Since all the attention used to go to the original, smaller Atasca on Broadway — now closed — it felt like it was time to check out the newer, modern Hampshire Street restaurant, which seems from the outside to belong more to Tech Square than to ancient Iberia. Inside, the sight of hand-painted pottery and bullfight posters are reassuring, and the Portuguese food is as good as ever.
STILL COOKIN’: The food at Atasca is as good as ever.
We start with small black olives with seeds, but soon enough there is dense Portuguese bread and olive oil with cloves of roasted garlic to spread on it. Some of the simplest appetizers are wonderful: white cheese with tomatoes ($5) featured some of the season’s first decent tomatoes and a soft, fresh, white cheese milder even than fresh mozzarella. Mexilhoes à Tasca ($7.95) is a medium dish of mussels, but sautéed in a tomato-and-roasted-pepper sauce with some heat and staying power. Grilled sardines ($7.95) are three six-inch fish, easy enough to strip off the bones and tasting like both canned sardines and the fire of the grill, with some roasted peppers for enrichment.
The garden salad ($5) relies on fine leaf lettuces and superb vinaigrette, no doubt based on serious olive oil. The soup of the day ($3.95) was gazpacho — Atasca also serves Spanish food — and, again, it featured the flavors of very decent tomatoes and a lot of fresh bell peppers. In fact, the only appetizer I tried that wasn’t a knockout was a special on shrimp with white goat cheese and tomato ($8.95). It was good, although the small shrimp were overdone and a little chewy; I caught myself picking out the bits of cheese.
I managed to sample the two entrées I ate on my last night in Portugal last May: cataplana ($16.95) and medallions of pork with fried potatoes ($14.95). It can be observed that the Portuguese Inquisition consisted of searching out people who wouldn’t eat the delectable shellfish and pork specialties of this cuisine. False converts and secret Jews and Muslims must have been pretty obvious at the market, pretending to sniff the clams and choosing fish, or talking up the lamb chops while everyone else was fighting over the pork sausages.
Unlike the cataplana I tried in Southern Portugal, the Cambridge-Azorean version had no potatoes, no fish, and no cilantro. It was also about one-third the size, and suitable for perhaps two people who had a lot of appetizers. But the local stew of clams, mussels, shrimp with onions, linguica sausage, and ham developed a concentrated broth (in the sealed copper cataplana) of great interest, and I found myself grabbing spoonfuls of the broth to put on rice even before eating all the mussels. (The juicy large clams were not to be passed over.) The two shrimp were very large, but served with the heads on, in the European manner. The pork dish was just as over-salted and savory as I remembered it, and the fried potatoes were very close — some of the best around, in the shape of thick chips. Green beans, an actual vegetable, were an improvement on Portuguese practice.
Galinha com vinho do Porto ($14.95) made for a fine answer to chicken Marsala, with a good dish of rice, white beans, and a few tomatoes. Peito de Galinha com queijo S. Jorge ($15.95) was the same chicken breast topped with grilled, aged cheese and bits of hot sausage, but the “broccoli rabe risotto” lacked the creaminess of real risotto.
The wine list is all-Portuguese, which means Dão (from $5.50 per glass for Costas de Santar) for a soft, big-bodied red, and vinho verde ($6.50/glass; $29/bottle for the better-grade Quinta de Malgaço) for a light, spritzy white. You can also have sangria ($4.50), which is a small wine glass of reasonably well-made sweetened wine and orange juice. But the best choice may be Portuguese beer (four choices), of which we had Sagres ($4.50), a lively pilsner from the westernmost point of continental Europe. Dessert coffees are espresso ($2), cappuccino ($4), and galao ($3.50), which is like an un-frothed latte served in a glass.
All go well with small, sweet desserts, such as pasties de Nata ($5), a mini custard tart with orange liqueur, and arroz doce ($5.95), a fine little rice pudding. Chocolate mousse ($5.95) was simple and satisfying, as was the baked apple ($5.50): a large baking apple with lots of flavor.
Service on a slow summer night was excellent and helpful, except on the pronunciation of Portuguese, a language as treacherous as English, and for some of the same reasons: it absorbed several local dialects and a lot of Arabic sounds on its way south during the “Reconquest.” Castilian Spanish floated above those influences as a court language, and can now be written phonetically.
The atmosphere at Atasca has been transported surprisingly well out of the old neighborhood. There are probably better Portuguese pop songs than the ones on their tape, but no one has a better collection of plates, jugs, and ethnic décor this side of the Atlantic.
Atasca, 50 Hampshire Street, Cambridge | AE, MC, VI | Mon–Sat, 11:30 am–11 pm; Sun, noon–11 pm | full bar | no valet parking | sidewalk-level access
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Robert Nadeau: RobtNadeau@aol.com