Saturday, September 11, 2021

Taskinha Do Chef (Torres Vedras, Portugal)

[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.]

It's good that I'm writing these Portugal reports on a serious time delay (also: out of order), because it gives me context from hindsight. At this point, I'd been scoring one hit after another, and then this restaurant came along and blew me away. However I took it in stride, figuring greatness was everywhere. Hey, it's Portugal!

But writing this today in the Cascáis/Estoril/Sintra expat haven of shiny boutiques and pouty Brazilian fashion models and not a morsel of deep deliciousness, I am reexperiencing my signature sensation: I did not properly appreciate, at the time, how good I had it!

When you imagine a southern European restaurant, you picture a parlor filled with tables and knickknacks, and waiters careening nimbly through with overflowing platters and plates. Taskinha Do Chef in Torres Vedras (a full hour and another world north of Lisbon) clearly started out that way, but while it's too small a town for them to put on airs and get all gastro with track lighting and tasting menus - alienating the local regulars who are its pão e manteiga - it's more than another homely grandma place. It's evolved into something higher despite itself.

I sat at the bar (not something you see often in respectable restaurants) to eat, assuming it was Mom in the front, Dad in the kitchen, and Sonny running between and putting out fires. Sonny speaks perfect English, and, despite the high-pitched lunch rush, gave me full attention once he figured out I was serious.

I asked about specialties of the house (my same strategy as with the bacalhau com broa place….which doesn’t work everywhere, by the way. Most places will ask "Well, what do you LIKE???" to which I reply "Deliciousness!" with inevitably poor results). "Do you enjoy little-cooked beef?" Sonny asked, and my yes landed between "like" and "little". What you have in mind, Sonny, is what I will have. I wanted the full Torres Vedras experience.

And, great leaping wombats, this is what I was served. Fraldinha, or flank steak, as stunning as it looks:

It came with potato chips and rice (more on that rice in a sec), and I also ordered batatas murros because, well, just look at them.

Under the innocent-seeming mound of rice lurks a thin slick of oil so infused with garlic that it’s like oil-infused garlic rather than vice versa. So each forkful affords the optimal amalgam of oil, garlic, and blood. The chef is too thoughtful to make you plod through starchy blandness after the insane garlic, crunchy salt, and meaty dialectic of the flank steak’s seared outer crust and buttery soft interior, so he keeps the motor running via rice which truly compliments. And potatoes. Dreamy potatoes.

Wine-wise, Sonny could have upsold me pricey grog, but recommended a glass of red from a box of Da Malta. Here's what you need to understand. Bad wine outside USA got a lot better in the 90s when fancy viticulture technology became widely available for a decent price. Even lousy wines became acceptable, which quickly put an end to the tradition of $2 bottles of nearly undrinkable red served with siphon bottles of sweet lemony soda (to render the plonk palatable). While cheap wine still isn't great (greatness doesn't come cheap), it’s often much less flawed. In fact, it's asymptotic to "flawless" (which, again, is not the same thing as "great"). The white was a tad headachy, but still not bad. But Da Malta red might be the best cheap wine I've ever had. 

Sonny was gratified to finally have an outsider corroborate his astonishment about the wine, and, generally, about this place run by his old-world parents for their old-world neighbors, which, completely unknown to them, is way more than just another good neighborhood joint. To date, I imagine it's just me and Sonny seeing things that way.

For dessert, a fancy fruity pudding parfait thingie - exactly the sort of thing I'd never order. But Sonny wanted it for me, and I obeyed, and it was so good I sucked it down and remember nothing. I'm not sure what happened there. Total parfait blackout.

I paid $27 (including two glasses of wine), sincerely thanked the chef, who didn't quite totally stoically blow off my compliments, thanked Sonny and his (presumed) Mom, and my chin trembled as I walked out the door. Hey, it's no small thing to leave one's family and venture out into the wider world. I've been through a dozen lunches since then, and whenever I commence the process of selecting a place, my first, autonomic response is, "Hey, why not go back to Taskinha Do Chef?"
To explain, that's like being in Chicago and hankering to venture out into nowheresville Indiana for lunch. A Lisbonite (or Caiscaisian) would think I've lost my mind.
I suspect I may never lose this impulse. Yet, unbelievably, the following day I would eat better still. But more on that next time.

Here’s the menu, along with a taste of the decor that’s not quite dowdy/traditional, but certainly not Williamsburg:

Bonus Torres Vedras coverage

I was obviously left in a state of no great hunger, but I passed a conspicuous bakery serving pastéis de feijão, a proud local creation, and couldn’t resist.

Wikipedia (I'm so lazy) describes this as a crispy dough pastry, filled with navy bean jam,and then says  "they were first introduced in the town of Torres Vedras in the early 20th century though its origin may date earlier." That blurriness is a Thing.

Part of the mystique of Torres Vedras is that there was a fire in City Hall in the 18th century (set by an escaping prisoner creating a diversion) and all town history (very ancient, they think) was lost. A blank slate. The town never recovered, and nearly every question you ask is met with a helpless shrug. Post-fire, hey, who knows? They’ve all been reeling for nearly three centuries. I just love that. 

I learned all this on the fly. Passing a stretch of aqueduct that looked vaguely Roman, I googled to learn that the details of construction were lost due to the aforementioned fire.  And, ironically/spookily, I can't seem to find the mention anywhere now. Did I really read it? Was the town not Torres Vedras? I don't know. My browser history, too, is lost to history. I suppose it’s like this: I've eaten the flank steak and the weird blue parfait and the pastel de feijão (not at all beany), and now I'm a foggy, amnesiac son of Torres Vedras.

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