Fall River is a definitively St. Michael's town in that the Portuguese community is predominately from or descendent of people from São Miguel, Açores. Although this may also be said of New Bedford, the city is also enriched by the people and the culture of Madeira, which is not, incidentally, part of the Azores. And with this, the Madeiran-Portuguese cuisine of island is featured prominently in the city's Portuguese restaurants, like Maderia Café.
Walking into any local Portuguese restaurant, you just never can tell what you're going to see inside. Coming through the door at Madeira Café, it was struck by the large bar that dominates the interior. A large rectangular bar that takes about a third of the available space, with a dining area adjacent and separated only by a waist-high wall. It vaguely reminded me of the Cheers bar. The room is well light, everything appearing to be new and spotless. The patrons were a mix of men and women of varying ages, all appearing to be local regulars. Don't misunderstand my use of the word "bar"—it's a bar like Restaurant 99 is a bar—not a beer and liquor depot.
Linguiça Clam Cakes
So, my friend and I had a seat at a table, just off to the side of the bar, and looked through the menu. It's a long menu, and it was tough to make a selection. There were a number of things I wanted to try and I was excited to get eating. We order something I'd never heard of, but sounded, frankly, irresistible—Linguiça Clam Cakes. As a kid, I remember getting clam cakes at Lincoln Park in Westport, along with fries with ketchup and vinegar. Such a great New England treat. but now with linguiça in it? Well, as a clam cake, they were fine, but unfortunatel you'd scarcely know there was linguiça in it.
Spanish-style Little Neck Clams
One of my favorite appetizers is Spanish-style Little Neck Clams. The clams and broth are light and leave plenty of room for the main course, so long as you don't fill up on the bread used to get at that broth. Here, at Madeira Cafe, the broth is not the traditional tomato, onion and green pepper wine-based broth, but more like a lemony Mozambique sauce with onions and green peppers added. OK, not what I expected and not as good as the usual, but still pretty good. And more importantly, the clams were fresh and luscious.
Fava beans are a classic at any Portuguese feast. It took me years to get a taste for it, and today, I really like them. Of course, I'm used to the São Miquel version in which the favas in casserole thicken and the sauce is spicy with pepper and chouriço. At Madeira Café, they have what I suspect (after having had favas at other Madeiran restaurants) is a Madeiran version of favas where the sauce is more of a thin broth. It's a different experience, but still OK. The favas themselves were cooked well. It's a pretty tough legume and you need to cook it a bit to soften it up.
Carne de Espeto
Since we were in New Bedford, I was hoping to find a good seafood dish. The seafood section is also pretty extensive with the usual bacalhau dishes, an octopus special and many traditional New England seafood dishes of stuffed scrod, scallops, etc. And being in New Bedford, you know the fish would be fresh, especially the scallops (New Bedford is the largest seafood port in the country by weight, most of which is scallop. But, what I really was hoping for was a nice grilled fish, head, tail and all, but you have to go to a hardcore Portuguese restaurant for that, not Cheers. I'm not into butter and butter-rich seafood stuffing, so, I went with the Madeiran classic, Carne de Espeto, beef kabob. Strangely, the kabob here is not serve on a skewer. Frankly, it just looked like sirloin tips. Nothing wrong with sirloin tips, but where's the style? The meat was very salty, as much of the meal had been, but I found it lacking in flavor, even though it was well-cooked with nice charring on it. Funny, my favorite part of this steak dish... was the side of green beans, which tasted bright and fresh out of the garden.
Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá
My friend was in the mood for Bacalau à Gomes de Sá, which is a very common salted cod fish dish, especially in my family. Generally, it's boiled potatoes, cut into small pieces or cubes, then boiled (to remove salt content) and "shredded" salt cod, chopped onion, chick peas and lots of olive oil, and finished in a casserole in the oven for about an hour. It's generally garnished with sliced hard-boiled egg and black olives. As a kid, I stayed away from this like it was a rattlesnake, but as an adult I've grown to like it. My friend found it, here, to be a little dry and a little bland. To me, just in appearance, it seemed a little light on the olive oil, which I think adds a lot of the flavor, and also provides the means with which the cod, potato and onion flavors mix and multiply.
Overall, our experience was OK. The atmosphere is what makes Madeira Café a worthwhile stop, if you're local. I could see myself stopping in for lunch or dinner, if I lived in the neighborhood. There's a lot on the menu, and the food was decent. It doesn't compete with some of the better places in Fall River, as far as the food experience, but is a more modern dining experience and a more social ambiance. And for some people, though not me, that's what going out to eat is all about.
76 Church Street
New Bedford MA