Wednesday, September 22, 2021

A Casa do Jorge (Santana, Portugal)

All Portugal trip reports in chronological order:

Oddly Bookended Food Day in Portugal (Nepali and Goan in Almada)
My Portuguese Rosebud (questing for a second helping of the arroz de mariscos that changed my life 30 years ago)
Bacalhau Score (glorious restaurant version of a homely grandma dish in Almada)
Grappling with Chowhounding Hubris (good-not-great pork cheeks in Sintra)
Taskinha Do Chef (Torres Vedras, Portugal) (exquisite family-run restaurant in Torres Vedras)
False Friends, Inadvertent Penetration, and Coimbra (diagnosing the Coimbra Problem)
Solar dos Amigos (rustic culinary splendor in Caldas da Rainha)
Burguezia do Leitão (the best roast suckling pig palace near Coimbra, in Casal Comba)
A Casa do Jorge (smashing wine country steakhouse in Santana, near Azeitão)

Azeitão, a half hour south of Lisbon, is a wine region. Of course, saying so represents a Portuguese madness, as the entire country is nothing but wine regions. But they gravely pronounce places like Azeitão, Douro Valley, and Alentejo "wine regions" as if an important distinction were being made. Portugal is a land of distinctions without differences.

But I suppose all wine regions identify this way. If you live in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, you feel like you're in a self-contained wine area, and while, sure, there may be other wine regions nearby, your wine country is always Wine Country. And the analogy works particularly well because Azeitão comes closer to California wine country than anywhere in Europe. It's a dead ringer for Napa Valley circa 1980, before it built up.
This is weird because no other part of Portugal fits that comparison. Visit Coimbra or Lisbon or Porto or Alentejo or the Douro Valley, and Napa Valley (one imagines urbane clinks of expensive glassware and smiling glances around a bounteous table in golden light between highly self-actualized sunny folks with perfect shiny hair and teeth) will be the last thing on your mind. Outside of Azeitão, nothing Californian jibes with Portuguese brooding saudade, a notoriously un-translatable term referring to bittersweet nostalgia.

I can explain the word, the country, and my love for that country, all with one comparison. England and Spain both ruled the world once, lost their empires, but remained macho and brashly superior. Portugal lost its empire and withdrew into saudade, developing a poetic outlook. Saudade is untranslatable only because the rest of us haven't caught up.
On paper, Azeitão, like Napa, is a largish small town. In reality, it's a sprawling hunk of real estate with no meaningful borders, encompassing villages plus a whole lot of terra incognita - again, much like Napa Valley. "You're in Azeitão" isn't much more helpful than "You're in Portugal/Europe/Earth/Solar System/Local Group". Azeitão is a zone of the mind.

This is all terribly complicated, no? Well, buck up, spaceman. Portugal's complicated. If you want brash simplicity, hit up England or Spain.

Anyhow, somewhere within the Azeitão wormhole lies a restaurant, A Casa do Jorge, which could have been transported from Napa. It's almost entirely off-radar even for locals, but I was brought by local experts, the estimable Danish-Portuguese trombonist-arranger Claus Nymark and his wife, the omniscient Saozinha.
I hung out with Claus in Portugal the 90s, as I made my European gigging rounds as a jazz trombonist. We lost touch during the Chowhound madness, but often when I'd eat at the bar in New York Portuguese restaurants with satellite TV, I'd spot Claus in the band behind a Portuguese talk show host, or hear a musical arrangement that could only have sprung from his fiendishly clever mind, and I'd start hollering "CLAUS!!!! THAT'S CLAUS!!!!", startling the sullen middle-aged alcoholic immigrants trying to peacefully day-drink at the bar.

Imagine it from their perspective: some random American dude - interloping to slurp caldo verde - making a major fuss over some random musician barely visible in the band of some dreary Portuguese talk show that even they had barely heard of. Talk about cognitive dissonance!
A Casa do Jorge (warning: no credit cards) appears like a vision amid the viney wilderness en route to the beach paradise of Sesimbra, in the greater Azeitão non-village of Santana. This is another nominal "meat" restaurant boasting more fresh, beautiful seafood than any fish specialist anywhere else (there's yet another grave but meaningless Portuguese point of distinction).

All serious restaurants in this area offer soft and hard cheeses - in the Portuguese manner, served as apps, rather than afters. These were next-level. The anonymous hard cheese was great, but the soft sheep cheese, from tiny producer Sabino Rodrigues, was worth a trip to Portugal. You shlurp it out of its cup and onto a platter, then shmeer it onto bread. I nearly lost consciousness. No cheese porn shots, sorry (I was preoccupied with weighty matters of transubstantiation). It just looks like any old ricotta or whatever, but it tastes like god cloud pillows.

After the fish, displayed with pride of place despite the meat designation, the first thing you notice is the intimidating wall of wine. Again, totally Napa Valley 1980:

We ordered picanha, a cut of beef apparently existing only on Brazilian cattle. In the 90s, it was available in a few Brazilian restaurants in Portugal, but it's since been adopted widely.

See that canned peach slice in the background? Next to the fresh pineapple slice behind the mound of steak and fries? Me and Claus couldn't stop giggling at the idea of asking for another canned peach slice. This is trombonist humor.

One more picanha money shot:

Also, and I don't totally understand this, "a hunk of meat from Miranda do Douro", spoken in hushed tones, which was even better than the picanha - and the picanha could drive a milquetoast to self-harm. This was some stirring meat, people.

For potato lovers like me, Portugal can tame a person into a docility akin to a cat on nip. I couldn't stop shooting adoring photos.

In a trend that had started at Solar dos Amigos in Caldas da Rainha, the desserts were both spectacular and untried by us (our pain was all-consuming). But here's a loving survey:
See that "baba de camelo"? It translates to "camel drool". And you want it.

I think the total was something like $75 for three, including plenty of wine. Portugal. My god.

1 comment:

George Reis said...

You're killing me with this, Jim Left. Dyin' over here!

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