September 24, 2008
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Food: Estalgem Porto Antigo

At the doctor for my annual physical, I was talking to the nurse-practitioner about Portugal and France and eating. “But could you read the menus?” she wondered with evident concern. On the whole, I don’t worry much about menus in Europe; I can usually get the food group roughly right, and I like to be a bit surprised.

There have been mishaps, like the time in Sienna when I accidentally ordered a large, creamy pastry with my beer.

But, occasionally, unexpected things emerge from the kitchen. Usually, mishaps are a matter of taste; it’s supposed to taste like that, they like it this way. You don’t. This is called getting an education. And, on the whole, every place you eat is pretty good, especially in lands where people like to eat; when you come right down to it, it’s not more costly or really more difficult to cook simple food competently than to do it badly. A decent diner can last forever, and a wretched one can easily be run out of town.

Which leaves us at Estalgem Porto Antigo near Cinfães. It has a gorgeous setting, overlooking a Douro river so broad and placid that it could be a mountain lake. It has a lovely new Scandinavian-style building, all wood and glass. It’s got fine service.

And it has spoiled shrimp in its omelets. It has bacalao that hasn’t been soaked sufficiently, and so is much too salty. It has what one of my distinguished fellow-diners called “the worst Bolognese I’ve ever had”. (I didn’t try, but it looked a lot like a consomme raft) We tried it twice (long story), and it didn’t improve

I’m not a critic, and so usually when things don’t go swimmingly well I just don’t write about them. Especially on the road, because de gustibus and because I might simply not understand, or perhaps I accidentally asked for something I didn’t want. (Elsewhere in Portugal, I was almost served white port and quinine water because I asked for “tawny” and the barman heard “tonic.” Seriously.)

Tips for eating in doubtful places:

Incidentally, I think the next big eating trend will be dining at counters, getting the food directly from the person who cooked it, and freeform off-the-card unmenus.