Monday, June 11, 2012

O Paparico, Porto: Defying Convention. Cooking For Real.

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Let's get one thing straight right at the beginning; I'm a foodie that is getting bored with the current culinary scene. Celebrity chefs, uber-modern, super-cool restaurants started by people who have more money than taste, ludicrous prices based on Michelin stars, pomp, posh maitre'ds and sommeliers, the list goes on and on. Eating out now has become a minefield. It's easy to have a bad meal, even with good research. And so it is with great pleasure that I review a restaurant that doesn't have any of the above.

O Paparico is a little out of the way. Tucked into a family neighborhood, it's easy to question your taxi driver on the address. As we did when we were dropped off for our first meal at this understated restaurant in Porto. Scooting up to the front door I read on the menu outside that we were indeed in the right place and waved the taxi driver away. But after fiddling with the door handle, which was locked I nearly called him back before noticing the antique door knocker. Knock, knock, knock. A friendly face answers and I say, "I think our reservation is for 8pm but can we come in and have a drink?" "Of course! Please, come in." Sergio, the owner says in a friendly voice that speaks nearly flawless English.

Sergio led us to the bar which resembles an old speakeasy. Replete with stained leather sofas, a chessboard and a flat screen TV showing movies from the 40s. Within minutes the four of us were already in love. Sergio offered us a drink and we sat there marveling at a restaurant that was clearly defying the current restaurant trend. As the diners began to pile in I was certain the level of service and Sergio's attention on us would wane. It was not so. Sergio and his team only paid us more attention, giving us a wonderful table, snuggly fitted into the center of the restaurant. Right in the middle of the action.

The table was already laid out with four starters, but we were swiftly told that we could switch up anything we wanted. I was really impressed and surprised that the decision making process was completely taken away from me. Instead of spending hours scrutinizing the menu, I was given my choices based on what was in season and local. I won't bother to go into each dish as I normally do because the menu changes all the time and you, dear reader, are not likely to eat what I ate. But, every dish was spectacular, especially the Veal Terrine with a Port Sauce.

When the starter plates were sufficiently licked clean they were quickly taken away, refills of Meandro (my favorite Douro wine) poured and our mains were presented. Up first was Bacalhau, which is Codfish cured in salt for 12 months and served with mountains of olive oil, new potatoes and onions. This dish won't be to everyone's tastes, as it is literally the saltiest thing I have ever eaten, but it was lovely and clearly wasn't too salty as it was completely devoured. And so it was with the remaining main courses, which are prepared for two. Each being completely taken apart and inhaled in record time.

This kind of intentional family-style eating is a breath of fresh air. Too often in todays modern restaurants we are being bombarded with sense overload inducing dishes, that are meant to tease and inspire every bodily reaction. And although I love what most chefs, especially Heston are doing with these dishes, it's nice to lift my head up and actually engage my fellow diners for once. Every dish in O Paparico is meant to be enjoyed by at least two people.

When we left O Paparico at close to midnight, every diner felt they had experienced something very special. But when we went back two days later and experienced the same high level of service, and dare I say it, even better food, we were certain that we had struck gastronomic gold. And for a price that made all of us do a double take. Reasonable doesn't even begin to describe it.

By our second evening at O Paparico we were seasoned pros. We had the same table as before and the same starters were laid down for us. We swapped out a couple to enjoy the full variety and instead of ordering two main courses, we ordered one and had two additional starters; the Prawn and Chorizo, which were both excellent. In fact, I have to admit that I have never tasted a Prawn as good in my entire life; not in Spain, not in France, not in England and not in Italy.

When our bellies were full and our drinks were running low we were invited into the kitchen to see how things are done at O Paparico. It's a cozy kitchen, but one with very accomplished staff. As Sergio put it, "It's all that we need." And although Sergio can chat all day about chefy techniques like Sous Vide, Spherification and other Molecular Gastronomy, that's not what he's about. And it's not what O Paparico is about. Instead, Sergio is wholly concerned with the dining experience and the quality of the food. Perhaps that's why the people in the Porto food and drink business choose to eat at O Paparico. When they are done making their fabulous wine and cooking in their own kitchens, they come to Sergio.

The restaurant scene could use more people like Sergio and more restaurants like O Paparico. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Porto. Portugal has not yet made it on the map as a tourist destination. Ask nearly anyone in England and the U.S. if they've been to Portugal and the answer is likely, no. However, Portugal is producing some of the best food and wine in the world and it's only a matter of time before the word gets out and instead of going to the tourist traps of Spain, France and Italy, people will save their pennies and come to Portugal. I place the wines of the Douro region above Rioja and although not quite as appealing as the top chateaus of Bordeaux, for the money I think they are the best in the world. Couple that with the breathtaking beauty of the Douro river and the hallowed port wine houses and the Porto area is one of the best places to visit on Earth.

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