Thursday, March 13, 2008
Dining With Client Nine (Arcos Churasqueira, 33-05 Broadway)
The ambiance of Arcos (the only Portuguese restaurant in Astoria we know of, so we are rooting for its success) is a bit of a puzzle. The white-linen tablecloths and relatively subdued lighting suggest austere formality, an impression our gracious waiter -- an elderly man with halting English -- quaintly reinforced. But at the same time, the television above the bar was flickering with the latest updates of the Spitzer scandal on CNN. Fortunately, we were too pleasantly engrossed with the delicious bread (Portuguese rolls with an herbed olive oil to dip them in) and the wine -- from the list of mostly Portuguese wines -- to have our meal spoiled by prostitution and hypocrisy.
The waiter wished he could recommend his favorite entree, porco à alentejana (pork cubes and clams), but it wasn't available, so we ordered the comparable dish that subbed in shrimp instead, along with steak prepared the Portuguese way -- with a slice of ham and a fried egg on top, all covered with a rich brown gravy. Both dishes came with some strips of carrot and broccoli florets, and fresh-made thin-sliced potato chips, which were right in the sweet spot between too crisp (which would have made them into Utz) and undercooked (which would have made them into scalloped potatoes).
The steak was everything we hoped for, a decadent protein bomb with a megaton of meaty flavor. The pork-shrimp dish, with chunks of meat suspended in a delectable herbed sauce (we have no idea what was in it, and didn't need to), was nearly stew-like in its hearty simplicity.
Plenty of places in Astoria offer a sort of charmed slice of the old country -- which country that is depends on which street you're on. We've happily dined at many of these restaurants and will again. But the overload of, say, Greek and Italian establishments means that, while their overall quality is high thanks to the intensity of competition, it can also be difficult to find a true standout. For every person who swears by the joint on Ditmars, there's someone on 28th claiming that his little Greek place is the best in the neighborhood. Maybe our naivete concerning the food of Portugal means that we've been snookered by a restaurant that would be considered mediocre at best were there more competition. We don't think that's the case -- but if it were, would it matter?
Arcos' owner-chef made it to our table to make a personal greeting, which was sweet, if slightly awkward. You can't help but feel slightly on the spot, and in a restaurant that seems unjustifiably empty far too often, the temptation is strong to want to go overboard with reassurances. We couldn't help but be wildly effusive in our praise, but we were sincere in almost everything we told him.
Price: $15 to $25 for entree. Well worth it.
Will we go again? One of our most delightful discoveries. Looking forward to repeat visits.