Charcoal-grilled fish, lots of fresh seafood and seasonal produce, rice at least once a day and no fussy seasonings or sauces: Portuguese cuisine has so many points of overlap with Japan’s, it’s a wonder that it hasn’t caught on here more widely.
One major reason is that Portuguese cooking is at its best when it’s given the fewest fancy affectations. Try to doll it up with haute cuisine airs and graces (and prices to match) and it loses its appetizing, earthy appeal. There’s little chance of that happening at Cristiano’s.
This buzzy little backstreet restaurant, which opened last December close to Yoyogi-Koen Station, keeps everything nicely unpretentious. It’s cheerful and welcoming, as easygoing and affordable as a neighborhood bistro, though much better looking than most. And, more importantly, the food is put together with skill, care and an obvious respect for Portugal and its cuisine.
Owner-chef Koji Sato spent many years in Europe, working and traveling from Milan to London to Lisbon. Though he never actually lived or trained there, he has put together a remarkably extensive Portuguese menu, ranging from simple fishermen’s fare to the hearty, meaty hot-pots of the rustic inland regions.
Cooking doesn’t get much simpler — or tastier — than sardinhas assadas, whole sardines dusted with salt and grilled over charcoal until their skin comes up wonderfully crisp and dark brown. Sato uses large fish shipped from Yamaguchi Prefecture, which have plenty of delicate white flesh to compensate for all the fiddly bones inside.
And few recipes are more rustic and flavorful than feijoada, especially when this hot-pot is prepared a Transmontana, in the style of Portugal’s rugged, impoverished northeast. Sato fills a shallow brown stoneware casserole with white haricot beans, spare ribs, potato and onions and a single massive sausage, and simmers it all down with cuts of tripe to give even deeper, richer levels of umami.
And then there is bacalhau, the cured salt cod that is the defining ingredient in Portuguese cuisine. According to folklore, there are more than 1,000 different recipes for preparing the fish. Sato himself already has a repertoire of 365 bacalhau dishes. Because of its importance, he has even built a small chamber in the corner of his kitchen where he can cure fillets of the fish in-house.
You may find it cropping up in salads, stir-fried with eggs or oven-baked with vegetables. But one dish that he always keeps on the menu is bacalhau croquettes. These small, breaded, deep-fried morsels come in three styles — black with squid ink, spicy red chili or plain — and whichever you order they make a marvelous little appetizer.
Portugal has no tradition of Spanish-style tapas, but many restaurants do serve light appetizers known as petiscos. Sato has taken this idea and expanded it, devoting several pages of his menu to smaller, lighter dishes, none of which are more than ¥1,000. All are intended to be shared between two (or more), and there is no need at all to follow the traditional starter/main/dessert formula.
In fact, Cristiano’s is just as much a wine bar as a formal restaurant, especially later in the evening — it stays open till 3 a.m. on weekdays — and has a cellar that puts to shame many operations twice its size and in far more glamorous parts of town. It boasts 80 or so wines from Portugal alone, and well over a score from further afield, with the large majority priced at or under ¥5,000.
It is unusual to find six different kinds of vinho verde, the light, easy-drinking, gently petillant white wines — many are so young they look almost green, hence the name — produced in the far north of Portugal. Offered here for as little as ¥1,800 per bottle (or ¥450 by the glass), these are a refreshing way to start a meal.
From the rest of the wine list, we have homed in with great pleasure on the wines of Luis Pato, especially the Maria Gomes, a white grape little known outside its growing area, while the red (made from the Baga grape) is nice and tannic. Both are brilliant value at little over ¥2,000.
Strangely, the food menu includes a whole page of vegetable dishes made with neither meat, fowl nor fish. Ingredients such as tofu, hummus, kikurage black fungus or tempeh (a fermented soybean food native to Indonesia) are virtually unheard of in Portugal, but Sato finds a place for them in his kitchen. This apparent anomaly makes more sense when you know that during his time in Italy he worked at Joia, a Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant in Milan.
Since discovering Cristiano’s this spring, we’ve been back several times, drawn by the food, the wine and the general level of enjoyment. One reason we like the place is that despite the low ceiling, it still feels spacious. There’s no sense of the tables being crammed in, especially if you sit out on the plastic-enclosed “terrace.” Too bad it’s not properly al fresco (due to concerns about the late-night noise), but it still feels almost like private seating.
Cristiano’s also wins points for its colorful decor, especially the beautiful wall paintings. Check out the classic black and red Portuguese cockerel motif right by the front door, or the olive groves fringing the corridor to the rest room. These were done by Keeda Oikawa, a local artist who lives just around the corner.
It’s touches like these — the very wallet-friendly prices too — that make Cristiano’s feel like the best kind of neighborhood restaurant. Obviously the locals think so too, and that’s why it has been consistently booked solid most evenings since it first opened.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at foodfile.typepad.com/blog.