Adding Portuguese flavors to the menu can help you increase sales from travel-hungry, grounded diners
Nonessential travel and closed borders don’t apply to menus. The essence and flavors of another country can come by way of ingredients – just as they always did pre-pandemic. But perhaps that’s more important now than ever, as a way to inspire servers to sell and customers to order.
Take Portugal, which is a having a culinary moment. It’s a natural progression. America’s fondness for Italian led to further exploration of the Mediterranean, then Spain and most recently, the Middle East and Israel.
Portugal’s Iberian coastline gives rise to its seafood-rich cuisine, unique small plates and whole-animal approach to cooking, making the food familiar and alluring.
During two visits to Portugal in 2019, Marcos Campos, executive chef at Porto in Chicago, sampled an impressive array of seafood offerings rarely found in the U.S. Although there’s plenty of grilled, steamed and deep-fried options, local diners also crave lamprey eels marinated in vinegar and blood, and bread-based seafood stews like acorda de lavagante made with poached eggs, lobster, shrimp and cod.
Yet cracking open tins of seafood conserva – preserved fish packed in olive oil or marinades – proved especially memorable.
At a time when American diners are down with seafood small plates, conservas have become open-and-serve novelties. Their brininess inspires beer and cocktail orders. Their handsome tins make for memorable presentations. And their versatility allows for simple or elaborate preparations for dine-in or takeout.
Campos and Bonhomme Hospitality Group continue to pave the way with another Iberian Peninsula-focused restaurant – Mama Delia – which recently opened in Chicago. It includes 60 outdoor seats, allowing for social distancing and an ultramarino (Spanish for neighborhood gourmet market) offering foods he sampled in Portugal, such as the seafood conservas. At Porto, Campos serves 15 different conservas made by Minerva, a Portuguese company that’s been preserving fish, such as zamburinas and mussels in escabeche, the same way for nearly a century. His offerings run the gamut from spicy tuna to his favorite: mackerel in olive oil with pickles.
“It’s a perfectly clean mackerel confit in piri piri-infused olive oil,” he says. “They add some pickled vegetables – carrots, onions and peppers – to add a touch of acidity to cut through the fattiness of the mackerel.” Campos’ conservas are served straight up with crostini, a rarity that has helped him stand out.