful, and another.

Scraping the bottom of the too-shallow dish, I felt tempted to lick the bowl. Or the chef.

A more blissful soup has never been had. And it was fashioned, mind you, from the lowly cauliflower, among the most humble of vegetables or, indeed, foods.

But I imagine that the fishers of Portugal, a humble group, themselves, have had plenty of practice at making culinary silk purses from sow’s ears.

The ability to do so is what separates professionals from amateurs–and makes the gourmet delights of Portugal, along with its handsome men and beautiful women, perhaps among its best-kept secrets.