There are two countries called Portugal in Europe. One is a slim procession of coastline and villa complexes along the length of the Algarve. The other is, well, the rest of the country.
Most of us know the Algarve (many of us still miss Stanley Street’s homespun restaurant of the same name), far less have experienced the country north of Thomas Cook’s zone of all-inclusive fleshpots.
SevenStreets, having just returned from Porto, is keen to do that ‘extending the holiday’ thing we’re all guilty of. Only, I don’t really have to leave the house to do this. A bottle of port exploded in my luggage on the way home – cheers Easyjet – giving my entire summer wardrobe a blotchy pink colour and an exotic, fruity odour. You might have smelled me around town?
I’m wearing selected items as I investigate Cafe Porto (I’m hoping a hint of Sandeman’s vintage tawny might endear me to the chef), Portugal’s sole outpost in a city with Iberian eateries by the bodega full.
But which Portugal does Cafe Porto attempt to recreate? The omission of fading pictures of plates of egg and chips outside is a good sign that we’re a long way from Albufeira.
Cafe Porto features fresh, simple and authentic plates of Portuguese-style tapas (three course dining available on request).
Based on the simple hole-in-the-wall style grill houses and bars tucked into the back streets of Porto’s teetering Old Town, the cosy space is a relaxed, informal alternative to the buttoned-up and showy Puschka next door.
Most workaday restaurants in Portugal offer Platos do Dia – filling and fresh plates of meatballs, salt cod, pork and rice or grilled sardines. Cafe Porto takes the idea, gives it an English twist (well, Scottish. The restaurant is a Portuguese-Scottish affair) and dishes out a selection of specials and set choices to an increasing crowd of devotees. Lunches too are equally simple and surefooted.
Trouble is, when we were there, there was a table of diners screeching their way through the evening, nipping out between mouthfuls for a fag, disappearing off into the toilet in curious clumps, and generally making the evening unbearable for the rest of us.
They were, most definitely, Praia Da Rocha to Cafe Porto’s Douro Valley. And another depressing reminder that there’s a significant subset of people around here who have no concept of communal etiquette. We’re aware we sound like snobs, but in a space as intimate and friendly as Cafe Porto – with half a dozen tables – there is a limit to how much ear-shredding bon homie you can take before the experience becomes like a Tough Mudder challenge.
Cafe Porto offers a short selection of fresh and grassy Vinho Verde wines (Portuguese wines are criminally underrated), but it also offers corkage for those who opt to bring their own.
The braying table of ‘beauties’ next to us were glugging down bought-in bottles of Tesco rosé between verses of California Dreamin’ and sentences which, invariably, started with the immortal: ‘I’m not being funny but…’ and ended with some bitchy observation about whoever it was who’d just nipped outside to suck up another Marlboro Light.
Our food arrived in a succession of bite-sized chapters (and sympathetic whispers from our hosts, apologising conspiratorially about how ‘lively’ it is tonight). A board of meze-style starters (homemade hummus included), delicious crispy-on-the-outside and fluffy-on-the-inside saltcod fish cakes, marinated chicken and chorizo strips, chunky tortilla, chunkier meatballs in a fiery tomato sauce…a touch of olive oil, the heat of garlic, a dollop of lemony mayo…nothing earth shattering going on here. Just wholesome, filling, great value (all around the £4-£6 mark) plates of food. Prepared from scratch. Served piping hot. Washed down with a glass or two of zingy Alvarinho.
Owner Pedro Almeida admits his venture suffered a rocky start, due to the recession, and even considered selling up last year for personal reasons. But the Porto native has fallen in love with the city and, he says, “I’ve put everything into this, so I’m not going to give up that easily.”
“I have nothing against posh places, but I don’t think that people do not need to go posh if they want to eat well, have nice atmosphere and enjoy wonderful wines,” he says, when we call him the following morning to tell him we’d slipped in for a review.
We remind him about the very ‘relaxed’ diners from the previous evening.
“Well, if you drink two bottles of wine, that’s what happens,” he audibly shrugs. “I might have to re-consider the bring your own policy, and just limit it to mid-week. In a cafe like ours, atmosphere and service is so important to us. If one table is taking all our efforts to control well…it’s not what we aim for.”
Together with Scottish partner, Mary Walker, Pedro works hard to ensure everything is right: with authentic ingredients sourced from a London-based Portuguese importer. Together, it’s evident the team works its collective ass off – you can see them toiling away in the open kitchen. And they’ve created a wonderfully idiosyncratic outpost at the top of the town. It’s galling to see some customers treat the place as a cheap bar, with the occasional plate of nibbles thrown in. Show some respect, people.
Is it authentically Portuguese? Maybe. Or maybe it’s more a greatest hits of the Med. Who cares. It’s in Liverpool – and here, we very much hope, it will stay.
14 Rodney Street
Tel: 0151 708 5276