Portuguese cuisine — much like Belgian fashion and Canadian rock music — has an identity problem. Overlooked and underrated by the world at large, it inevitably suffers by comparison with the better-known output of its far larger neighbor, Spain.
Over several visits to Lisbon, we have found the food to be honest and straightforward, less sensuous and varied than Spanish perhaps, but no less satisfying. This is an assessment that holds true at Manuel, Tokyo’s first and only Portuguese restaurant, which is finally (after an on-off start) up and running on the leafy fringes of Shibuya.
It’s a small, tidy place in southern European style — whitewashed walls, wood panels, beams across the ceiling and simple but comfortable furniture. The bistro look is apt, since Manuel serves the kind of home cooking that would not be out of place on the banks of the Tagus.
Like so much of Portuguese culture, Manuel reflects the complex colonial history of the country. Executive chef Manuel Pena is in fact based in Macau, where he runs one of the best eateries in the territory (on Taipa Island). And although the chefs he has left in charge here in Tokyo, Sancho and Mito, originally hail from the Philippines, they are fluent in both the language and culinary skills of Portugal. Their cooking is excellent.
The basic building blocks of the Portuguese diet are cabbage, rice, potato and salt cod — ingredients that are all well in evidence on the menu at Manuel. Do not fail to start with soup, preferably the caldo verde, a smooth, thick potage of potato and shredded greens that is perfect for this time of year, warming without being too heavy.
The polvo frito a Portuguese — octopus sliced into small bits, dredged in flour and lightly deep-fried — made a good accompaniment to our first glass of wine. On the recommendation of the waiters, we also ordered the moelas saltadas (chicken gizzards sliced and steamed in white wine). Despite the beige sauce it was served in, this was surprisingly tasty, and put us in just the right frame of mind for our main course.
The national dish of Portugal is bacalhau (salt cod), for which it is said there are 1,000 different recipes. Manuel’s bacalhau a Broz is a fine example of just how delectable this versatile fish can be. Soaked and leeched of its salt, the cod was shredded and cooked with fine slivers of potato until it was crisp and slightly golden, in a style not so dissimilar to a Swiss rosti but far superior in flavor.
The frango a Portuguese was less successful. The cuts of chicken were served with tasty potatoes and other root vegetables in a bland white sauce that was as simple and comforting as something your grandmother would make. Next time, though, we will call in advance and ask chef Sancho if he can make a special order of African chicken, that exciting hybrid featuring Chinese and sub-Saharan spices, which is always one of the highlights of a trip to Macau.
If you want more nourishing sustenance, there are several dishes featuring rice — with chicken, octopus or clams — cooked down with a thick, corn-based soup, much like a liquid version of risotto. But most people will probably want to fast forward to the selection of desserts, which are so important as to warrant an entire blackboard to themselves.
They make a superb chocolate mousse; there is arroz dulce (rice pudding in the Portuguese way, oozing sweetness); and, of course, pudim de ovos, the classic egg-custard dish that is perhaps Portugal’s finest contribution to gastronomy (as well as its most enduring katakana contribution to Japanese). But the house special is the maca assado, a whole baked apple served in a sauce imbued with liberal quantities of port.
What makes dinner at Manuel even more enjoyable is that it is excellent value. Starters are around 700 yen; the main dishes are under 2,000 yen; and even their best wine, the fragrant Esperao, is 4,000 yen (and the Evel, a very quaffable Douo red, was a mere 3,000 yen). That means a meal for two with a decent bottle and even a snifter of Justino 10-year Madeira (650 yen) shouldn’t set you back much more than 10,000 yen.
It is still early days at Manuel. The waiters are only just getting accustomed to the food they’re serving. The cellar is not yet fully assembled (this past week they added vinho verde and some good Barros vintage port to their wine list). And they still haven’t finalized their opening hours. But all in all, Tokyo couldn’t ask for a tastier, friendlier introduction to this unjustly neglected cuisine.
U.S. chef Danella Carter, who has hit the bestseller lists with her cookbook “Down Home Wholesome,” is in town, and for seven days is presiding over a special event of contemporary African-American cuisine. She will be serving a full dinner menu — including her takes on soul food classics such as fiery grits with shrimp gravy , greens with cornmeal dumplings and BBQ chicken — at Restaurant Ya in Aoyama (3-2-6 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku) near Bell Commons.
Danella Carter will be cooking March 30-31 and April 1, 5, 6, 7 and 8, from 6.30 p.m. (last sitting 9 p.m.), by reservation only. Cost is 5,000 yen (not including drinks). Limited to 30 people per day. For further details, contact Ya (in Japanese) at (03) 5411-6616.