An authentic piece of Portugal shines right in the middle of Midtown Manhattan near the corner of East 52nd and 3rd Avenue. After spending a decade in the trendy West Village, Alfama, named for the oldest district of Lisbon, has relocated and settled comfortably into Midtown East, recreating a unique dining experience, which offers the best of both worlds—modern flair surrounding treasured tradition.
Accompanied by a passionate, dedicated staff, owners and partners Tarcísio Costa and Miguel Jerónimo provide hands-on management with attention to detail, every little detail. From weekend brunch, featuring freshly baked breads and pastries, to weekday express lunch that includes a delicious sandwich—tuna on house-made focaccia with roasted bell peppers, onions and parsley with a piquillo aioli, steak sandwich with Monterey jack caramelized onions and bell peppers, or the pulled pork sandwich—a soup of the day and a choice of green salad or homemade Portuguese potato chips (to die for chips that should come with an extremely addicting warning), Alfama strategically juggles a variety of culinary hats.
I discovered Alfama during the holidays and admit I’ve become quite a fan. Sampling much of the menu and visiting during different times of the day and night, including Wednesdays for Fado night, I’ve tried to capture the overall vibe of the place. And I am confident enough to share with you the sum of its allure . . . duality. Fine dining that feels comfortable. Menu options that juxtapose the exotic with the basic. A mixed crowd of East meets West, old friends meet new. A relaxed atmosphere dripping with verve. Recently I met with Costa, who gave me a tour of the restaurant as we discussed the key ingredients to Alfama’s success.
Life of Riley: The restaurant décor is as unique and wonderful as the food. Can you give us a little background on all of it?
Tarcísio Costa: Our design and décor, although modern, are totally Portuguese. The glass mural with a world map in the main dining room is not just a decorative map but a map of the Treaty of Tordesilhas dating from 1494, when Portugal split the world in half with Spain. The oil paintings are by Isabel Pavão, a contemporary Portuguese artist who’s based in New York, but has her work hanging in prestigious galleries in Oporto, Lisbon and Paris, France.
LOR: Do you find it challenging being one of the few Portuguese restaurants in the city?
Costa: It is a blessing and a curse to be us! I say that because there aren’t that many Portuguese restaurants in the city, so people who are not familiar with Portuguese cuisine don’t really have a point of reference as to what our cuisine is all about. This presents an opportunity to win them over and to hopefully have them fall in love with Portuguese food and wine.
The challenge is if they come in with pre-conceived notions of what the food should be instead of accepting what it is. The best example is when we explain salt cod to people. Many times they assume it will be salty, because the word salt is in the name. Or they assume it is like fresh fish. Well, it is not! Salt cod is a hearty, meaty fish that can sometimes smell quite strong—it may have a pungent smell, but that is just the nature of the fish. It is a cured fish and there is nothing wrong with it. Traditionally, the Portuguese enjoy their salt cod with a medium to full-bodied red wine.
LOR: Explain the Flavor of Portugal.
Costa: Alfama offers a unique insight into the world of Portuguese flavors, starting with the olive oil – Esporão, from the Alentejo in Southern Portugal. Not only is it the olive oil the chefs use in the kitchen, but we also serve it at the table to accompany the bread we serve, which is baked on premise. We have our own bakery and once again, some of the breads we serve are traditional Portuguese breads such as Broa, a dense corn/wheat peasant bread, pão de bico, which is the equivalent of a baguette, and our own focaccia with shallots and mushrooms.
As for the food, salt cod, being a staple of the Portuguese table, is always present on our menu, as well as grilled octopus, and our Mariscada Alfama, a rich seafood stew made of lobster, mussels, clams, shrimp, monkfish and baby potatoes in a lobster wine broth. Also, when they are in season (May through October) we have our sardines flown in from Lisbon twice a week. They are grilled, served whole over roasted bell peppers, garlic, onions and olive oil with a sprinkle of sea salt. Another typical dish we serve is our Frango no Churrasco, a Portuguese-style barbecued Piri-Piri half chicken served with our homemade potato chips and salad. Piri-Piri is an African-based chili that provides a lovely amount of heat, but it is not too spicy, so it does not “kill” one’s palate. Speaking of spice, one misconception I’d like to clear is that a lot of people assume Portuguese food to be spicy. Well, it is not! Typical condiments used in Portuguese cooking are garlic, onions, cilantro (very commonly used in salads and in fish stews, especially in the Alentejo region), coarse salt, bay leaf, thyme and, of course, the delicious olive oil.
LOR: Any other unique ways that Alfama stands out?
Costa: Our wine list, comprised of about 99% of Portuguese wines, sets us apart. There are only three non-Portuguese white wines on the list.
LOR: Speaking of wine lists, New Yorkers love their Happy Hour. What can we expect at the Alfama bar?
Costa: Happy Hour is a thing of familiarity. Besides good drink and food, it’s about feeling the vibe of a place, feeling comfortable there, recognizing familiar faces . . . it’s like ‘Linus’ blanket’ for after work. At Alfama we offer Sagres, Portuguese beer on draft and wines at half-price (beer for $3 and wines for $5), plus complimentary in-house cured olives and our crunchy potato chips sprinkled with fresh garlic and parsley. The chef also sends out a few amuse-bouche for guests to try from time to time.
LOR: Normally I prefer wine to cocktails, but I love your Portuguese Margarita. What’s the inspiration for creating these signature cocktails?
Costa: My signature cocktails, most inspired by Portuguese history or current events, are infused as much as possible with Portuguese liqueurs, wines and spirits. Also, the names of the cocktails are for the most part in Portuguese or related to Portugal. For example, Bairro Alto is the name of a bohemian neighborhood in Lisbon; and based on that I created a “Portuguese Margarita.” Oh well, we all know there is no such a thing, as the Margarita is a tequila-based cocktail and it’s typically Mexican. But being that Bairro Alto is an area where one goes out with friends to go barhopping and there are clubs and cafés where people gather until the wee hours of the night, I thought it’d be an appropriate name. What makes our margarita Portuguese is the use of a blackberry liqueur from the islands of the Azores. I recently created a cocktail with Ruby Port, which is something VERY Portuguese, as Port can only be considered Port if it comes from Portugal, from the Douro Valley, the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. I decided to call it “Port of Call,” a play on words, but the ingredients highlight two very Portuguese flavors: Amarguinha, a traditional Almond liqueur from the Algarve, the Portuguese Riviera, where there are lots of marinas with private yachts and sail boats, Ruby Port, fresh lemon, vanilla-flavored vodka and an orange peel. It’s a refreshing cocktail, which I hope will provide the palate a seaside escape.
LOR: You definitely see the behind-the-scene collaboration at Alfama. Tell us about the team.
Costa: We are like a small family at Alfama and as such we each have our responsibilities and hold each other accountable. We all want success for one another. During daily staff meetings, we talk about specials, new cocktails and/or wines, menu changes, service – what’s good, what’s not, what needs to be improved and how we are going to go about it.
Denise Costa is the manager and in charge of these meetings. Miguel Jerónimo, my partner, is the overall operations manager. I am in charge of the wines, spirits, our cocktail program, and I try to be on Twitter and Facebook as much as I can to promote Alfama.
Francisco Rosa, our executive chef, and Carlos Arriaga, our chef de cuisine, are both Portuguese and as such, they “drive the culinary bus” in terms of controlling the food costs, menu development, seasonality of ingredients and training their kitchen on traditional Portuguese cooking.
–The Grilled octopus with smashed potatoes, garlic, onions, sautéed broccoli rabe and olive oil. It’s always tender, savory,and grilled to perfection.
–Portuguese style barbecued Piri-Piri half chicken served with Portuguese potato chips and salad. The best barbecued chicken I’ve ever had–a huge portion that’s juicy and sweet complemented nicely by the fresh, crispy salad and those amazing chips.
–A traditional sweet cream mousse layered with a crumble of “Maria” cookies served with lemon curd and Madeira-poached prunes. The combination of such interesting flavors of sweet and tart from the prunes and curd literally make your mouth water. A beautiful dessert.