IBERIAN EXPERIENCE Manuel Azevedo’s latest restaurant focuses on small plates and big flavors from Portugal.
Despite its proximity to travel-industry magnets like Barcelona and Rome, Portugal is a lower profile destination favored by fellow Europeans but not a draw for more faraway explorers.
Portugal's food is a great metaphor for its touristic appeal: discreet, humble—and secretly awesome. Drawing historical influences from Indian and Moorish cuisines, Portuguese cuisine presents a great opportunity to taste something familiarly Mediterranean yet totally unexpected.
Manuel Azevedo, a well-known North Bay chef and purveyor of "new Portuguese" cuisine, has been letting the secret out in Sonoma County for some time now. He opened Sonoma's LaSalette in 1998 and Healdsburg's Cafe Lucia in 2012. This month, a new and cool addition joined Azevedo's Portuguese mini-empire, Tasca Tasca, a wine and tapas bar off Sonoma's main square, open until midnight nightly.
In addition to late hours, Tasca Tasca stands out in the local dining scene by being as laid-back and casual as a Lisbon street party. Wooden tables in azure blue, white tile walls and faded family photos make the place instantly likable.
The menu is divided into "Land," "Sea" and "Garden" categories, and offers set-price combos: three tapas for $15, five for $24 and seven for $32. This makes choosing easy and even redundant; for under $70, you can try more than half of the menu.
The tapas are relatively small and range from creative to straightforward and homey. From the cheese list, the crumbly Broncha, from Petaluma's Achadinha creamery, was served with honey, which balanced its salty richness. From the veggie section, the waiter recommended the chilled fava bean soup, garnished with slices of chorizo, a salted Portuguese sausage. It was great with a pudding-like texture and fresh, grassy flavor.
From the "Land" section, the mini cured sausages served with shishito peppers roasted in sea salt, were another minimalistic dish, pairing the fattiness of the meat with the sharp freshness of the peppers.
The best flavors came out of the "Sea": the smoky, dense sardine pate with a side of sweet onion jam was excellent. Another winner was the crispy bacalhau, salt cod fish cakes, as ubiquitous in Portugal as french fries in the United States, but much more nuanced and rich in flavor. Shaped like round croquettes and served with a snappy tartar sauce, they should be ordered in bulk.
Sharply flavored, wonderfully fishy boquerones (white pickled anchovies) served on slices of earthy, dark bread, were another dish you're sure to crave more of.
For dessert, we had a rich, fluffy passion fruit mousse garnished with candied mangoes and astringent, refreshing apple and Vinho Verde sorbet, both satisfying finishing notes to a diverse, innovative meal. That's the beauty of Tasca Tasca: the ingredients are seemingly commonplace, the tapas concept is not new, yet you walk away pondering the charm of sardines, the appeal of anchovies and the magnitude of fava beans.
Tasca Tasca, 122 W. Napa St., Sonoma. 707.996.8272.