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Portions from the Portuguese

Gulfport's Adega Cafe & Wine Bar's hearty, down-to-earth flavors introduce local palates to a casual, sustaining cuisine.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Restaurant Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 10, 2003

[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Seafood, a staple in Portuguese cuisine, reigns in this cataplana, which is complemented by a Portuguese white wine, at the Adega Cafe & Wine Bar in Gulfport.

GULFPORT -- First the warnings: Adega isn't very large, it's still new, it's not inexpensive and it's open only three nights a week.

The next is either a caution or a come-on: It's Portuguese.

I'm delighted by the chance to eat, drink and listen to Portuguese. Another country heard from is always intriguing on our menu, especially this small, lusty country perched on the edge of the Atlantic.

Despite a sizable Portuguese community in mid Pinellas, the cooking is rare restaurant fare, infrequent enough that one night a family of Portuguese-Americans, from kids to avo in her black scarf, filled a table for 12; another night a globe-trotting snowbird arrived with phrase book in hand.

If Portuguese cooking is foreign to you, don't freak -- and don't accuse it of being the same as Spanish. There are similarities, but this part of the Iberian peninsula is close to the sea, robust and rustic in its appetite, and quite proud of its distinctions.

The result is a cuisine still tied to its chief crops and catches: olives, olive oil, cod and clams, with lots of potatoes, beans and pork. And from the vineyards come some of the best undiscovered bargain bottles in Europe, as well as the famous port.

This food, and the wine that goes with it, has come late into foodie fashion in New York and California, as chefs and diners have started to explore Europe's tastes beyond France and Germany.

Andrew Martins and partners have proudly brought these flavors to, of all places, Gulfport's modest, much loved little bakery, which they have renamed Adega for the cellars and caves of Portugal's wineries. Waffles, quiche and BLTs are still here, but the breakfast and lunch menus now include omelettes with olives and linguica sausage, and cod cakes with fava beans.

The biggest variety is offered at dinner, when Adega puts out the tablecloths, candles and flowers, and gets out the corkscrew. If you're lucky, there's some haunting fado on the sound system. On a night that the speakers had '70s standards, it was harder to transport yourself out of Gulfport.

Always take a seat outdoors if you can: It's a "garden" in the New York sense, a small bit of concrete, enough for four tables, but it has been spiffed up, nicely lit and made quite pleasant.

The food is best suited for casual eating, which the Portuguese also call tapas. Adega's are traditional, honest tapas: grilled 5-inch sardines, with bone and head, in parsley and lemon; fried cod fritters; air-cured ham and sharp Azorean cheese from the island of Sao Jorge.

Most of this is not frilly cocktail fare, but the original thing, bar food of hardworking taverns. However, tapas prices have eclipsed sushi, and $5 for some items, such as a bowl of stewed favas or a few short ribs, can be a tough sell.

But you can assemble a mighty interesting smorgasbord here; that may be most enjoyable way to sample this cuisine. Warm medallions of goat cheese with grilled corn bread on piquant mixed greens salad is stout-hearted, not fussy (remember that peasants have relied on goats much longer than have gourmets). The only one to avoid is the crab cakes, which were quite heavy and dry. Stick to the cod.

There's plenty of that. Though much of the world loves bacalhau, the Portuguese fishing fleets probably first caught it, salted it and sent it on its way to their tables. Anyone who has ever stood in an ethnic market and puzzled over the appeal of big planks of dried fish will be amazed at how pleasant it is when reconstituted. Try it as cod cakes or in a simple casserole of potatoes, caramelized onion and olive oil, as rustic as the terra-cotta plate. The fish comes alive in small flakes that are more tender and pleasant than punchy.

Another dish with classically robust Portuguese flavors is pork with clams and potatoes, strong tastes that work well together. Adega also has caldeirada, the spicy seafood stew the Portuguese love over bread; it's very much akin to bouillabaisse, not paella. I hope Adega will add some of Portugal's fascinating cataplanas, where the likes of beans, clams and sausage are cooked together in a copper pot that is shaped like a clam shell.

And I think Florida needs a dash of piri-piri, the African hot sauce that spices cooking from Lisbon to Rio.

Though prices at dinner are high, at least a decade ahead of Gulfport, a wine list that runs from $13 to $19 is a breakthrough attraction. That's not just for vinho verde, the famously inexpensive green wine, but serviceably crisp whites and smooth reds. Prices like that make our first solid taste of Portuguese cooking go down better -- and stick close to its roots. Now that Adega has put Portuguese on the menu, I trust the owners won't forget the bakery and will bring to it the new/old tastes of artisan baking as well.

Adega Cafe & Wine Bar

  • 3121 Beach Blvd.
  • Gulfport
  • (727) 343-4755
  • Hours: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
  • Reservations: Yes
  • Details: Outdoor seating, beer, wine, on-premises bakery.
  • Prices: Breakfast, lunch, $3.95 to $7.95; dinner entrees, $11.95 to $19.95.

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