Iberia, or the Iberian Peninsula, is the southwestern-most part of Europe and home to Spain, Portugal, Andorra and Gibraltar. I find it interesting that Newark itself seems to be very "Iberian" with equally as many Spanish restaurants as Portuguese restaurants, along with many Brazilian, Central American and South American restaurants. Frankly, aside from the occasional tapas bar, I've rarely seen "Spanish" restaurants in America. This gives residents of and visitors to Newark, I think, a very unique culinary experience.
Iberia Restaurants is plural because there are actually three separate locations basically within 50 feet of each other. There's the Iberia Peninsula Restaurant on the southwestern corner of Ferry and Prospect Streets. Then on the opposite corner (diagonally) is the Iberia Outdoor Patio and just a few steps up down Ferry Street is the Iberia Tavern and Restaurant. What's the difference? Nothing except the location. The Outdoor Patio is open only during the good weather months and so I opted for it today. You basically walk in through Iberia's large parking lot. The entrance is a little silly and perhaps ridiculous with it's tall brick castle towers and general Camelot/amusement park appearance, but once in the dining area with it's large outdoor bar, the atmosphere is changed, and with the hot sun adding a certain Mediterranean feel, you could imagine this seen almost anywhere on vacation.
Amêijoas à Iberia
I reviewed the menu while drinking a cold beer and soon placed my order for an appetizer—Amêijoas à Iberia. It's very similar to what we in Fall River MA call Amêijoas à Espanhola, little neck clams in a tomato-based broth with chouriço, onion and bell pepper. Iberia's version seems to use a tomato sauce - almost a marinara sauce - for the base and the adds bacon, small shrimp and bay scallops. The chouriço in Newark is a bit different from the chouriço you're most likely to come across in southern New England. The Newark version is much smokier and a little richer/fattier and is very similar to the chouriço you would find in Lisbon. The New England version is leaner, but spicier. I love them both. The smokiness of the Newark chouriço adds a wonderful dimension to this seafood dish and I found myself repeatedly reaching for the bread in an effort to prolong the experience. Frankly, you could easily improve this dish by dropping the shrimp and the bay scallops, whose quality is much lower and freshness nowhere near that of the other ingredients, and in the end distracted me from the strong and bright flavors of the clams and chouriço.
Broiled Red Snapper
Since moving to NYC, I've been exploring the Portuguese restaurants in nearby Newark NJ and I've been excited by the discovery of the great seafood in these local places. And on this day, under a wonderfully hot and bright summer sun, grilled fish with some olive oil is what my heart and body crave. Iberia has a pretty long menu, with plenty of meat and fish dishes - along with what seems like a permanent list of "specials." After a quick discussion with my server, it seemed like broiled red snapper - the whole fish - was the way to go. I like to order the whole fish because that's what we ate at home when I was a kid. I developed a taste for the crispy skin of grilled or broiled fish. You can get sushi in some Japanese restaurants that is just that - the charred skin of salmon or other fish. Also, as with meat, bone-in always tastes better and richer to me.
This was a medium size fish, plenty for one person and was served with a vegetable medley and two boiled potatoes - very traditional Portuguese. After a couple of bites, I quickly wrote off the vegetables, which had essentially no discernible flavor at all. So, I concentrated on my fish. It looked good, though I didn't like the large cut down the filet, which I presume the chef made to speed up the cooking process and ensure a thoroughly cooked fish. But that was the problem. Fish like this should be crispy on the outside and inside should be just flaky, so that it remains moist and tender. This fish was cooked until the flesh became firm and dry. What a bummer! The flavor was OK as it was only lightly salted with a little olive oil drizzled over it, but it lacked sweetness and the dryness was tough to overlook.
I have to say, though, I really liked being here, even though the food was disappointing. The atmosphere, at least on a nice summer day, is relaxing and pleasant - even with the loud salsa music and uncomfortable chairs. I want to like this restaurant more, so I'll come back and maybe try a meat dish.
Buried in the menu, on one of the illegible collage pages, is sapateira recheada, or stuffed crab. Stone crab, dungeness crab, any crab - I love them. In Portugal, crab is a very common menu item, often as an entree. One of my favorite meals ever was a giant sapateira eaten under the sun in Lagos in the Algarve with a bottle of Joao Pires—a common but nice white wine that's a great accompaniment to shell fish. On a return visit to Iberia, I sat inside, in the bar/restaurant area. It's a fairly comfortable room with dining tables along one wall, and the bar on the other. There is a large flat screen TV playing the Latin American, Spanish language TV station. Don't they get RTPi in New Jersey?
Anyway, I could see the crabs in the refrigerator - sapateira is usually served cold. I asked for one (just $3.00). The crab itself was fresh and well seasoned. The stuffing... well, it was not to my liking. It seemed more like a lot of mayonnaise mixed with a little bit of crab innards, and perhaps some celery and onion. I couldn't get past the texture, which was very loose and wet. I tried a number of times to eat it, but couldn't get past the mouth feel.
Amêijoas à Guilho
If you like little neck clams and if you love garlic, this might be the appetizer for you. In this dish, the sauce is made from just three ingredients; garlic, olive oil and red pepper. The garlic is cooked until soft, just like roasted garlic, and there is tons of it. Tons! The sweetness and saltiness of the clams does penetrate the strong garlic flavor. The leftovers, mounds of savory garlic, are perfect for dipping your bread. It's instant garlic bread. If Iberia served good quality Portuguese bread, it would be even better.
On Iberia's menu there are a few items that make a more interesting adventure for someone wanting to explore Portuguese food. If they could only prepare the dishes well, we'd have something. I grew up eating quail. In fact, it's easily on my top ten list of favorite foods. So, after seeing it on the menu, I ordered it. The dish arrived with three whole quails down the center with sides of fries and vegetables. I tasted the vegetables and knew immediately I would not be working on that side of the plate again. Then I tried the fries. I could see that they were the bagged and frozen kind, but it wasn't until I tasted them that I found that some were hot and others were luke warm. On to the quail. The quail I've had has been either fried, sautéed or roasted, and finished with a sauce of some kind. Here, they were fried. The departure from the norm that I was expecting was the use of an onion-soup-like sauce that to me was more at home on a slab of salisbury steak, than on quail. Even with slivers of garlic added, the mix did not work for me. I like either a spicy-tangy sauce or a fruity-sweet sauce with quail. This sauce was onion-soupy-sweet and beef-stock-savory. Too bad they didn't have meat loaf.
63-69 and 80-84 ferry street
Newark NJ 07105