Newark boasts of one of the largest Portuguese communities in the US, and Ferry Street is home a some of the city's great Portuguese restaurants. Seabra's is one of my favorites. It's a 10-15 minute ride on the PATH from the Word Trade Center, and about a 10 minute walk from the New Jersey Penn Station, a few blocks up Ferry Street on Madison.
Up front by the entrance is a small dining area, proceed by a long bar, then a larger dining room in the back. It's a family restaurant and on the Saturday of my visit it was bustling with families and couples and just about everybody. The staff is Portuguese and knows the menu well. There's a great selection of seafood on the menu—frankly, I wish the Portuguese restaurants in New Bedford MA had such a great menu considering that city has the busiest port in the lower forty-eight. But Newark benefits from terrific access to quality, top shelf seafood. And at Seabra's, that's what you should order.
Sopa de Mariscos
To start, I had the seafood soup, which was a special on this day. The soup was thick like a bisque, but no cream. Though it looks like tomato soup, it's character is so beyond that. The flavor was deep, very deep from the crab meat and shell, like it had been cooking for hours. Upon the first spoonful, my taste buds immediately recalled the flavors of the jambalaya I've had at Chez Paul's in New Orleans—though not as spicy nor quite as complex and with fewer ingredients—but still exciting and satisfying. The smoky and sweet flavor of the shrimp added another fun layer to the experience.
Lulas Fritas À Sevilhana
Calamari or squid or lulas, whichever, is generally a hit or miss appetizer with me. Frankly, I generally find it to be a waste of calories, but every once in a while I forget how much it underwhelms me. Seabra's version is different. The serving is down right huge, plenty for three of four people. The rings are really thick. The light coating gives a nice amount of crunch before you bite into the tender meat. The season was good,too. How many other places load up your food with salt so that you need to pour more alcohol down your throat just to deal with it. The accompanying sauce was weak for me. I would have preferred a simple Portuguese vinaigrette, but instead it was a warm, slightly thinned out marinara sauce. Eh, the lulas were fine without it.
Halibut com alho e azeite
During my last trip to Portugal, I stayed in Lisbon for a while, and then toured the Atlantic coast, from Cascais to Lagos and Tavira in the Algarve. After an afternoon on the beach, or a day walking through town, I would work up a fierce appetite stoked by a tremendous craving for a beautiful piece of fresh fish. I think the mix of salty air from the ocean winds and the heat from the intense and heavy sun forced the desire for a simple Mediterranean style prep. Fresh fish, grill, olive oil, salt, and plate. For me, healthy food, is fresh, unadulterated food. I find it less appealing the farther you get from the food's natural state.
So at Seabra's, another great choice on the long list of specials is Halibut. In Portugal, Tile fish (Dourado) is popular and normally cut as a steak (cut through the fish as opposed to cut as a fillet from heat to tail). I prefer the steak because of the skin! I love the charred skin! Grilling crisps up the skin and together with a thin layer of sweet fat underneath just before you hit the sweet mind flesh makes a perfect bite. And I think all meat (beef, pork, fish, poultry, etc) generates a much deeper and interesting flavor when cooked "on the bone." Seabra's knows how to cook a piece of fish. The resulting moist, just slightly flaky, white fish was perfect. Frankly, I don't think you'll find anything better in the city.
Frutos do Mar na Cataplana
My first encounter with a cataplana was in 1998 on the Faro Island (Ilha de Faro) in the Algarve. The cataplana is the cooking vessel and generally is used for one dish, a mariscada or mix of seafood. So many Portuguese restaurants offer a version of this dish, but it generally does not come out that well. French restaurants are much more successful with their bouillabaisse, generally. Seabra's cataplana/mariscada is the best I've had - I'm not saying it's amazing because it's not, but it is by far better than others I've had. Here the sauce and the seafood came together but each individual piece of seafood maintains its unique character. There was also plenty of "good" seafood. I've often been served similar dishes with tons of calamari and little of the good sweet stuff like clams and mussels and lobster. Seabra's packs the dish with about two small lobsters, razor clams, mussels, little neck clams and shrimp. It was good and so filling that I dared not reach for the bread to take advantage of all the sauce, which was an unremarkable but inoffensive red sauce—there is an optional green sauce version. In the Algarve, this dish would have been prepared in a lighter broth and lots of cilantro.
Bife à Portuguesa
In Fall River, this dish is called "Bife à Caçerola," which is a steak in an earthenware casserole with lots of juice and covered in round fried potatoes. My friend ordered this dish. the fries are really chips, super-thin cut potatoes that are are crispy as Cape Cod potato chips. The sauce has a distinct liquor aftertaste that's an interesting departure from the usual white wine and garlic based beef juice. It did not go over well, but I thought it was OK.
I left Seabra's stuffed without having eaten half my entree and half my appetizer. It's lot of food. All of it delicious. Like most Portuguese restaurants that cater mostly to a local Portuguese clientele, weekends are very busy. I had to fight for the attention of my server a number of times and he dashed from table to table dealing mostly with parties of four to eight people at a time, but I understand and can deal with that. Having the time, I'd make the trip to Newark from Manhattan for some good fish. All day every day.
Beribão à Bulhão Pato
À bulhão (bulhão) pato is a preparation for shellfish incorporating olive oil, lots of sliced garlic, white wine and either parsley (Azores) or cilantro (Portugal). I've most often had it little neck clams (amêijoas) in New England, but in the New York/New Jersey area New Zealand cockles (beribåo) are used. The cockles are much smaller and the shells are light and thin. However, they can be much richer, almost fatty, in flavor and even a bit sweeter than the little necks.
The Beribão à Bulhão Pato at Seabra's was very good. It was served in a large pot with dozens of the cockles bathing in the broth that steamed up into the air. And it's all about the broth. Deep in toasty garlic flavor, the broth was both sweet and briny. I'd pick the shellfish up and simply sip the broth from the shell and usually the tiny little kernels of shellfish would wash right into my mouth along with it. It's tender and rich tasting meat lasts just moments in your mouth. The cilantro adds a nice layer of flavor, too. Cilantro falls into that category of you either love it or hate, but I wouldn't and it didn't stop me from enjoying this dish. And in the end, the great-tasting bread that Seabra's has on the table was perfect for a dipping and savoring the broth a little longer after all the cockles were gone.
Paelha à Marinheira
I have paelha about once or twice a year. The thing about Paelha, for me, is that it's not so much a seafood dish as it is a rice dish. So after about six months or so, I forget that point and order it. Most Portuguese restaurants prepare and present it in the same way, though with different results in flavor and quality. It's usually served in a large pot with more rice than any three people would care to eat in a sitting, with some seafood mixed in. Seabra's has two versions: the "à Marinheira" which is strictly seafood, and the "à Valenciana" which adds chicken, pork and Portuguese chouriço.
I've had the Paelha à Marinheira at Seabra's. It arrived steaming hot in a large pot with lobster, shrimp, little neck clams, scallops and a major amount of rice. The paelha's flavor and yellow color comes from what the Portuguese call Indian saffron, which is tumeric. It's the same spice used in Camarão à Moçambique. Handling the seafood left my fingertips stained bright yellow. With the seafood, rice, onion and pepper, there was a nice build up of flavor that was aromatic and savory. It all tasted pretty good and was helped by the rice, which was properly cooked and resulted in a silky, risotto-like texture. Often it can get over cooked, starchy and pasty. Overall, this may have been the best paelha I've had, but in the end, it's a pot of rice. If it's seafood you've craving, Seabra's offers much better.
Douradinho à Paisano
After a number of visits to Seabra's, I've really started to feel like I'm treating myself when I head over to Newark for this special stop. If you're a seafood lover and love to eat, this is the place. This last time around I ate at the bar. When you look around, you can just see the happiness on people's faces—they're psyched to be there eating. And so was I. I had one of the grilled whole fish specials. On this day it was small whole tile fish. Tile fish can get really huge and often serves as steaks, but these "small" ones are small enough for one serving. It grilled with a Hersey bar-sized piece of bacon that was probably the best piece of bacon I have ever had - ever. Wow, thick, but crispy, nad grilled with tremendous flavor. They should have that on the menu alone. The grilled bell pepper that was also delicious. The sides were a couple of boiled potatoes and a medley of vegetables—also good. But the fish was the star, of course, and it did not let me down. Crispy and grilled on the outside with succulent white meat inside. The bones are easily removed and access to the fish was easy, and there was plenty of fish, too. What a treat. So fresh, so well prepared and I took my time and enjoyed every bite.
Behind the bar, is a chilled display with a rack of large rock crabs ready to go. They look so good all lined up in rows waiting to be ordered. I had to have one for my appetizer—and they're not on the menu. My server picks one out for me and takes it to the kitchen for preparation. The crab returned all dressed with the claws, legs and center removed and cracked for easy eating. In the large shell was served the stuffing, chilled crab salad, and off to the side was served some toasted onto which you can spread the crab salad. I first tried the crab salad. Often, at other places, it's prepared rather sloppily, usually resulting in a very loose and wet batch of crab-flavored mayonnaise. Not here. Seabra's version was full of luxurious crab tomalley. It was properly seasoned and flavored with some mayo, cocktail sauce, salt, pepper, and probably some Worcestershire sauce. I had some on some pieces of toast with crab salad piled high. Then I switched to the crab. For some folks, eating a whole fish or a whole crab is a lot of work, but for me I love the fact that it slows me down and allows/forces me to enjoy every sweet morsel. There is easily enough here to two people. The crabs are large and there is lots of stuffing, too.
Eating with patience and intention is a very pleasurable experience. When so often meals have to be consumed with time in mind, having a chance to experience a good meal in at your own natural pace is a treat that should be pursued as vigorously as any other luxury in life. This crab and I spent some quality time together. It was a great date.
Açorda de Mariscos
One of the more common dishes on the menus of New Jersey's Portuguese restaurants is Açorda de Mariscos. It's a very heavy and filling dish that you could imagine was created to feed very hungry men with some basic ingredients. The base is water or broth (a seafood stock was used at Seabra's) with lots of torn pieces of bread, garlic, olive oil and cilantro with mussels, shrimp, scallops, little neck clams and one egg mixed in last minute at the table. That sounds like a lot, but it's mostly bread really. The texture is thick like pudding. There is just enough liquid to keep everything soft, but it is not quite a soup or stew. The flavor is savory with the garlic dominating. The shellfish were, of course, very fresh, sweet and briny - and all without the shell. However, you really need to be hungry to eat much of this dish. It tastes good, but it's just so filling that after just a few fork fulls of that bread, you're have to give up. From the first bite, I know I was going to throw in the towel early. I couldn't make a dent in this meal and ended up not having much of an opportunity to enjoy it.
87 Madison Street
Newark NJ 07105