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Sure, Portugal may be best known these days for the complaint that its slacker economy is weighing down the euro. But when it comes to the kitchen, Lisbon has always punched above its weight.
And that is reason enough to be thankful that Alfama, a little gem of a restaurant that dished out fine Portuguese food in the West Village for a decade, has recently been reborn in the UN neighborhood.
Even better, in its new 52nd Street digs, Alfama is still doing its namesake (Lisbon’s oldest and artiest neighborhood) proud, serving contemporary interpretations of traditional Portuguese cuisine in a cool modern setting. It is a friendly and comfortable restaurant, with Portuguese waiters. While the prices are a bit high given the simple surroundings, the food and wines are generally quite good, the service is gracious, fast and attentive, and the noise level is low enough to encourage free and easy conversation, a rarity in the city.
As José Filipe Moraes Cabral, the Portuguese ambassador to the UN, confessed in a short elevator chat recently, Alfama is the place he goes to in New York when he craves a meal to remind him of home.
To start off, Alfama has a bakery within the restaurant that turns out tasty respectable focaccia, tiny baguettes and raisin bread. These are brought to the table with a dish of aromatic olive oil. (You can also buy the breads or have them for breakfast, starting at 8 a.m. daily.)
For a main course, try the sophisticated versions of such Portuguese classics as pork and clams, piri piri chicken, chouriço, grilled octopus and cod (available in myriad variations) alongside such Portuguese-accented standards as steak and burgers. There are no tablecloths and the floors are covered in tile rather than thick carpets, but the napkins are linen, the glassware is elegant and the dishes are fine white china — finessed with an elaborate “A” on the rim.
The best deal at midday is the $16 express lunch, offering a choice of pulled lamb, tuna sandwich or Portuguese-style chicken pot pie as well as a bowl of soup and a salad or house-made potato chips, which dissolve instantly in your mouth.
The pot pie is delectable in a flaky pastry. If you’re quite hungry, a three-course lunch at a fixed price of $27 includes main-dish choices like steak and seafood and rice along with an appetizer and dessert. Ordering off the regular menu, appetizers are $7 to $17, entrees $15 to $32 and desserts $6 to $12.
At dinner, the prices for appetizers and entrees fall into a similar range, and the fixed-price three-course meal is $38. Speaking of three courses, don’t be shy when it comes to dessert as the meal-ending sweets — again, mostly update versions of traditional Portuguese fare — satisfy deeply.
Dishes are generally well prepared and nicely presented, which helps when the final tab comes. Appetizers in particular can seem small for the price, and if you’re eager for a large serving of a vegetable with your main course, you’ll have to order a side dish — say, roasted asparagus with shiitake mushrooms or Brussels sprouts with slivers of chouriço — for another $5 to $7.
Face it, these are contemporary New York versions of traditional Portuguese favorites, not the bountiful heaping platters you might remember being served in a speck of a restaurant in the Portuguese countryside.
Mirroring its fare, Alfama’s decor may be spare, but the atmosphere is as relaxed as the Mediterranean. The walls and tables in the smallish main dining room are made of pale blond wood, with orange banquettes and architectural but comfy leather-covered chairs. Opposite the bar, small tables with stools, presumably for a quick lunch or a drink, work well, too. If you’re throwing a party, the private dining room in the basement offers a picture window into the kitchen for viewing.
Judging from the number of people that are speaking Portuguese, much of the clientele is from Portugal or Brazil. Other diners can be overheard telling the waiters about their favorite Lisbon neighborhood or a cherished memory from a visit long ago. For these people, Alfama could well be one of their favorite destinations.
Alfama is open every day from 8 am to 11 pm, including a weekend brunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; it is located at 214 E. 52nd Street between Second and Third Avenues in Manhattan; (212) 759-5552.