Ferry Street in Newark, reminds me a lot of North Main Street or Columbia Street in Fall River Massachusetts. You look down the street and see lots of Portuguese business with ethnic restaurants intermixed with insurance agencies, banks, stores and travel agencies. Where in Fall River you might have businesses with the words "St. Michael" or "Azores" or "Madeira" in their names, in Newark you see a lot of businesses named after "Portugal" or "Coimbra" or "Lisbon" representing the presumed origins of the proprietors. The vibe is pretty much the same with busy working class families making their way home. In both areas, including Cambridge MA, you see the integration of new businesses from a burgeoning Brazilian community, and Latino businesses by people from Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala. All in a matter of blocks.
Adega Grill is on Ferry Street, about a 10 minute walk from New Jersey Penn Station. There one entrance for the bar, and a separate entrance for the restaurant. Adega is a bit of the "theme" restaurant as the name is the Portugese word for wine cellar, and they play this up in the décor and vibe of the restaurant. There's a sort of faux Napa Valley or vineyard thing in New Jersey feel to it all. But once you get past that, I found the environment pleasing and cozy. And it certainly seemed like others might agree as the long bar was standing room only, with most of the people at the bar having meals, not just drinks, and the dining room was about at capacity on an early Friday evening.
The menu is long with a lot of dishes that your average "non-Portugese person would recognize and be very comfortable ordering. On my way to wash my hands, I walked past a series of photographs on the walls, with celebrities, local and real, including a number of politicians. I think every town, and especially every ethnic neighborhood has that restaurant where all the politicians go to cater to the community. Adega seems, though I don't know, like it might be the one in Newark that serves that purpose. That would explain the focus on atmosphere and appearance, versus the food.
The wine list is pretty long and decent for an average American city. Not what you'd see in Manhattan or Las Vegas or wherever, but fine for ... However, considering the emphasis on wine and the promotion of wine drinking on its own and with your meal, I found it terribly disappointing that they only had two of the most common Portuguese table wines by the glass. I saw plenty of people in both the bar and the dining room, and you can't tell me they don't have the clientele to be able to offer at least one "higher shelf" Portuguese red wine by the glass in a Portuguese restaurant named after the word for wine cellar. Credo!
Ostras Ao Natural
It's not often you see oyster's in Portuguese restaurants outside of the New York City area, but in the New York, oysters, like everything else, are pretty readily available. In my opinion, you'll find the best oyster's in the world at Drago's in New Orleans. They prepare oysters in a number of ways, even oyster po' boys sandwiches, but the CHARBROILED OYSTERS have to be one of the most surprisingly awesome things you could put in your mouth. I could not believe how amazing they were when I first had them. Where you been all my life? What a great idea.
It's strange that few restaurants do much with an oyster beyond shucking and serving. Adega Grill does the expected, they serve the oyster's on ice with some lemon, tabasco and that ketchup and horse radish cocktail sauce. That cocktail sauce is so strong, I don't know how you can sense any seafood flavor through it. Anyway, I had these oysters as my appetizer. They were OK and certainly tasted fresh, but I was bored with them by the time the first one slid down my throat.
Every Portuguese restaurant tries to make a paella or a seafood stew, and pretty much all of them fail. And for some reason I keep ordering this dish, expecting and hoping that someone will finally get it right. It's just such an amazing read off of the menu: fish, scallops, lobster, clams, mussels, crab—just about anything you'd want to eat that comes from the ocean in one dish. How can you go wrong? But I do. Every time.
I used to make the italian version, cioppino, from a recipe I found online about ten years ago. I'd go to Ocean Fresh Seafood Distributor's "factory" store in Attleboro Massachusetts (since gone out of business) and spend about $80-$100 on seafood and make a giant multi-gallon pot of cioppino. My dad would love it, and so did I. But it took me at least 3 hours to make this. And I think that's the problem. Few Portuguese restaurants have figured out how to make this in a restaurant setting. I've had cataplana in the Algarve many times, and it's always been pretty good, but it's simpler with only a third of the ingredients. And it was only pretty good, not awesome or amazing. Even bouillabaisse is pretty well known NYC restaurants has generally been just good, not great, to me.
So, I selected the Canoa Pescador, which is similar to about another four or five items on the menu. I had to ask someone to explain the difference between them all for me. In the end, I selected this one because it had the rice on the side, and included fish, specifically monk fish, whose slightly snappy or spongy delicate white meat I enjoy. The meal came out looking like I expected. Looking great. It also tasted like I expected. Not bad, not great. Just fine. And that's the problem. With all of those wonderful things in there, I expect it to be amazing, but it's almost always just OK, as it was at Adega's Grill. The Alaskan king crab legs were OK, though the flavor seemed muddled and not sweet. The lobster was good, really sweet tail meat, The little neck clams were Ok. The mussels tasted a bit strong—they were large and looked like razor clams, but not sweet like razor clams. I didn't like them. The monk fish was good, and well-cooked — it can get chewy if overdone. I was so happy there wasn't five pounds of calamari rings mixed in it, like many places do, I think because calamari is inexpensive. No thanks. But instead there were many plumb, shirmp, though they were a little bland in taste. What was good was the broth and I did enjoy dunkng some bread of some of the "saffron" rice into it. That may have been the best part of this dish.
And my favorite part of the entire meal was the Padrón 1964 Exclusivo I smoked on the way back to Penn Station. That's one thing that never let's me down.
130 Ferry Street
Newark NJ 07105