I feel the need, before I get to telling you of my experience at Alfama, to justify where exactly this evaluation is coming from... I'm Portuguese. I've eaten in just about every Portuguese restaurant in the greater Newark area. I've also been to plenty of restaurants of wide ranges, qualities, and cuisines. I enjoy the three-star Michelin meals and the burgers at Shake Shack. I can enjoy a piece of braised pork belly at Per Se in the same day that I have a recession special at Gray's... By now you get the point and I hope I've dutifully presented my Culinary C.V...
I haven't seen too many negative evaluations of Alfama, here or otherwise. However, I've never been one to be afraid of being different, so here it goes... This place is so "meh" that I can't shrug my shoulders, roll my eyes, and hold a "meh" long enough to audibly express my apathy for it. I went with my wife, sister in law, and father in law on Saturday night. We're a communal bunch and enjoy splitting appetizers and having a go at everything, so we decided to split some cheeses, go with the grilled shrimp & chouriço, pimentão hummus, Toledo cheese, toasted broa, and the steamed clams in a garlic, cilantro and white wine bouillon. The three cheeses we ordered were the São Jorge ("all out", while it does note a provision for "market availability" this is like saying a cheese place was out of cheddar), and three others. The minor detail of the SJ cheese being out aside (the cheeses were the 2nd best thing about dinner, actually), the rest of the appetizers were borderline flavorless. There were two small/medium shrimp smothered in the pepper hummus. The clam appetizer had five medium clams in it. Five! Once we saw the portions we knew we were not in for a truly Portuguese experience.
A quick aside here, I'm well aware that Portuguese restaurants tend to go WAY overboard on the portion size. However, a larger-than usual (ie French) portion is as much an aspect of Portuguese cuisine as is a basket of fresh bread with olives.
Still starving from our underwhelmingly small and relatively taste-free appetizers (I actually ate the rinds off of one of the cheeses I was so dissatisfied), we waited for our meals. My father and sister in law ordered the Bife na Pedra or "steak on a stone." I find this to be a relatively campy presentation and executed all too often to no real additive effect. However, I can't tell my father in law that he's essentially going to Italy and having dinner at the Olive Garden, so I keep my opinions to myself (hey, maybe this place will add something new to the concept). My wife ordered the bacalhau grelhado: grilled bacalhau fillet, chickpeas, roast pepper, cauliflower, shaved egg & crispy caper vinaigrette and I ordered the Feijoada Transmontana which is essentially a poor people's stew of the pork trimmings (feet, etc) with chouriço, beans, rice, etc... It's a monstrous dish that three people can rarely finish, forget one. Alfama's menu described it as "Stew of braised Niman Ranch pork, chouriço & white beans, four-celery salad, jasmine rice." Here's where the real fun begins...
While cooking your own meat at the table will tend to come with some form of smoke, these stones were completely smokeless. Why? They were ice cold. When I say ice cold, I mean Robert Matthew Van Winkle cold. We brought this to our server's attention and the first person told us that it was supposed to be that way. To which we responded "No way, it's raw meat on a stone with no heat." Another employee came over after the server explained our situation and said that we were supposed to cook the meat at the table. So I implored him to touch the stone and asked if he could make any recommendations regarding how we might cook with a 72 degree piece of rock. Embarrassed at the fact that he had been thoroughly condescending and now looked like a moron, he rushed back to the kitchen with the plates. Out came my dish as well as my wife's. My wife's dish was well composed, had great flavor, but was not "Portuguese sized." My dish was a joke. Three 1 1/2 inch round pieces of pork on a bed of white beans with little rice and TWO penny thin and sized pieces of chouriço. This is NOOO feijoada. How can these Brazilian servers actually bring something to the table like this and proclaim they've placed anything resembling what essentially amounts to their national dish in front of me without falling on the floor either laughing or in shock? Don't get me wrong, what I had of the beans with pork bits and sausage essence was good, but it wasn't feijoada and it WAS NOT $24 worth. I had a LUNCH portion (which amounted to 4 times the food) at Adega Grill in Newark a week or so ago and paid $15 for the real deal (the ugly parts of the pig).
In the middle of all this, the in-laws plates came back, steak on them, apparently cooked and no rocks. I asked the server what gives and he said we asked him to cook it. I then asked, how did we ask you to cook it? He then replied, he said he understood that we were unhappy with the stones not cooking the meat so they took it back and cooked it for us. Okay, you're wrong, but how did we want it cooked? No answer. I said "Exactly, you have no clue if he wants it medium or if she wants it rare, you actually didn't listen to the fact that we just wanted the meat to be on stones as per the menu to be cooked at the table." Our main server came over and apologized for the misunderstanding. (Mind you, the servers speak fluent Portuguese and so do we, so we had been communicating in what I assume based on their accents is their native language the entire time, so this is not a "language barrier" matter). However, my father in law said it was no big deal (this is how he always is: they could have put spam on the plate and he would have shut his mouth and eaten it) and began consuming the food. Having been at least a few glasses deep, I decided to let cooler heads prevail and try to enjoy the rest of the meal.
I tried his filet mignon which was dry and actually had quite a bit of chewy / tendon texture for such a "fine" cut of meat. At this point it could have tasted like heaven and I would have probably found an excuse to complain.
For dessert we all played it safe and ordered the serradura (which is crackers and cream essentially, who can mess that up?) and it was phenomenal. My father in law's espresso was ice cold when it got to the table and they gave him another one. I wish we would have just gone here for dessert and a Licor Beirão or a Felipe II.
A single bad experience does not, by any stretch of the imagination, make a bad restaurant. However, I won't be returning due to the fact that I'll be looking for Portuguese food and dining, not to be ripped off and have largely unauthentic food at the same time.
PS - Sorry for the pseudo stream of consciousness banter, but it's the only way I know how!