(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in February 2017)
Spanish food has been having a long moment but the cuisine from its neighbor Portugal might as well be from Liberia when it comes to awareness among American diners. However, gifted young chefs David Costa and Jessica Carreira are changing this oversight; reservations at their Portuguese restaurant Adega are now the hottest ticket in the South Bay. Of course, it didn’t hurt when Adega was awarded a Michelin star in the fall of 2016 even though it had only opened the previous year, just the second such honor for a Portuguese dining spot in the country and, remarkably, the very first star from the tire folks for a San Jose restaurant.
Visitors are swooning over the modern, carefully crafted dishes at this smallish, comfortably contemporary dinner house located on a sketchy part of Alum Rock Avenue in what’s called Little Portugal. This is the neighborhood where pastry chef Carreira grew up before culinary school and major success at a Michelin one-star in Lisbon. There she met partner Costa, now Adega’s executive chef, and they later realized their restaurant dreams in partnership with Carreira’s parents, who had been local importers of Portuguese wines.
Admittedly, classic Portuguese cuisine isn’t sophisticated, leaning toward seafood, sausages and stews, but in the hands of a talented pair like Costa and Carreira, these traditionally based dishes show off pristine ingredients and modern creativity. Plus, many visitors consider Adega to be very well priced among its Michelin brethren. Consider the delightfully tender, slightly smoky octopus salad, just $10, with its tangy red pepper sauce lightened up by accompanying greens. Those who avoid octopus due to the ease with which the meat turns rubbery are finding anything but at Adega.
A bedrock of Portuguese cuisine is salted cod, bacalhau, and Adega’s fluffy, creamy-center bacalhau fritters with greens are airy and utterly addictive. But the rib-sticking nature of Portuguese food proudly emerges in another starter that features braised, shredded oxtail suffused with rich bone marrow and matched with mushrooms and creamy potatoes.
Particularly outstanding are the two soups, in which the classic caldo verde — a simple puree of onion and potato with kale and lots of olive oil — is amped up with house-made sausage. But the crowning achievement is the seafood bisque with lobster and oysters in which the irresistibly creamy broth is poured over the pristine seafood tableside.
In a similar vein of deliciousness is Adega’s rice concoction with lavish amounts of shellfish and vegetables, beautifully spiced, which makes even the best Spanish paella pale by comparison. Another killer entree from the sea is a tasty fish assortment — recently, seabass, cod and salmon — perfectly cooked and paired with pumpkin in pieces and pureed, pumpkin seeds and subtle lemongrass sauce.
Meanwhile, carnivores are paying attention to Costa’s take on a Portuguese classic of steak topped with an egg and fries. Upgraded with a juicy ribeye delivered on a sizzling stone, this interactive treat not only lets diners choose the amount of doneness but they can experiment with very complementary bitefuls of accompanying potatoes, fried egg, Iberico ham and more. Then there’s the super-juicy prune-stuffed pork loin painted with red pepper and paired with black-eyed peas and kale that is concurrently succulent, sweet and nicely spicy.
Save room for Carreira’s heavenly, sophisticated desserts. In her hands, mundane rice pudding turns into delicate fried orbs of coconut rice with perfectly sweet-sour passionfruit sauce and slightly boozy mojito sorbet. Or dive into light chocolate sponge cake with espresso mouse crowned by eucalyptus-smoked chocolate sauce and chocolate ice cream. One of her specialties — not always on the rotating menu –is Ovo de Ovos, in which creamy mouse surrounds an egg cream center and is presented in an elegant nest formed from egg “strings” (a traditional preparation) redolent of cinnamon.
Adega means winery or wine bar in Portuguese and the name fits given the enormous selection of wines from that nation — one of the largest in the country at a Portuguese restaurant, reportedly. But the friendly, Portuguese-accented servers should impart more helpful details to guests about these largely unknown wines to assist in selection.
Otherwise, the service and pace are perfect at Adega, which relies on traditional cooking approaches rather than the sous-vide-everything and tortured presentations some other Michelin winners rely on. Certainly, the restaurant is much more than a neighborhood mom-and-pop shop, however, with an amuse bouche to start, final bonbon and little touches like homemade bread served with unusual hummus and marinated olives. It’s said that the Portuguese have 3,000 ways to cook bacalhau and if Adega’s sublime food continues to draw such large audiences, the young chefs might have an opportunity to prepare them all.
Adega, 1614 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose; (408) 926-9075. http://www.adegarest.com
HOURS: Wednesday-Sunday, 5-9:30 p.m.. Closed Monday-Tuesday. Reservations strongly recommended.
PRICES: Starters: $9-16. Entrees: $25-29. Desserts: $10-16.