Friday, July 30, 2010

Primavera Pub

The Primavera Pub is one of my favorite restaurants in the area. It is a no bullshit neighborhood place (so much so that it doesn't have - or apparently need - a website) that serves great Portuguese food at a fair price in a cozy (OK, cramped) little building that literally sits right on the Hartford/Newington line.

I particularly like PP because I am half Portuguese (My mother's family is originally from the Azores and were part of the first great wave of Portuguese immigration in the 1880's and 1890's). For my money, the PP serves the most authentic Portuguese food in the Hartford area.

Indeed, one of the basic rules of ethnic restaurants is that you can tell a lot about the quality and authenticity of the food by how popular it is with people of that ethnic group. I have never been to the PP and not heard multiple conversations being conducted entirely in Portuguese among the patrons. That's a good sign.

Last night I went with two Italian-American friends; A colleague from work who is also a big fan of the PP and a neighbor to whom I introduced the PP a few weeks ago. He, however, brought a friend of his own who just happened to be a nephew of the proprietor.

It was great to have him as part of our party because, not only is he a nice guy and an obviously good judge of Portuguese food, but he speaks perfect Portuguese (as opposed to my crappy third-generation gibberish). This proved to be helpful with the waitstaff. The young women who work the tables these days at the PP are from Brazil. They are very attentive, hardworking, and friendly and they all do speak English to a reasonable extent. That said, my newest dinner companion was able to facilitate our ordering and expedite cashing out at the end of the night.

The restaurant was packed when we got there at 7:15pm and we had to wait about 15 minutes for a table to clear. Indeed, business had been so brisk over the last few days that they had run out of Sagres, the most famous beer brewed in Portugal and a staple at almost every Portuguese restaurant at which I've ever eaten (Fortunately, there is nothing particularly unique about Sargres other than its provenance, so a Beck's was a perfectly satisfactory substitute).

Once we were seated we were given complimentary olives and Portuguese rolls. The rolls were fresh and tasty and very consistent with the type and quality of Portuguese rolls I've had at many different restaurants. My new dinner companion pointed out, however, that the rolls you get in Portugal are not as heavy and have a browner (i.e. more baked) surface than those with which I am familiar.

We started with an appetizer of a dozen codfish cakes ($.50 each/$6 total). For the uninitiated, a codfish cake is a small (a bit less mass than a golf ball) sphere (almost like a football or rugby ball) filled with codfish, potato, and sometimes seasoning, with a fried outer surface that usually filled with a variety of spices and seasonings. Growing up on the ocean in a heavily Portuguese community, I have eaten hundreds (if not thousands) of these little morsels and last night's batch rated reasonably well, though there was a bit too much potato and not quite enough cod. The seasoning, however, was good.

I had the "Primavera Mix" for dinner ($14.50). This is a combination of fresh clams, shrimp, and lightly marinated pork cubes served over a brownish/yellow rice, plus lightly fried potato cubes. The clams were quite tasty as were the seasoned pork cubes.

I don't know very much about continental Portuguese cooking, but all these elements are very common in Azorean cooking. The two styles are noticeably different (if you watch Anthony Bourdain's show, you already know this, as he has been to both the Azores and to the Continent). At a 30,000 foot level, cooking in the Azores tends to be simpler and makes greater use of fish and especially shellfish. Cooking on the Continent, especially in and around Lisbon, is much more complex and makes greater use of beef.

My understanding is that, historically, beef was less common in the Azores owing to both the shortage of land (they are small islands and it takes a lot less room to keep pigs, chicken, and fowl) and to the relative poverty of the residents (which was very pronounced for many years but which has changed pretty dramatically in the last 20-25 years). In fact, of all the Azorean food I had growing up, I can't remember any of it involving beef.

Speaking of beef, my co-worker had the bitoque a casa (house steak) ($13.50) which was a reasonably sized strip steak with sauteed mushrooms, again on a bed of rice and potato cubes. He seemed to enjoy it. The house steak is not to be confused with the so-called "Portuguese steak" (also on the PP menu) which is a strip steak with an egg fried on top of it - quite delicious but not conducive to a long life.

My co-worker also had a glass of hearty house red wine. He is a real foodie, but loves a good Portuguese house red believing that the Portuguese tend to do modestly priced wines better than almost anyone. I agree, but I am prejudiced in this regard. He seemed satisfied with his glass.

My neighbor had the pork and shrimp mix ($14.50) which was very much like my dinner, but with no clams and more pork and more shrimp.

My new dinner companion had the alantejana ($14.50). Alantejana is a (perhaps the) signature Portuguese dish and you are likely to find it in almost every restaurant which purports to specialize in Portuguese cuisine. The dish comes from the Alentejo region of Portugal, which is essentially everything south of the Tagus River (which bisects the country and empties into the Atlantic at Lisbon) except for the Algarve, which is the most southern part of the country (and a quite popular vacation spot, especially for Brits). It is a hearty meal consisting of pork cubes marinated in white wine, paprika, garlic, and other stuff (depending on the chef). The cubes are fried and then mixed with clams and served over cubed potatoes. The PP's Alantejana is also served with a generous helping of rice.

My new dinner companion had no complaints. Actually, none of us did. The food was, as always, excellent.

One thing you need to know about eating at the PP is that the portions are generous. Actually, they are more than generous, and you frequently see customers leaving with dogie bags. Our meals were no different and my two Italian dinner companions had to work to clear their plates (when an Italian struggles to clear his plate, you know there is a lot of food on his plate).

After dinner, my new companion went to talk to his uncle, which resulted in a complimentary round of drinks. My co-worker and I took the bait and both had Maciera, which is form of Portuguese brandy. It is a potent liquor that tastes delicious but which has quite a fiery kick to it that follows the liquid all the way down your esophagus. Not for the faint of heart, but a great way to end the meal. Actually, one of the hidden treasures inside the PP is its fully-stocked bar. There are a variety of Portuguese wines (including vino verde, which literally means "green wine" but which actually refers to a variety of red and white wines from Minho, which is in the far north of Portugal, just south of the Galicia region of Spain). There are also several cordials, including port.

The atmosphere at the PP is pretty casual and very authentic, with the walls covered in Portuguese soccer memorabilia, musical instruments, flags, etc. There are two large TV's which, unless there is a soccer match to be watched, are given over to FOX News and RTP (Rádio e Televisão de Portugal). Both are quite popular with the regulars who cram into the small bar that runs the width of the restaurant and separates the kitchen from the dining area.

I won't tell you PP is fine dining, because it is not. It is, however, an excellent restaurant that serves delicious, authentic, and very reasonably-priced Portuguese food. The clientele is diverse. Many, but certainly not all, are Portuguese (or are of Portuguese descent). PP attracts construction workers, families with children, older couples, young couples on a romantic date, groups of friends who enjoy each other's company, and people like me, who just love good (Portuguese) food.

Do yourself a favor and check it out.

As I said, PP doesn't have a website, but here are a couple of links to some reviews and maps -; Also, if you search on Google Maps, you will find a good map and several more (very favorable) reviews.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Captain Scott's Lobster Dock

Even though I've only been there twice, I have absolutely fallen in love with Captain Scott's Lobster Dock in New London. Not only is the food delicious, but it reminds me of home.

Home for me is a small port on the Atlantic Ocean. Not the Atlantic Ocean that most people think about; the Atlantic Ocean of overpriced ocean view condos and good looking yuppies; of windsurfing and speedboat racing; of picturesque remote settings with sailboats offshore silently gliding across the water; and of jammed-packed beaches, loaded with tourists.

My Atlantic Ocean gives sustenance and serves as a mighty highway between great continents; the Atlantic Ocean of commercial fishing boats and lobster men; of fuel depots and boat yards; of cargo ships and railroad tracks leading in and out of warehouses; and of (seedy) waterfront bars filled with hardworking (and hard drinking) longshoremen, fishermen, and sailors from around the world.

CSLD sits on a spit of land jammed between Shaw's Cove and the Amtrack line just south of downtown New London. If you are facing CSLD the train tracks are on your left, somewhat elevated and forming a barrier between the Thames River and Shaw's Cove, with lobster pots stacked three and four high for a good thirty or forty feet across. To your right is a small harbor jam-packed with charter fishing boats and small pleasure craft, beyond which lies Crocker's Boat Yard. In back of you are fuel tanks and an old-fashioned turntable bridge that opens to allow boats out of the Cove and into the Thames and closes to let the trains pass (we saw the northbound and the southbound Amtracks go by). It is not picturesque, but it is beautiful nonetheless, at least to me.

There isn't much to CSLD, just a good sized lobster shack and a bunch of picnic tables, some of which are covered by a sturdy wooden pavilion. Needless to say, you'll be sitting outside, but that's fine on a nice warm summer day like today, especially when the breeze is out of the south and you can smell the saltwater. Do you really need anything else?

My wife started with the lobster bisque, which was very well done. There was plenty of whole lobster (i.e. not pureed) flavored with Sheri, butter, and a hint of garlic. I started with the New England clam chowder, which I really liked because it was neither too think nor too thick. You could really taste the stock which contained carrots, onion, and celery.

I had the fried clam strip plate, which was good. It was hot, crisp, and the clam strips were tasty. My wife, however, was the big winner. She ordered the whole belly clam plate. These were excellent (and better than the clam strips) for three reasons. First, they seem to have been fried in a lighter, crisper, batter. Second, not only were the claim bellies delicious in and of themselves, but they also still had a hint of sea salt on them, which made them even better. Finally, the clam bellies had been properly cleaned, so they weren't gritty (in fact, neither my wife nor I could taste any grit).

The last time we went to CSLD I had the lobster roll (hot), which was very good because it was a generous portion of hot, fresh lobster that had not been slaughtered in too much butter.

Both our plates came with french fries, which were just as they ought to be - hot, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and not too salty. You also get coleslaw, which was good, because it was fresh and crisp, and not too creamy.

The first time we went to CSLD, we also got onion rings. They were OK, but not as good as the rest of the meal. You can only eat so much fried food and the onion rings aren't on a par with the french fries, let alone the fried seafood, of which there is plenty on every plate.

The pricing varies, depending on market prices for seafood, but our meal today plus two Cokes and a small cup of butter almond ice cream came to $40 give or take a few nickels.

CSLD also has a small fish market attached to the back of the shack. Even for a Sunday the selection seemed a bit limited, but the fish looked pretty fresh even by the (much more) exacting standards of those who live on the water.
I read somewhere that CSLD is open "seasonally" which probably means they are closed for the winter, loosely defined. So, you really should go and check it out before the summer ends. You'll have some great seafood and you'll get a taste of the Atlantic Ocean I love.

Here's the link to CSLD's website -

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan

There's only 1 reason to go to West Hartford Center to eat and that's the Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan. Everything else can be found somewhere else, usually cheaper, frequently better, and almost always with a lot less pretense. SKHA, however, is special.

SKHA was opened back in 1988 by a family of immigrants from Afghanistan who fled the chaos caused by the Soviet invasion in 1979. They have been serving excellant food since SKHA openend (immigrants + resturant = good, cheap, interesting food), first in Hartford, on Franklin Avenue near Mozzicato's Bakery, and since October, 2006 in West Hartford Center on LaSalle Road.

I went to SKHA's Franklin Avenue location many, many times (including during the days before 9/11, when Afgahnistan seemed only to be a remote place, with little - if any - connection to my life). I never had a bad meal and most always had an excellant meal. After I met my wife, we went there together often and always ate well.

SKHA was a lot of fun in those days, because it was in a little house, full of nooks and crannies, that had been gutted to serve as a resturant. There wasn't much room (they had a tiny bar that reminded me of a bar I had in my dorm room in college) and the lighting wasn't great, but the smells and sounds, and the family staff made it a great experience, separate and apart from the food. Indeed, one of the things my wife and I both liked about the SKHA was that it was authentic; there were Afghani rugs (including one that told the sad tale of the Soviet invasion) and brickerbrack hanging all over the place, and you could buy various spices, teas, etc. in bulk.

After SKHA moved out to West Hartford Center, however, we stopped going, mostly because we were p*ssed that another really good part of Hartford had packed up and moved to the suburbs. Tonight, however, my wife and I were out that way and we decided to go to the SKHA.

What used to be a cramped little neighborhood resturant is now a fashionable multi-level affair with a full-sized bar, tasteful photos of Afghanistan and several well-placed rugs and plenty of space between tables. The tables and chairs, however, seemd to be the same ones that they used on Franklin Avenue, which was a great touch.

In fact, in some ways, the evolution of the SKHA is like the assimilation of various immigrant groups into the broader American culture. You start with a cramped spot in a neighborhood other groups have vacated and what you do is entirely homespun, and sometimes hokey, but it's always authentic and without pretense. After a while, you move to a better, more "American" spot, that has more room and is more fashionable. You are still close enough to the old country ways, however, that there is still a lot of authenticity and just enough homespun hokiness to remind everyone (including yourself) that you haven't been homoginized, at least not yet. Hopefully, however, SKHA won't take the next step of the American journey and start serving chicken nuggets and taco salads.

Thankfully, nothing about the SKHA except the location has changed, so we had an excellant dinner. It was so good, in fact, I kicked myself for being petty and not going out there sooner.

If you haven't eaten Afghani food you have been missing out (and if you have no interest in trying Afghani food then you should be at Olive Garden having all-you-can eat breadsticks, not reading this blog). As you might guess, kababs loaded with beef, chicken, lamb, and veggies are integral to Afghani cooking, but there is a lot more to it than that.

After the complimentary Afghani bread (which is flat, but leavened and in strips that resemble a Kit-Kat bar) we started with an order of steamed eggplant, fried with a tomato sauce, homemade yogurt, and mint ($6) and an order of samosas ($5). SKHA's samosas are filled with spiced peas, potatoes, and veggies and are very good. The eggplant was outstanding.

For dinner, my wife had the Mantoo ($17) and I had the Ashak ($17). They are similar dishes, and each is delicious. The Mantoo consists of steamed dumplings filled with spicy meat and onions. The Ashak consists of boiled dumplings filled with scalions and spinich and topped with spicy beef. Both are topped with yellow peas and homemade yogurt. The combination of flavors in both meals is just great - a mixture of spicy meat, cool yogurt, hearty dumplings, and flavorful vegitibles. The portions are more than generous, so you aren't craving more when the table is cleared.

You get a side dish with your meal and my wife and I both had the spiced pumpkin, which has the consistency of the squash you eat at Thanksgiving. It is delicious. (It's also incredibly hard to make. When SKHA was in Hartford it sold an Afghani cookbook which my wife bought. She is Italian, so she is an outstanding and enthusiastic cook, but she has not been able to master the spiced pumpkin). There are other side dishes you can choose from. I've had them all and the spiced pumpkin is the best, though the spinnach rice is really good and worth a try.

For desert, I had the rice pudding ($6) and my wife had fernee ($6), which is a milk pudding. The rice pudding is topped with almonds and a sprinkling of rose water. You can also taste some cardamom. The fernee is a thick white pudding (think flan, but whiter and thicker) also in cardamom and rose water. Both were tasty and filling (so filling that my wife couldn't finish the fernee, which meant I got the leftovers :>). I also had a nice Turkish coffee ($3).

The only disappointment of the evening was I didn't see any of the Afghani family that ran the resturant while it was still in Hartford. That's a minor thing, however, and didn't detract from a delicious meal.

There is also a fully stocked bar and a pretty extensive wine list, but SKHA is not the sort of place you go to to show off your knowledge of the latest 98 point wine. You go there to eat some delicious and (for westerners, at least) unusual food.

I am not going to do stars, or rosettes, or anything like that. Suffice it to say, however, that notwithstanding that I will have to haul my #ss out to West Hartford Center and put up with a bunch of people who think the sun rises over Prospect Street and sets over Avon Mountain, you can bet I will go back to SKHA; soon.

Here's the link to SKHA's website -