You can get in over your head fast at Oporto Fooding House. Everything on the jumbo-sized menu sounds so beguiling—and is so reasonably priced—that ordering too much is unavoidable. “Let’s see, we’ll have the charred carrots with root chips and goat cheese, please,” you tell your waiter. “And the blue-cheese-stuffed dates. Oh, and the risotto croquettes.” Then your friends pipe up, “Can we get the stuffed piquillo peppers? And the octopus?” And before you know it, your table is littered with plates and bowls and utensils. On both of my visits, the servers jumped in to warn us, “Whoa! That’s plenty. Finish these and see if you’re still hungry.” Obviously they’d had experience with customers whose eyes were bigger than their stomachs.
The menu’s varied enticements are a natural result of the backgrounds of Oporto’s owners, Rick and Shiva Di Virgilio, the husband-and-wife team who also own Queen Vic Pub and Kitchen. Rick, who is the executive chef, was born in New York and learned to cook from his Portuguese and Italian grandmothers. Shiva, the executive chef at Queen Vic, comes from London and is of Indian descent. As a result, Portugal, Italy, and India make strategic appearances on the menu, augmented by Rick’s creative riffs and culinary training at the Arts Institute of Houston. Talk about fusion.
The funny thing is that I almost missed Oporto because I thought it was a second location rather than something new (and, no, I don’t understand the word “fooding” either). “Oporto has been around since 2006,” I objected when friends recommended it, thinking of the Di Virgilios’ Oporto Wine Café. But they insisted that the airy restaurant on West Gray was nothing like the smaller, rather New Yorkish original on Richmond. And they pointed out that the menu was much longer. So I agreed to give it a try, in no small part because Portuguese cuisine is a rarity in Texas. And that is how I ended up sitting in a tall, wedge-shaped room in a corner of Houston where modern Midtown bumps up against remnants of the historic Fourth Ward, pondering whether our stalwart group was up for bacalhau, a.k.a. salt cod, Portugal’s national dish.
As soon as I saw pão com tomate on the menu, though, I knew what our first order would be. Anyone who has been to Spain or Portugal has been seduced by the Iberian Peninsula’s favorite appetizer of grilled bread drizzled with olive oil and generously rubbed with a juicy ripe tomato. Here the treatment was over-the-top (i.e., geared toward Americans), because the bread was piled high with grated tomato that had been tossed with lemony sumac and smoked sea salt. While we were eating and talking, we scanned the menu for more starters (conveniently, it is mostly small plates, and the three large ones are easily shared). Almost immediately, the heirloom carrots caught our eye. Grilled till al dente and served with a white bean–yogurt dip accented with Coupole goat cheese, they were so sweet and the dip so bracing that they barely needed their garnish of citrusy carrot-top gremolata. Switching to legumes, we checked out the feijão, a terrific stew of gigante beans and fideos, fragrant with oregano and basil grown in the gardens that run alongside the building. (Savvy entrepreneur Rick adds, “We even have a ‘cocktail garden,’ where we grow herbs for our drinks.”)
On a second visit, we somehow found ourselves on a batata, or potato, kick. First came flavorful fingerlings, lightly “smashed” and amped up with fresh thyme; alongside were a pungent aioli and a sweet and spicy tomato-tamarind chutney. Potatoes also provided a soothing continuo for the wonderful wood-grilled octopus accented with a lively mustard-seed sofrito. But the highest and best use of Oporto’s batatas proved to be the caldo verde, a silky puree slicked with olive oil and scattered with characteristically Portuguese additions of kale and chorizo.
About halfway through the meal, we got a welcome pause as the kitchen adjusted to the fast-growing crowd of young people from the nearby apartments. With time to look around, I recognized the motifs— abundant warm woods and strong, straight lines—of a familiar restaurant designer, Austin’s Michael Hsu. By placing low booths down the side and adding seats at counters and bars as well as tables, he has made the room feel spacious rather than cavernous. Portugal’s traditional crafts get their due too. Graceful rope lamp shades echo Madeira’s famous wickerwork, and colorful clay figurines depict the country’s death-defying folkloric rooster, the Galo de Barcelos.
Back in racing form—and in fact racing to finish before the place got too noisy—we ordered three seafood dishes in rapid succession. Portugal has a strong seafaring history, after all. The Mediterranean mussels, steamed in a lidded cooking vessel called a cataplana, sounded like an especially good bet. But while the clamshell-shaped cookware was interesting and the dish’s tomatoey sofrito tasty, some of the shellfish were a little funky (apparently it was mussel-spawning season). Similarly, the bacalhau with potatoes and parsnips seemed promising but turned out to be blander than cream of wheat and about the same texture. So we ignored them both and concentrated instead on the splendid piquillo peppers stuffed with chopped shrimp and crawfish, all snugged under a cap of melted mozzarella and Gouda and lavished with a crunchy almond romesco sauce.
By now we were almost shouting, but we knew we would kick ourselves if we didn’t order one or two sweets. The chocolate lovers were whining for the beijinhos, or “little kisses,” which turned out to be cardamom chocolate truffles rolled in toasted coconut flakes. And I myself had no intention of leaving without trying the blood orange crema quemada, a svelte Portuguese crème brûlée with strips of candied orange peel on top. So we ordered both and then somehow found ourselves happily lingering another half hour over cappuccino. By then, the table was littered with even more plates and bowls and utensils, but we didn’t mind at all.
Oporto Fooding House & Wine: 125 W. Gray Ave., Houston; 713-528-0115. L & D Mon-Sat. $$$