Universidade de Coimbra is the oldest university in Portugal, having been established in 1290. In fact, it's one of the oldest universities in the world. Named after the city of Coimbra, it's home to over 20,000 students and considered the top school in the country. I first visited the city and university to attend the annual Queima das Fitas, when students celebrate the end of the studies by ceremoniously burning the ribbons that represent each's faculty or school of study, (red ribbons for law, yellow for medicine and so on). The most interesting and fun part, for me, was the student serenade (serenata) the happens at night in a public square atop the church's steps. With the student serenader's dressed in black capes and with the surroundings, I was a little spooked by the whole thing at first—like I had stepped back in time - but it was fascinating to experience. The next day, we went to the school's cafeteria for lunch before our train ride back to Lisbon. I could not believe it. These guys eat well! Grilled steaks, grilled pork chops — you name it and it was all you can eat. Good thing I was studying in Lisbon because I would have gained some major weight.
So, Coimbra... in Newark, New Jersey. It's on Market Street, which runs parallel to Ferry Street just a few blocks east. Like Ferry Street, there are a number of bars and restaurants up and down the street, all vying for the Red Bulls (soccer team) pre-game business. I went in on a Friday for dinner. Like so many Portuguese restaurants, it's divided into two sections, a more "formal" family dining section, and a bar/dining section, where generally mostly men hang out. I chose to dine in the livelier bar section, which is fairly large with close to the same number of dining tables as the family section, plus the seating at the long bar. You can tell that this place has a hard core group of regulars because... yeah, everybody seemed to know each other. It's not a terribly loud or crazy place, and I did notice two women seated at one of the tables quite comfortably.
I looked for a table and sat down. My server, a young Portuguese kid, came right up and set the table with some bread, butter and olives and asked me if I wanted a drink. I requested a simple glass of whatever the house red wine was, as long as it was Portuguese. I tried the bread - Portuguese corn bread and regular Portuguese rolls (real rolls with texture and flavor). The corn bread, was my favorite, though. Portuguese cornbread has a hard crust and is dense inside. The flavor is very nutty and sweet. It differs dramatically from the more cake-like cornbread you see in American restaurants, especially those serving southern cuisine.
A few minutes later, my server came back with one of the largest glasses of wine I've ever seen. Served in what I would normally expect to see a large Coke. The glass towered over everything else on the table. Ok, I'll drink it. I had once heard someone tell me that Portuguese people like their wine cold. I grew up in a Portuguese family in a Portuguese community, lived in Lisbon as a student, and I've toured the country at least four times — and I don't recall ever having encountered cold wine. Well, here it was. A huge glass of ice-cold red wine. Like a frosty mug of beer cold. The wine itself was Ok, not terribly memorable, but certainly a drinkable table wine with a mild fruity flavor. I've read once, somewhere, that coldness in your mouth makes it more difficult for our taste buds to discern flavor. If that's true, then perhaps, this wine isn't as good as it seemed. But it took getting about half that wine into me before I started to not notice how cold it was. I didn't get entirely used to it, but it became less distracting — because at first, the coldness was hard to overlook.
Coimbra, the restaurant, specializes in Leitão à Bairrada - roasted suckling pig. On their Web site, you can see the whole little guy skewered and roasting on a spit. Looks a lot like the Chinese version. When my server came back, I asked about it, but he told me it wasn't quite ready. I asked for some recommendations and he gave me some. In fact, he also told me what not to get, or at least what he did not like. I've rarely come across a server that's willing to tell me anything bad about the items on the menu, never mind with specific reasons. He told me that this plate had too many onions and tomatoes, or this other dish was boring, etc. He recommended about three dishes strongly, and another two or three got luke warm recommendations. I chose his personal favorite, which is the Bife à Coimbra (steak "Coimbra style" with shrimp sauce, which I believe is a reference to the restaurant, not the city).
Bife à Coimbra
So, after about 15 minutes, came my steak. One problem — I had ordered the Amêijoas à Espanhola appetizer (clams, Spanish style) and they never showed up. I was a little upset for about ten seconds, then I realized that the meal in front of me looked good and looked really filling. My server was also earnestly sorry and apologetic. In fact, so were all of his colleagues. I started to feel guilty about having bothered them by ordering the thing in the first place! So, I forgot about the clams and moved on. Now, had I been with a group, then I probably would have been a little more disappointed, but the probability an entire group's appetizer(s) being overlooked would probably have been less.
The steak arrived on a plate accompanied by fresh carrots and broccoli (This is were unscrupulous restauranteurs tend to reach for the DelMonte can or bucket.) On a separate plate was the rice and the fries. The rice was actually cooked really well (Like Brazilian rice. I think Brazilians make the best rice; fragrant, each piece perfectly cooked and separate. They turn a boring grain into a star, I think). And the fries, we cut round and thin-really more like chips. They were good, but not as rich in flavor like plump and crispy fries. I took some rice and put it on the plate and mixed it into the sauce. That sauce was pretty good. They call it a "shrimp sauce" but I found it to be a standard beef broth reduction with shrimp in it, with perhaps some kind of seafood base mixed in resulting in a sweet sauce, rich with garlic. I liked it and I liked the shrimp.
While exploring through those side items, I stared at the meat. It looked pretty ornery. It looked gristly and serious, with plumb areas of fat and sections irregularly charred black from the flames — no cute and pretty grill marks. It was cooked a little rarer than I requested, but I'd take that before overcooked anytime. (I once did a one-week, five-city tour of Italy with my friend, and he would request his steak "bene cotto", well done, in every restaurant and never got anything cooked more than blood rare.) This steak was pretty big and it took me a while to get through, and I enjoyed every bite. It was flavorful and actually very tender, aside from the gristle.
I ended with an expresso and asked for the bill. The expresso was dynamite. I hate to say it, but unless you go to an ethnic restaurant, (Italian, Portuguese or whatever) run by people from that country, you just will not get a proper expresso. I don't care who disagrees. After a million expressos in a million restaurants, I'm feel confident about that statement. Then the bill. Twenty-three dollars, including the tax. A bargain for an enjoyable meal, whose ingredients did not come from a bucket.
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