Portuguese pride

Portuguese pride

At the risk of being skinned, skewered and roasted, I will stick my neck out and say that there is a certain herd mentality in the restaurant scene here.

When a couple of Spanish restaurants open here and start doing well, others begin popping up like mushrooms after rain.

There are dozens of Italian restaurants because diners here cannot get enough of the cuisine.

Less well represented are restaurants from other parts of Europe with interesting food.

Although it is making waves elsewhere in the world, Nordic food is all but impossible to find here, if you are looking beyond meatballs and lingonberry sauce.

There are but a handful of Greek and Swiss restaurants and, until recently, the only Portuguese food to be had here has been roast chicken and egg tarts.

I hope then that Boca is here to stay.

The Portuguese restaurant in Bukit Pasoh Road soft launched about three weeks ago and is set for an official opening later this month.

It is still finding its feet.

Some of the dishes on the menu are not available the night I dine there.

The wait staff would do well to pay greater attention when diners make orders and learn about the food they are serving. Baffled looks do not inspire confidence.

Despite these teething problems, there is a lot to like at Boca, which means "mouth" in Portuguese.

The 72-seat restaurant occupies the space vacated by Italian restaurant Oca Grassa. On the ground level is the bar, which used to seem forbidding and cold.

Now, it feels much more welcoming.

Flocks of ceramic Andorinha decorate the walls, which are painted a milky blue. In Portugal, similar swallow sculptures decorate the interiors, balconies and facades of homes, and celebrate the migratory birds which return to the country each year in spring.

Portuguese diners must surely be reminded of home when they look at the birds, which have come to represent the soul of the nation.

On the ground floor is a dining counter and a few small tables, and the main dining room is on the second floor.

The plan is eventually to serve small eats on the ground floor and more elaborate food on the second.

For now, the menu is a good mix of both.

It is entirely possible to make a meal out of the small plates, although some of the larger ones are well worth trying.

A good way to start the meal is with Prato De Salgadinhos Mistos ($20), a sample platter of appetisers.

There are little chicken pies, beef and chorizo croquettes, salt cod fritters and shrimps encased in crisp pastry.

All are delicious but the two that stand out are the fritters, which have a good flavour of the sea without an overdose of salt; and the crisp parcels of sweet shrimp.

Also expertly fried are Peixinhos Da Horta ($11), green beans coated in batter and deep fried. They emerge light and crisp and a quick swish through the tapenade served alongside makes them less austere and much more interesting.

From the list of seafood dishes, I cannot resist ordering Acorda De Bacalhau ($22). After all, dried, salted cod is an essential ingredient in Portuguese cuisine.

It does not disappoint. In fact, I'd go back just for it.

The dish, served in a copper pot, looks like congee but is not made with rice.

Instead, pieces of day-old bread are cooked with fish stock until they break down and become a thick porridge.

Big pieces of the bacalhau are scattered through the dish and they have a satisfying bite.

The texture is much firmer than that of fresh fish, and it feels substantial and satisfying.

Served with much more drama is Chourico Em Chamas ($22), two pork sausages engulfed in flames from brandy set alight.

They are served on a special glazed earthernware dish with a latticed top on which the sausages sit.

The brandy gives the smoky sausages, perfumed with paprika, added oomph.

Chourico are similar to Spanish chorizo and the filling is chunky and luscious. Use the bread to mop up the paprika-flavoured fat.

A surf and turf dish of Carne De Porco Ao Alentejo ($21) features pieces of Iberico pork softbone and clams in a lightly spicy and garlicky sauce.

There is a homespun vibe to it, mostly from the pork softbone.

The only dud dish in the meal is one that is not difficult to get right. Camarao Ao Alho E Limao ($18) is just prawns in a garlic and lemon sauce.

The prawns, alas, are bland, lacking in sweetness and, indeed, any kind of flavour. I detect no lemon on them or in the sauce.

Portuguese Egg Tart ($3.90) is the dessert I look forward most to trying, but it is not available the night I am there because the flour for the pastry has not arrived.

I roll my eyes and console myself with other desserts.

A deconstructed apple tart with cheese mousse ($11) is serviceable but not terribly exciting.

Much better is Toucinho Do Ceu Com Sorvet De Porto ($13), a dense almond and egg pudding that has the texture of kueh bingka.

The quenelle of port sorbet is the perfect accompaniment, tasting deeply and intensely of raisins, but with a lightly tart note that saves it from being over the top.

Later, I realise that I might have missed this lovely dessert if the egg tart had been available. What a pity that would have been.

Restaurants such as Boca bode well for the dining scene here.

Let 2015 be a year of variety, please.

This article was first published on January 11, 2015.
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