What happens when you live far from your homeland and the closest thing you can find to salted cod is the salted ikan kurau that the dried foods stallholder proudly proclaims comes from Penang, which he says is great in fried rice but if you really want to soak it in milk and make a Portuguese speciality, "ah, can also...."?
As three Portuguese expatriates have done, what you do is open your own restaurant and hope to spread the word about this sun- kissed land of Mediterranean bounty whose people - contrary to popular belief - do not live on egg tarts alone.
As the only full-fledged Portuguese restaurant in Singapore, BOCA (which means "mouth" in Portuguese) takes baby steps in inducting local diners to an unfamiliar cuisine with a small but carefully curated menu that's filled with classic bread soups and sauteed pork and clam surf 'n' turf combos.
It just strikes us as odd that, for a cuisine so new in this town, the owners haven't stationed a native Portuguese inhouse to explain the food to diners who don't make it a habit of Googling a country's culinary heritage before going out to eat.
The hostess - who at least looks more Portuguese than the other serving staff - welcomes us at the ground floor entrance to the chic bar and counter dining area, but leaves it to her colleagues to lead us upstairs to the main dining room.
Our server is efficient, pleasant, hardworking and super well-meaning, but struggles to communicate any knowledge of the food she is serving. A tendency to lapse into Mandarin when she fails to find the right English words she needs is endearing, but does kill any vicarious pleasure we might have enjoyed from being transported to another country through our meal.
Still, we do make some discoveries of our own. We gather that the Portuguese enjoy eating chicken pies and croquettes, thanks to a sampling platter of appetisers (S$22) which comprises piping hot morsels of flaky pastry encasing a creamy chicken filling which are top-notch; a Spanish-like fritter of cod bechamel in a crunchy crust; samosa-like shrimp dumplings and an over-salted minced beef and chorizo croquette that's the weakest link.
Trust the Portuguese to know how to treat an octopus well, so we get a cold, sliced tentacle that has the right proportion of bite and tenderness (S$24), tossed in fruity olive oil and topped with a zingy relish of red peppers, onions and coriander.
And a taste of the clams barely cooked in an addictive broth (S$20) flavoured with wine is a sure sign that the lady chef has some kind of cosmic connection with shellfish - she seems to know the precise moment that the clam moves from live to just cooked, stopping when the flesh is still wobbly and juicy, with no chance of getting rubbery.
We also learn that the Portuguese have taken the act of dipping pieces of bread into your soup and turned it into an art form - albeit its admittedly unappealing (to us) translation of "bread porridge" (S$26). This comforting staple is a toothsome treat for the toothless as bread disintegrates into fish broth fragrant with olive oil and coriander. In our case, we end up digging frantically for the silky smooth slices of firm-fleshed salted cod not just because they're good, but also to remind ourselves that we haven't lost our ability to chew. Pleasing if monotonous, it is hard for one with a fixed mental image of what porridge should be, to go beyond a few spoonfuls of this.
The meal becomes progressively salty as meat appears on the table. First, in the form of two lamb chops (S$26) clothed in breadcrumbs with their boney ends thoughtfully wrapped in foil for easy gnawing, presented atop a bed of tomato salsa.
When you prefer your chops naked, the crust is an unnecessary encumberance - the meat is good enough on its own and will not embarrass fellow chops by appearing au naturel. We're also not particularly taken by the entrecote (S$48) even if its size is impressive - the plain steak is showered with slices of salty jamon iberico, olives and roasted potato slices. Ho hum.
What we're really looking forward to is the Portuguese egg tart (S$4.50) and we're rewarded with an oven-fresh treat of delicate, flaky pastry that can barely keep the hot, runny custard filling from flowing out onto the plate. It's more creamy custard than the wobbly baked eggy mixture we're accustomed to, but it's just as enjoyable.
It certainly beats the wishy-washiness of Chef Lola's apple tart (S$9) which could perhaps be a Portuguese version of deconstruction.
A big blob of thick apple jam is served sans crust or reason, with a scattering of crumbs beside it and some whipped cream cheese on the side. We're thinking a thick slice of toasted brioche would be so good with all this.
BOCA is a welcome trend-bucking eatery that will be a haven for fellow Portuguese and a new experience for the rest. It hasn't really shown its hand yet with its tendency to play safe with food that still resembles its European counterparts. We're looking forward to gutsier and more complex flavours, and a bigger repertoire. And teaching that salted fish trader the real meaning of bacalao.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on Feb 9, 2015.
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