If I could transport a restaurant to different country, I would. Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, a city that lives and breaths Portuguese culture, I savored the Iberian fare. There, I could literally dine on a different salt cod dish every day of the year. These days, however, for reasons that bear no explanation, Portuguese food in Brazil has become synonymous with "expensive food." Fortunately, I have found a way to satisfy my Iberian cravings locally. Located in Bridgeport CT, just off route 8, Omanel offers all the dishes I grew up with – traditional Portuguese cooking -- with zero fuss. The menu here is identical to the "expensive" menus in Rio, but the prices couldn't be more different. Rio deserves a restaurant such as this. In fact, the venerable Mark Bittman once said "The food can blow you away."
The perfect way to start your meal is with an order of Caldo Verde (Portuguese Green Soup). This is one of my all time favorite dishes and Omanel prepares a fantastic version with potato, chorizo, and lots of kale in a clear garlicky broth. Another classic – and great choice is Açorda Alantejana (above). This soup, typical from the Alantejo region, is one of those peasant dishes that satisfies the soul and barely needs a recipe; a rich broth enriched with garlic and coriander, then topped with crusty bread and a poached egg. Try it once – you’ll love it. Try it again and you’ll be making it at home. When you have nothing in the pantry, this is the kind of soup you’re able to pull out of the hat.
Like these soups, most of Portuguese cooking is defined by rustic recipes with big flavors. You will find ingredients that closely resemble Mediterranean cuisine, and this can be seen in Omanel's extensive entrees, particularly in the fish selections. One of the classics here is dry codfish, or Bacalhau. It is important to understand the preparation of this dish before you place your order as the final results differ from that of fresh cod. Bacalhau is salted and dried allowing for lengthy storage and no refrigeration. To ready the fish for cooking, it needs several days of soaking with regular water changes to draw out the salt. This results in a richer flavor and denser mouthfeel not to be mistaken for over-cooked fish. The Bacalhau a Brás at Omanel, thick filets of cod resting on top of a bed of roasted potatoes is so perfectly executed I briefly lost my manners scraping any crumble of fish, potato, or traces of food left on the plate.
If you prefer your fish freshly caught you’ll be delighted by many wonderful choices. Whole grilled fish is served simply here with boiled potatoes and steamed broccoli allowing the sea to stand on its own. For those craving a meatier option, the sausage appetizer (photo below) arrives larger than life and ablaze with deep smoky and lightly spicy undertones. Also worth trying are the Piri-Piri Shrimp, cooked in their shells to keep maximum flavor, served swimming in an brightly colored spicy sauce that makes your whole body smile with each garlicky bite.
Occasionally the menu gets off the Portuguese rail, most notably with their paella. Personally speaking, if my paella is not prepared with "Spanish" rice, I don’t want it, but on the whole the menu stays true to its Portuguese heritage.
When it comes to dessert at Omanel, I find myself wondering…Where are all of those wonderful egg-based sweets that Portugal is so famous for? There are not at this menu...unfortunately. The Serradouro, a sort of pudding prepared with sweet condensed milk and heavy cream topping a sticky caramel and crumbled cookies sounds good but I found that the caramel was over-cooked leaving a bitter aftertaste. For those who can’t finish a meal without a sweet touch, I recommend the Tiramusu, though, as you well know, there is nothing Portuguese about that.
Sure, the dinning room could use a facelift, but the friendly and efficient Portuguese waiters more than make up for the simple interior. As they move through the tables carrying big platters of lobsters and ceramic dishes full of steamed mussels, seductive aromas of garlic and olive oil accompany them. My eyes follow each tray of food with curiosity as for what’s ahead for me on my next visit.
Omanel 1909 Main Street, Bridgeport. 203.335.1676