The sliced meat and cheese appetizer at Oporto Café on Richmond is charmingly presented on a little wooden cutting board. You choose from a list of six cured meats and salamis and eight imported cheeses. It's four dollars for each serving, but the price goes down if you order three or more. We got five selections for $15.
When the appetizer board arrived at our table, my dining companion complained that it didn't look like a lot of food. I was miffed that bread didn't come with it. A basket of assorted breads — hot focaccia squares and some other kind of puffy-topped flatbread — set us back an extra $2. But it was so good, I shut up about the two bucks.
For meats, we selected the San Danielle prosciutto; two thin slices came curled up into flower shapes. We also got some deliciously slick, pistachio-studded mortadella, the fabulous cold cut from Bologna that has inspired so many imitations, including Oscar Mayer's. My companion was alarmed by the funky pork smell of the spicy coppa ham; I assured her that it was supposed to smell that way. But the aroma of the coppa was mild compared to the cheeses we ordered.
The rich and nutty Swiss Gruyère had an aroma that some find reminiscent of dirty socks. The sumptuously soft and creamy Italian Taleggio had a sharp pungency that seemed to attack your nose like a ripe truffle or a fresh-cut clove of garlic.
It's not a lot of food, I told my tablemate, but a little of this stuff goes a long way. The flavors and aromas of the cured meats and funky cheeses were so strong, I'm not sure we could have eaten much more anyway. We followed the appetizers with a small pizza and a salad.
We also sampled two glasses of wine with our dinner. The first was a 2004 Las Rocas, a Grenache from the Catalan region of Spain. It was a bright, fruity wine that harmonized nicely with the highly flavored appetizers. The second glass was 2003 Caves Allanca Douro, which was suggested by the guy who buys the wine for the cafe, and who I assume is the owner.
Douro is the Portuguese region where port is made. I've had several red wines from the area over the years and have never been very impressed by them. But this Douro was different. It had a leathery aroma with deep jammy fruit flavors and some tannin for traction.
Both of these are just the sort of everyday red wines I like to keep on hand at home, and according to the prices I've seen on the Internet, both sell for under $15 if you can find them in the wine store. As a bargain hunter's guide, Oporto's one-page wine list is quite remarkable. There aren't more than 35 wines on it, and they are almost all affordable Portuguese, Spanish and Italian wines I'd never heard of.
As you might expect, Oporto offers a selection of port wines. Is the restaurant named after the second-largest city in Portugal or the fortified wine invented there? It's something to ponder over a glass of Cockburn's. Did you ever wonder why ports all have English names?
According to Karen MacNeil's Wine Bible, that's because it was the British who invented them. In the 1670s, British wine buyers looking for an alternative to French wines were impressed with the wines of Douro. In the 1700s, Englishmen like Warre, Dow, Cockburn and Sandeman set up businesses in Oporto to store wine and ship it back to England.
It was customary to add a tiny amount of brandy to barrels of wine being shipped to stabilize it on the long voyage. A spectacular 1820 vintage created a huge demand for Portuguese wine in England. To try and replicate the sweetness of the big vintage, winemakers in Portugal added more brandy earlier in the winemaking process in subsequent years. Alcohol stops the fermenting process, so the more brandy they added, the more sugar was left in the wine. Over the course of decades, port wine reached its present-day formulation.
Although it serves port, champagne and other wines, Oporto's short wine list suggests that it isn't ambitious enough to qualify as a wine bar. Nor is it really a restaurant. According to the Web site,www.oporto.us: "The spirit of Oporto lies with the coffee and wine 'snack bars' in Portugal, Spain and Italy. A place for people to drink superb coffee, read the newspaper, surf the Web, visit with friends, talk business or hook up a romantic rendezvous..."
Unfortunately, the term "snack bar" conjures up images of vending machines and fluorescent lights for many Americans. And the French word cafe describes enormous elegant spaces as well as tiny charming ones. Think of Oporto as the Houston equivalent to one of those European "sidewalk cafes" where people loiter for hours over a cup of coffee and a croissant or a glass of wine and a bowl of olives. And expect leisurely service and a limited menu.
There's the meat-and-cheese board, a couple of Portuguese soups, some salads, three pizzas and three panino sandwiches on one side of the single sheet menu. On the other side, there are 14 tapas plates, supposedly available only after 5 p.m., but you usually can get them at any time if the place isn't too busy.
My favorite of the tapas plates was camarões piri-piri, an oval dish of juicy shrimp sautéed in olive oil, garlic, lemon and piquant piri-piri pepper oil with a dash of Madeira wine for sweetness. The olive oil and garlic sauce, which I sopped up with bread, was the best part. It went wonderfully with a glass of fresh-tasting Frascati, one of Italy's best-known white wines.
I also loved the potato salad with olives, garbanzo beans, boiled eggs and bacalhau, the Portuguese salt-dried cod. And for eight bucks, the pesto pizza, which had a reasonably crispy crust, was an excellent deal, although there was a lot of mozzarella and sliced tomatoes on it and not a whole lot of pesto.
My biggest disappointment in the tapas was advertised as linguiça. I should have paid attention to the menu, which called it "Portuguese-style sausage," a sure sign that it wasn't the real thing. The dish turned out to be cut-up sausage links sautéed with onions, peppers and some potatoes that tasted leftover. Polpetti de carne e salsicce turned out to be the same sausage chunks with some bland meatballs in a tomato sauce.
Oporto doesn't pretend to be a dinner destination, and it's a mistake to try and turn it into one. The night we sampled the meats and cheeses with the bread basket, followed by a pizza, I ended up feeling like I had eaten too much bread — which, in fact, I had.
But Oporto is ideal for a long lunch, especially if you can indulge in a glass of wine. And it's great for an afternoon espresso and a panino, or a bottle of wine and some tapas after work.
You don't expect much from the food in a cool hangout like Oporto, which is why the tasty tapas come as such a pleasant surprise.
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