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Gayla | | Aug 20, 2004 08:37 PM

Girls night out led to OB this past week and the 3 week old Portugalia restaurant. First of all, you can't miss it. Portugalia is on Newport in the first block west of Sunset Cliffs. It's also a very large building painted grey to resemble a castle and has painted banners on it. There is a small bar downstairs, but most of the activity takes place upstairs, where there is also another small bar and the walls are painted with murals depicting the Portugese seaside, lending a rather folk-arty feel to the dining room.

There's some good, some bad, and for a 3 week old restaurant still finding it's sea legs, no ugly.

A plate of olives and cheese is brought to the table when you are seated. Good olives, salty cheese. We selected a bottle of Portugese wine to ease us into the menu. The wine was (and I hope I get this right) Duque do Viseau, a very nice, eminently drinkable red. And, actually, the 4 of us ended up drinking 2 1/2 bottles of this wine, 2 of our own and a 1/2 bottle that was donated to us by a departing gentleman.

We tried the entire appetizer menu, except the fava bean choice as favas weren't available. The shrimp purses were lovely deep fried crescents of shrimp and breading. A little gummy in the center, but greaseless. Balcala received a similar treatment. Grits had been formed into large rectangels and lightly sauteed. Shell on shrimps also appeared to have been sauteed, and would have been easier to eat out of the shell. Linguica was accompanied by some rather dense lumpy mashed potatoes (lumps were good in this case) into which some shredded kale had been added. The linguica was good, but had a little too much fat in it for my taste. All the appetizers were accompanied by a winning dipping sauce made with Piri-Piri chiles. I'd probably be most inclined to order the grits and the shrimp purses again, although all 4 apps were pretty good.

The entress were a little less successful. All entress come with a choice of salad or vegetable, and mashed potato or rice. The salad was chopped romaine garnished with sliced tomato, olives and a relatively good vinaigrette. The rice is seasoned and has a quantity of cheese stirred into it. I thought the rice needed a healthy dose of salt, although others didn't quite agree. The entrees we sampled were -

1) Steak with eggs - a steak (cut unknown) was marinated in wine, garlic, oil, bay leaf and topped with 2 eggs. ($16.95)
2) Pork loin rubbed with spices and roasted. Two thin pieces of pork that were more than a little on the dry side. Flavor wasn't bad, and the dish might be more successful if they used a different cut of pork, or didn't cut the loin so thin ($16.95)
3) Skewered beef - 5 hefty pieces of beef skewered and grilled. Presentation on this dish was impressive and fun. A tall rod with a hook on the end is brought to the table; when the skewer arrives it is hung on the hook with a small plate underneath to catch the drippings. You slide a piece of meat off the skewer as you want it. Beef was tender with good flavor. ($16.95)
4) Tuna steak smothered with onions was probably the best value for the price. A huge piece of tuna at only $17.95. A warning, however, this is not novuelle tuna, it is cooked all the way through, not merely seared and still raw in the center. As good as seared tuna is, this version was kind of a refreshing change of pace.

The menu also includes a number of sandwichs ($5.95 - $7.95). Food was fair to good, if mostly in the "home cooking" range. I was disappointed that the menu did not include the Portugese specialty Pork & Clams. Truth be told I would have ordered it just because I'm fascinated with Cataplana pans :-))

The owner and staff of Portugalia really want you to like them and the food of which they are so proud. They are charming and eager to please, but service is not yet their strong point. Instead of replacing used utensils, we had to save the ones we were using from course to course. At the $17 and $18 range for entrees, I'd expect the flatware to be provided as used or as needed, not recycled after each course. The upstairs dining room was a little too warm and the music a little too loud. We were not asked to what stage we would have like our beef cooked, and I know at least one of us eats it pretty rare. Our waitress did do a very good job of explaining what each menu items was and how it was prepared.

Live music, including Faldo, happens on weekends.

2 bottles of wine, 4 appetizers, 4 entrees, 2 coffees and the tab before tip was $150.00. Portugalia is a unique addition to the eclectic mix of restaurants that line Newport Ave. in OB. If I were to go back (and I just may), I think I'd be most inclined to sip some wine, sample a couple of apps, or have a sandwich. They will, however, need to iron out some of the service problems and ratchet the cooking up a notch or two (especially on entrees) for long term success. For a 3 week old restaurant they're not bad and certainly worth a try.

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