Monday, March 13, 2006

Atasca Restaurant - feliz aniversario a mim (happy b'day to me!)

Saturday night was my birthday (29 - again) and I can't think of a better place to celebrate than at Atasca, a warm, inviting Portuguese restaurant over by the Kendall Square movie theater. While I wish they still had their old cozier location on Broadway, I've grown fond of the new space. A grand matador painting greets you at the entrance, colorful Portuguese pottery adorns the walls, and lively conversation and vinho verde (light Portuguese "green" wine) fill the room.

Now this is not a place to go if you want to see elegant, vertical plating. While the dining is fine, the plating is simple. Portuguese food is not fancy. It's peasant fare. And you could care less how it looks on the plate because it tastes so good.

As soon as we sat down, black olives were served as well as Portuguese cornbread and a salty, olive oil with garlic for dipping. These appetizers are on the house which is a nice touch. I'm more of a green olive fan but these black olives were excellent - briny and firm. The bread and dipping sauce were great. I had to keep reminding myself, "Don't fill up on bread."

The first appetizer we ordered was the Lulas à Alho, sautéed squid with garlic topped with milho frito croutons (polenta). The squid was so tender (they serve both the rings and the tentacles which I love for the variation in texture) and the sauce it was in was citrusy, garlicky and well, yummy. I really liked the polenta croutons, too. They were very light and soaked up the juices nicely without getting soggy.

The other appetizer we ordered was one my sister and I sit around and talk about often, the Queijo com Paté. It's a plate of Portuguese white cheese with chourico paté with grilled garlic corn bread. Where else in the world can you get chourico (Portuguese spicy sausage) paté? If you go to Atasca, this is something not to be missed. It's a layering process. Take a piece of the grilled corn bread, top it with a smear of paté and top it off with the very smooth, light white cheese. Now THAT's a killer appetizer.

For dinner, I ordered what I always order there. I can't help it. It's so good. It's called Galinha com Vinho do Porto which is sautéed chicken breast with mushrooms and Port wine, served with a white kidney bean risotto. Wow. What a feast for the senses. Way too much to eat in one sitting. Makes heavenly leftovers. Based on the recommendation of the waitress, I ordered a glass of Sinfonio from the Alentejo region of Portugal to accompany my meal. It was wonderful. For those of you who don't know, Portuguese wines are a great value. There are a number of liquor stores in the Inman Square area that carry Portuguese wines from the Douro, Dão and Alentejo regions, known for their excellent wines. Most are under $15.

My boyfriend, Kemal, whose idea it was to go to Atasca (bless his soul), ordered the Bife Atasca com Ovo a Cavalo. This is a very traditional Portuguese dish that seems like a crazy idea but is actually a fantastic idea. It's a traditional marinated 12 oz. sirloin steak sautéed with a garlic, red wine sauce and Portuguese butter, topped with a fried egg (that's right, a fried egg), served with Atasca's fried potatoes and mixed vegetables. It's a heavenly combination. I just want to note that the fried potatoes are not to be overlooked. They slice small potatoes in round slices about 1/4" thick, fry and salt them. Sounds simple but there is something special about these fried potatoes. They are both crispy and soft at the same time and highly addictive. They're also available (and may even be a little better for some reason) at Atasca's sister restaurant, O Cantinho (further details below).

For dessert, we ordered the Arroz Doce (Rice Pudding), a staple dessert in many cultures. I love their rice pudding. It's very light and creamy, not dense or hard and crunchy on top like some versions. They don't say so but I believe they put lemon zest in the pudding which gives the dessert that little something extra.

For a special night out or simply a night of rustic, home-style fine dining, try Atasca. Bom appetit!

Obrigada, Kemal!

O Cantinho - a More Casual Alternative

If you want a more casual ambiance but similar food, try their sister restaurant, O Cantinho in Inman Square. I absolutely love the atmosphere in there. It's a small place (about 8 tables), pottery everywhere and a few wonderful paintings on the wall - portraits of what seems to be the Portuguese "every man." You can see into the kitchen and know when your meal is being made by the smell. The waitresses there are always very warm and friendly.

I highly recommend the bacalhau sandwich (lightly fried salt cod with a spicy piri piri mayonnaise sauce). It's served on a Portuguese roll and comes with those addictive fried potatoes I mentioned in the Atasca review above. So fresh and delicious. The Favas com Linguica (stewed fava beans with onions and Portuguese sausage) is fantastic. A little on the spicy side but not too hot. Every friend I've asked to try this has LOVED it. Wash it all down with a mini bottle of madacujar soda. It's a passion fruit soda and I promise you, you'll love it. It's light, refreshing, not too sweet. I fell in love with it when I visited Madeira Island and was thrilled to find out that they serve it. Finally, for dessert, their mini custard pie desserts (Pasteis de Nata) are to die for. You can take them to go if you're too stuffed to eat them there. I like the basic custard (it always has a sort of signature burnt layer on top) although they also offer vanilla, coconut and red bean (seems more Asian than Portuguese but whatever).

O Cantinho is open all day from lunchtime through dinner so if you're ever in the Inman Square area, definitely stop in for a bite. You'll be glad you did.

50 Hampshire Street, Cambridge, MA, 617.621.6991
Open for lunch and dinner. Outdoor seating in the summer.

O Cantinho
1128 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA, 617.354.3443


Blogger Carol said...

Haven't tried atasca yet but absolutely LOVED o cantinho! Can't wait to go back; even worth crossing the charles for! The bacalhau sandwich, madacujar soda and basic mini custards are scrumptious! And the paintings on the wall are exquisite, expertly rendered works of art. As simple and homey as the place is overall, the art lends an unexpected yet still cozy gallery/cafe feel. Truly delightful!

6:56 PM  
Anonymous abt said...

Everyone I've taken to Atasca has loved the experience. I always order the sardinhas grelhadas (grilled sardines). Even novice sardine eaters love them. When the weather gets warmer they have outside tables as well. It's a great place.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Madeira Mama said...

Loved Atasca when we went...makes you want to go home and create some of the dishes.

1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi lynne;

thanks for including me on your food adventures! i look forward to seeing whats on the plate next!


8:35 PM  
Blogger mini-me said...

we went to atasca a couple weeks ago but wasn't thrilled with my main course. I wish I had read your post before hand since I must have ordered the wrong thing!

the complimentary olives were yum, and we almost licked clean our appetizer dish of shrimp and goat cheese. sadly i was dissapointed with my cod fish dish (comes in a copper pot). the broth was decent, but the cod was kinda dry, chewy, and tasteless? :(

will have to give atasca another try ... would be fun dining al fresco. and your post makes me want to try Queijo com Paté!

5:19 PM  

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