La Salette

Portuguese restaurant focuses on modern cuisine of Portugal and beyond in Sonoma

Old World Meets New

This story appeared in the Press Democrat on  March 22, 2000
BYLINE:    Diane Peterson/The Press Democrat
When you walk into La Salette restaurant in Sonoma, your ears are soothed by the Old World ballads of Cesaria Evora while your eyes are stimulated by a visual feast of local, contemporary artwork.
Blending the new with the old, the exotic with the homegrown, comes naturally to chef/owner Manuel Azevedo, 33, who opened the restaurant two years ago to showcase both the continental and colonial cuisine of his native Portugal.
“I wanted to capture the joy of dining, from the aperatif to the glass of port at the end of the meal,” said Azevedo, who visits Portugal regularly and has travelled back to the Azores and the island of Madeira.
Only 150 miles wide and 350 miles deep, the tiny country of Portugal went global during the Age of Exploration, thanks to Prince Henry the Navigator and a raft of intrepid sailors, who claimed colonies from Brazil to China while searching for sea routes of trade to India and the Far East.
“Portuguese cuisine still reflects all these cultures,” said Azevedo. “I try to bring some Portuguese history to all of my dishes.”
At the tender age of 2, Azevedo and his family immigrated to the New World from the Azores, a group of nine islands 800 miles west of Portugal that, according to folklore, were part of the legendary, lost continent of Atlantis.
Since his father was a dairyman, his family settled in the fertile Sonoma Valley, where his first recollection of cooking was warming up milk for his younger brother and sister.
“You had to be careful not to let it boil over,” notIed Azevedo, whose scrupulous attention to detail now helps him keep his cozy, 45-seat restaurant running on an even keel.
Along with glowing reviews from area newspapers, La Salette garnered praise last summer from the Wine Spectator magazine, which described the food as perhaps “the most inventive cuisine in the region.”
Instead of going to cooking school, Azevedo served as sous chef for six years at Kenwood Restaurant, where he learned all about California Cuisine and the mechanics of running a restaurant from chef/owner Max Sachar.
On his own, Azevedo became a student of food, plowing through food physics books so he would understand basics like “why the gelatin didn’t hold.”
Two years ago, when he decided to open his own restaurant in Sonoma, Azevedo decided to return to his roots and create modern twists on traditional Portuguese dishes.
By including colonial dishes like Mozambique Prawns from Africa — fast becoming his signature dish — Azevedo is also able to be “more free with the ingredients and tie in with what people are used to in California.”
He bought the former Bear Flag Cafe on Highway 12 — the same building where he started his career as a dishwasher at age 16 — and named it after his mother, who first taught him how to make traditional dishes like Arroz doce (rice pudding) and Caldo verde, a soup made with a distinctive green cabbage called couve tronchuda.
“Everywhere there are Portuguese, you’ll find collards,” he said.
Like the smorgasbords his mother still serves up for family dinners, La Salette relies on a formula that reflects the eating traditions of Portugual: generous portions, lots of variety on the menu, and happy people.
“When I go to Portugal, I eat for about four days, and then I have to go for a whole day without eating,” he said.
Portuguese food is “every bit as regionalized and exciting as French and Italian food,” Azevedo said, and it uses many of the same ingredients. In addition, Portuguese cuisine puts a heavy emphasis on seafood and meat, with accents from its former colonies — rice from China and India, spice and peanuts from Africa.
Thanks to its vast colonization efforts, Portugal introduced Europe to New World crops like the tomato, bell pepper and potato. It also introduced vinegar to Indian and the tempura cooking technique to Japan
Like a miniature version of California, continental Portugal boasts a temperate Mediterranean climate and a varied terrain that ranges from snowy peaks to sandy beaches.
The people themselves tend to be very mellow, quiet and resourceful, traits that Azevedo attributes to a long history of conflict. “If you can’t beat `em, join `em,” he said.
Portugal first started making wine when the Romans came through, and it was the first country in the world to create a wine-growing region (for port, a sweet, dessert wine)– about 100 years before the French did it.
Another Portuguese wine, Madeira, was extremely popular in America during the colonial era — it was George Washington’s favorite “tipple” and was used to toast the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
However, during Prohibition, wine imports were cut off, and Americans replaced their taste for these fortified wines with bourbon. After Prohibition, both port and Madeira lost their cachet
“I’m trying to change that again,” said Azevedo. “I’m trying to re-educate people on ports and Madeiras. It’s a very affordable treat.”
Since he comes from the poorest island of the nine Azores, Azevedo’s family didn’t have “extras” like port hanging around the house. But they did have preserved foods like dried salt cod — often used in cod cakes — and white corn flour that would keep for a long time on a remote island.
When he opened La Salette, Azevedo started baking his own Pao de Milho, a dense, artisan-style cornbread that he serves with each meal. Made with two parts wheat and one part white corn flour, the cornbread has become so popular that folks come into the restaurant just to order it to go.
Recently, Azevedo hired his brother, Will, to share the chef duties at La Salette so that Azevedo can concentrate on menu planning and keep an eye on the dining room.
“I like to be out here because it also keeps me in line,” he said. “There is a face behind the food … it’s very easy to hide in the kitchen.”
At La Salette, first courses include his Bolinho de Bacalhau (baked cod cakes served with cilantro aioli) and Lulas Grelhadas (grilled squid served with Portuguese olive oil and aged vinegar). Main courses include Crispy Roast Liberty Duck (with glazed honey and pistachios) and Porco Recheado (roast pork tenderloin stuffed with olives, figs and almonds).
Having his brother in the kitchen, prepping nearly a dozen first courses (priced $5-$9.50) and another dozen main courses ($9.75-$16.75) has also allowed Azevedo to concentrate his creative powers on the restaurant’s rich array of desserts ($5.50-$11.75), regarded as one of the highlights of the menu and of Portuguese cuisine in general
One of his latest confections, Mocha Cocada, evokes the the flavors of Brazil, a former colony of Portugal. Layers of coconut mousse and mocha sponge cake are topped by caramelized bananas and sugar sticks.
There’s also a dessert sampler of four popular desserts — chocolate mousse, coconut tapioca, fruit crisp and vanilla custard — and a cheese plate with a chef’s pouring of port.
While he imports a few ingredients from Portugal — cheese from his native island of Sao Jorge, dried figs, wine, Madeira and port — Azevedo relies on the Portuguese Market in Petaluma for many of his ethnic ingredients. The owners of the market, Neal and Olga, make regular trips to the South Bay, where many of the Portuguese have settled in coastal towns like Half Moon Bay and Monterey.
“You find them along water,” said Azevedo. “There are a lot living along the coast of California. They settled in Hawaii, then over time, they decided to move on.”
Azevedo doesn’t advertise his restaurant as Portuguese — only a small Portuguese flag flying below the American flag gives customers a clue to its culinary roots.
Still, almost 90 percent of the people who walk into La Salette have been to Portugal or are planning a trip there, Azevedo said.
“After being quiet for many decades, Portugal is in the beginning of a renaissance,” he noted. “Now there’s a lot of investment. The wineries are being modernized, and they’re exporting.”
In addition to more Portuguese wines, Azevedo predicts Americans will be seeing more Portuguese cookbooks in the future. And knowing his own penchant for travel and research, Azevedo hopes that his name will be on one of them.
Bacalhau (salt cod), Portuguse olives and olive oil can be purchased at The Portuguese Market, 186 Keller St., Petaluma. Phone: 776-0905.
Baked cod cakes served with cilantro mayonnaise, sliced egg and mixed greens
Appetizer serves 6
1/2 pound dried salt cod
2 medium russet potatoes
1 small yellow onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large egg
1 tablespoons parsley, minced
1 pinch each of nutmeg, cayenne and white pepper
1/2 cup corn flour
1 tablespoon cilantro minced
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 hard-boiled eggs, mixed greens, Portuguese olives for garnish
Soak cod for 24 hours. Change water several times.
Boil cod until tender, 5-10 minutes depending on the thickness. Chill.
Boil, peel and chill potatoes.
Saute onion and garlic until soft and chill.
Shred cod and potatoes with a fork or beat with the paddle attachment of a kitchen mixer.
Combine shredded cod and potatoes with onion, garlic, parsley, egg and pepper by hand in a mixing bowl. Knead mixture until balls can be formed. Taste for salt and pepper.
Make individual 2 ounce balls, egg-shaped, and roll in a corn flour.
In large non-stick saute pan, heat olive oil and brown cod cakes, turning several times.
Bake in 375 degree pre-heated oven for 15 minutes.
Combine cilantro and mayonnaise.
Toss mixed greens with oil and vinegar.
On a chilled plate, serve cod cakes hot alongside the cilantro mayonnaise. Garnish with mixed greens, sliced eggs and olives.
— From Manuel Azevedo, La Salette
Mozambique Prawns are seasoned with Piri Piri, then grilled, served with a tomato-peanut sauce, coconut rice and sauteed plantain.
Piri Piri is an African pepper often used to spice up Portuguese food. It is found in the U.S. in small jars. Piri Piri can be purchased at: The Portuguese Market, 186 Keller St., Petaluma. Phone: 776-0905
Serves 6
2 pounds medium prawns, peeled and deveined (save shells)
1/2 cup coconut milk (unsweetened)
2 cups tomato juice
1 tablespoon peanut butter (fresh in processor or from jar)
Piri Piri to taste
Piri Piri spice blend
2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
Pinch of cayenne (this blend should have some kick)
Pinch of sugar
Pinch of allspice
2 cups long grain rice
1 cup coconut milk
3 cup water
Salt and white pepper to taste
2 plantain, sliced thin at a diagonal
Roasted peanuts and chopped cilantro for garnish
Mix together the Piri Piri spice blend.
In a sauce pot, combine shells, tomato sauce, 1/2 cup coconut milk, peanut butter.
Bring to a boil, stirring often, and season with Piri Piri spice to taste (not too spicy).
Bring to a boil again and strain out shells.
Combine rice ingredients. Bring to a boil, Reduce heat to a simmer and cover.
Cook 25 minutes.
Season plantains with salt and white pepper and saute on vegetable oil, on both sides, until brown and soft.
Season prawns with Piri Piri spice and grill on an oiled grill until cooked through. On a warmed plate, place the rice in the middle, sauce around, shrimp against the rice, plantain in between the shrimp and garnish with peanuts and cilantro.
This recipe for basmati rice pudding is “just like mom made,” Azevedo said, and was one of the first things he learned to make at home. You need to pay attention to it and stir it throughout, much as you would a risotto, so that it doesn’t stick. Azevedo suggests using a non-stick pot as added insurance.
Basmati rice pudding with ground cinnamon.
Serves 8
4 1/2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups basmati rice
Zest of one lemon or orange
4 1/2 cups scalding milk
cup sugar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 egg yolks
1 cinnamon stick
Ground cinnamon garnish
Bring water, salt, zest and cinnamon stick to a simmer. Let steep for 10 minutes. Strain zest and cinnamon stick. Add rice. Bring to simmer.
When rice absorbs all the water, continue to add milk in stages (approximately 1/2 cup at a time) while continuing to stir. When milk is incorporated and rice is thick, remove from heat and add sugar and egg yolks. Transfer to ramekins. Garnish with cinnamon.