Sunday, September 19, 2021

Burguezia do Leitão in Casal Comba (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)

If you're new here, you'd be smart to question how I, a stranger blasting through quickly, could claim to have found some of the best possible bites in lots of different places. You might be satisfied by my explanation that I'm a professional with a preternaturally good nose, 40 years of experience, and a reputation for making killer finds. If that's not persuasive, I understand. I, too, wrestle with the presumptuousness and hubris of it all.

In my smartphone app, "Eat Everywhere", which works for traveling as well as for immigrant restaurants near home, this is the geographical lay-out we provide for Portugal:
Portugal is one of the only countries where the food is generally considered to be better in the north. To be sure, there's terrific cooking in Alentejo, where chefs have a touch with cilantro unlike anywhere else. And the center (near Coimbra) is packed with as many roast suckling pig (leitão) restaurants as Brooklyn has pizzerias. But up in the north - in Porto and Tres Montanas - lie culinary wonders. So ask where your chef's from. If the answer's Coimbra, persuade the restaurant to roast a baby pig for you someday. If it's Alentejo, get anything with cilantro, or coentros
That was design (the app offers thumbnail sketches and rules-of-thumb - expedient tutorials for diners on-the-fly). Actually, the leitão belt starts a bit north of Coimbra, extending deeply into the prestigious Bairrada wine region. So it's a standard quest to find the best leitão near Coimbra - much like seeking the best lobster roll close to Portland, Maine. And I think I nailed it.

Burguezia do Leitão is just a half hour north of town, making it one of the southernmost serious contenders. I've tried several top-drawer Bairrada baby pig places over the years - so I'm somewhat calibrated - and Burguezia do Leitão puts them to shame.

These are not down-and-dirty barbecue joints. The genre has pretensions. Waiters are usually uniformed, chairs and flatware have heft, and it's always thick, stiff linens. I originally imagined this is to justify the gluttony. Like branding strip bars as "Gentleman's Clubs", it’s a way to retain dignity while engaging in vice. But I think it's really two other things:

1. It's labor intensive to roast these suckers with consistent results. This isn't your neighbor's barbecue party, these places compete in a crowded field (the region boasts dozens, perhaps hundreds, of leitão restaurants), so they must ensure that every bite is juicy and fresh all day, day in and day out. It's an expensive proposition, so prices are high by Portugal's standards. And those high tabs are justified by shmancy presentation.

2. This is a wine region, and this is wine food, and the starchy, sit-up-straight atmosphere reflects the serious gastronomic aspirations of a major wine region. Your local leitão restaurant is sort of like French Laundry.

Burguezia do Leitão's location in a gully between a Tesla supercharger station and a hot-sheet motel throws that status equation out of whack, so they compensate with extra starchy formalism. I didn't take dining room photos (I was, as you'll see, busy), but you'll get the vibe from their web site. Anyway, on to the pig...

That's gotta hurt.
Starting, as always, with broa, beloved dense Portuguese cornbread.

In my previous Portuguese food posting, the surprise guest broa was a freaky yellow variety (I still have no idea what that was about). This time, it was - be still my palpitating heart - raisin-walnut broa! RAISIN-WALNUT BROA!

Another action shot of the paradigm-shattering raisin-walnut broa.

Here's the full breadbasket (I've already pillaged some). Note that you always pay extra for this in Portugal - usually 3 Euros or so. Happy to do so for excellent bread.   

Ok, now here we go.

Black peppery gravy for dunking moist nuggets of comely schweinefleisch. The secret ingredient, I'm told, is calories.

More porcine porn.

"Portugal is For (Side Dish) Lovers"

I almost - almost - got tired of potato chips on this trip.

Crunch-eye view. Oh dear, I seem to have shattered the glassine surface. Whatever will I do with those amber shards?

I couldn't capture my place setting without resorting to "panorama" mode. Unfortunately, I had hiccups.

I'll once again reference Eric Cartman gleefully enjoying his private amusement park. What the hell, let's roll the video:

Last time, I noted the irrationality of the big Portuguese distinction between meat and seafood restaurants, given that all of them do both great. Here's proof that shellfish even at a pig roast will be reasonably fresh. Just ask this critter. Are you fresh, pal?

This is a very serious wine region, as important as Loire Valley. It lends a detectable gravitas, no? This glass of house red was more than good enough.

So how was it?

I need to break out a special set of descriptors reserved for extremely lofty elevation. Here's what I wrote about the immortal lasagna of Mama Grimaldi, a legendary grandma cook living between Rome and Naples:
The very best stuff has a shocking purity, a grace, an emptiness. You don't process it, it processes you. It's a whole other thing.

When I took my first bite of Mamma Grimaldi's lasagna, nothing happened. It fit my biology so precisely - the natural state of my taste and texture receptors - that it was devilishly hard to recognize it as something foreign to my mouth. It was like descending into a pool heated to body temperature. It was like kissing a mirror. You might pronounce it "light", but that would be grotesquely faint praise. It was evanescent. You search, but...nothing.

This was a bit like that. The meat, and its attendent crunch, transport you to a realm of ethereal lightness and softness. In the mouth, it hardly registers, hovering delicately above the tongue. The aftertaste is as clean as a mountain breeze. Each swallow triggers an Etch A Sketch shake. Not eating. Communion.

Any meaty flavors register as mere nuance. Intimation. Afterthought. It would be gauche to direct attention there. Flavor's beside the point, as is the exemplary crunchiness of the skin. How can you focus on such coarse considerations while being soothed by angels?

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