Pão com tomate (bread with tomatoes) is a simple starter dish all over Spain and Portugal. Usually it’s served on a plain white plate at the beginning of the meal. When you order it at Oporto Fooding House & Wine, however, it’s served with a panache normally reserved for feature dishes.
A narrow, 20-inch-long wooden board arrives at the table with two slices of bread arranged artfully next to a pink mound of thinly sliced jamón serrano (dry-cured Spanish ham similar to prosciutto). Thin slices of green apple are fanned on the board next to the ham, and a cup of yellow-tinged turmeric cauliflower pickles provide visual and textural contrast.
The effect is both beautiful and delicious: The just-crisped bread, cut to a pleasing thickness of about one centimeter, is charred to a slight smokiness and is spongy in the middle; the chunky, bright red, well-seasoned tomato, its consistency somewhere between that of a chunky tomato salsa and a mashed-up bruschetta, coats the bread thickly, the apple slices and pickles providing a burst of tart or sweet crisp. Eaten together, the components combine to make a most memorable dish, one of many that you’ll experience at this six-month-old contemporary Portuguese restaurant in Midtown.
Oporto Fooding House stays very busy. There are no open seats available at 7 p.m. on a Friday. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations except for parties of eight or more, so it’s best to come a bit early and wait. Our arrival is received by a slim, model-like hostess sporting a head full of long braids. She welcomes us with a genuine smile, asking us to wait a few minutes as several tables are about to wrap up their meals. She seats us just to the right of the front door, a prime spot from which to people-watch while the last rays of sunlight illuminate the restaurant’s lively scene.
Oporto is undoubtedly one of the most stylish restaurants to open in Houston in the past year. The designer — Michael Hsu Office of Architecture in Austin — did a brilliant job, taking a strangely shaped, triangular flatiron space and splitting it up into distinct areas that flow seamlessly from one space to the next.
At the marble-topped bar, almost every seat is occupied by patrons chatting amicably while noshing on small plates, a cocktail or glass of wine in hand. A party of six sits somewhat huddled in a u-shaped lounge area with low-sitting coffee table, enjoying what appear to be the last drinks and bites of happy hour. In the center of the room, parties of two or four are lost in conversation, their tables topped with small plates and wine glasses. Several people are perched at the curved raw bar, which hugs the seafood station and pizza counter. A community table that would eventually fill up as the night wore on sits higher, overlooking the open kitchen, where chefs are seen grilling and plating.
Design details — octagonal terra cotta tiles, copper piped detailing, and the blue and white tile motif that is also imprinted in the back of the menus — mimic the feel of a coastal Portuguese tavern, right down to the string lights that crisscross above the small patio outside.
The new concept by chef and owner Rick DiVirgilio’s Oporto Wine Cafe and wife Shiva DiVirgilio’s Queen Vic Pub, Fooding House is sophisticated, not just in design and clientele but also in food. The large menu, developed by DiVirgilio, who still cooks on the line most nights, has eight sections offering a wide variety of options, well organized into nibbles called “snacks,” petiscos (the Portuguese equivalent of tapas), pizza, cheese and charcuterie, soups, salads and large plates.
Snacks ring in at around $6, while the majority of the dishes are priced in the $12 to $14 range, with larger entrées priced higher. The menu is big enough that it’s altogether too tempting to over-order, sans regret. My outing with a girlfriend easily turns into a three-and-a-half-hour repast, complete with wine and a conversation.
We start off the evening with cheese. Like the pão com tomate, the two selections we order — an alva semi-firm Portuguese goat’s milk and a firm Spanish sheep’s milk manchego artesano — come on a wooden slab, with a small pot of pepper jelly and a round, firm cracker as the accompaniments. There’s an option to mix and match charcuterie and cheese, with meat options ranging from Italian mortadella to house-made octopus salami. The cheeses we sampled were excellent, setting the stage for the rest of the meal.
Do croquetas de bacalhau (salted cod croquettes) sound good? Oporto’s very authentic rendition stands up against traditional versions you might experience in Portugal. They come piping hot and three to an order, large-ish, four-inch-long capsules about two inches in diameter, easily shareable among friends. Biting into the crispy outer shell yields a soft, creamy filling made of flaky white fish. Dipped into the piri piri (African bird’s eye chile) aioli, it’s a gourmet fish stick done superbly well, something definitely worth ordering again.
A shallow bowl of wood-grilled vegetables — purple and orange baby carrots, zucchini, yellow squash and beetroot, was also quite wonderful, a nice departure from the same old vegetarian salad offerings found elsewhere in the city. The roots were cooked through but still firm and naturally sweet. Interspersed throughout were crispy potato chips that gave the the dish an added dimension of texture, while the grainy nuttiness of a pistachio romesco sauce provided a coating of earthy flavor offset by occasional pops of chalky goat cheese.
If you can get it, order the house-made linguiça sausage, a special menu item that thoroughly delivered, from presentation to execution. Served in an oblong bowl of pottery shaped like the bottom half of a pig, the sausage was pre-sliced and placed lengthwise on slats, then set on fire at the table, eliciting immediate attention from nearby onlookers. It’s served appetizer-style with crisp toast wedges and a room-temperature red dipping sauce, but the accompaniments were almost superfluous because the sausage — plump, juicy and charred at the edges — was just fantastic.
You could play it safe and order a pizza or a salad, but that’s not why you go to Oporto, and it’s not the restaurant’s strength by any means. Better to go Portuguese and get something like Oporto’s bouillabaisse-like seafood caldeirada, a hearty chowder served in a shiny stainless-steel bowl, rich and sweet in seafood essence, with Moorish spices added for a more well-rounded depth.
The unusual-sounding but utterly delightful lulas guisadas, a thick, stew-like pasta dish made of soft round pellets of Sardinian fregula pasta in a mix of tomato-based sauce tinged with coconut, was a surprising hit one evening. Calamari and linguiça sausage don’t sound as if they would be complementary, but together with the tomato and coconut (when have you ever seen this flavor combination?), they created an effect that was Mediterranean and tropical all at once, and very pleasingly so.
Charred octopus in the form of polvo com batatas, blackened along the edges of each purplish-pink tentacle, is a signature dish that comes with one of the many styles of potato available at Oporto. It’s a good representation of this classically Mediterranean dish when the octopus comes out nicely charred, less so when it’s not grilled long enough, which happened on one occasion. DiVirgilio changes the potatoes up with different spices, and these shaak potatoes were diced and swathed in a spicy red sauce.
For the less adventurous, there’s an impeccably done bife a portuguesa — essentially a steak-and-eggs dish served over a mound of piri piri-spiced potatoes. Here, a six-ounce cut of hangar steak combines with a sunny-side-up yolk, which oozes decadently over well-seasoned potatoes.
DiVirgilio’s wife is Indian by descent, so sometimes you see hints of Indian flavorings and spices in Oporto’s food. Such is the case with the chicken and curry empanadas, which unfortunately were a bit too thick, heavily crusted and somewhat dry the night we had them. It made me long for the moist and juicy chicken tikka masala empanada from Susie Jimenez’s ill-fated Trenza in West Ave, and was one of the few things that didn’t quite measure up during my visits.
Similarly, a pão com chorizo, so tasty and addictive on one night, came out underdone and very bland on another. It wasn’t the end of the world, and the fact that our server removed it discreetly and without question, offering to replace it with something else, was much appreciated.
Service, in general, is detail-oriented, with a good can-do attitude. We were vacillating over what wine to get one night and ended up ordering a bottle of Italian red that neither I nor my girlfriend found all that exciting. “We sell this wine by the glass,” said the server, offering to exchange the bottle for something we would love instead. The wine was promptly taken away, and one of the wine stewards came over and suggested a bottle of Greek red that we liked much better, and the evening progressed merrily from there.
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On the subject of wine, though Oporto does not have a BYOB policy, it does have a wine policy that should make most wine drinkers happy. “Most bottles cost about three times the cost of a glass,” said our server, “so if you plan on drinking three glasses, you might as well order a bottle. Anything that’s left over, you can cork it and take it with you.” The wine list, compiled by a sommelier from Bordeaux, France, is somewhat Euro-centric, with a heavy focus on Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French wine, but the prices are accessible enough that people don’t shy from imbibing.
That’s part of what the whole “Fooding House” concept is about, after all. DiVirgilio was in Portugal when he stumbled upon the little cafe that he modeled his restaurant after. It was a place that people stopped by morning, noon and night, feeling welcomed each time, whether they had coffee or a full meal. That was his vision for the Oporto Fooding House experience, and all it takes is one evening spent in the dreamy, romantic, orange-and-red glow of the dining room to know that he’s succeeded, and spectacularly so. Because here is a restaurant where you can do lunch, happy hour, dinner, drinks or dessert. It’s inviting yet intimate, friendly and refined yet not in the least bit snippety, a place where you can visit alone or with a group of people, knowing there’s good food and ambience to match.
Oporto Fooding House
125 West Gray, #500, 713-528-0115, oportomidtown.us. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.
Croquetas de bacalhau $9
Pão com tomate $6
Pão com chorizo $6
Charred veggies $10
Cheese and charcuterie $4 for 1, $7 for 2, $10 for 3, $14 for 4
Caldeirada $14/cup $21/bowl
Polvo com batatas $16
Bife a chorizo $14
Linguiça asada $15
Lulas guisadas $14