It was precisely at that moment that Maria Rosita, our guide for the week, suddenly rushed up saying she had managed to get tickets to the first ever winemaker dinner to be held that night in Porto. Further, the meal would be prepared by one of Portugal’s hottest chefs and would take place at the modern art museum. She was simply giddy at the prospect as if she had scored backstage passes to a Stones concert.
Maria was therefore understandably shocked when we barely registered any response at all. “So let me get this straight,” I said, “you want us to leave all this to go to a winemaker dinner? Seriously?” Maria was visibly crestfallen, even offended. After all, she had been our cheerleader, biggest fan, and crazy-ass driver for the past week. Needless to say, the guilt of it all quickly sunk in and we caved in seconds. We would then go to the dinner, forsaking the Hallmark moment of sunset at the beach, oysters, and cold beer.
In less than half an hour we were at the entrance of the stark white museum exterior. Once inside we were quickly ushered to the room designated for the night’s gala event. It took just moments to realize that the venue may have worked for a museum but was a completely untenable space for any kind of catered meal. The ceilings in the “dining room” were barely ten feet high, which wasn’t exactly a problem except for the fact that everyone—except us—smoked. Constantly. Heavily. If not familiar, smoking is one of Portugal’s national sports along with football. To top it all off and complete the psycho-killer feel of the room was the fact that there weren’t any windows. What followed can only be described as a quick descent into the darkest reaches of culinary hell. But as the wise Inigo Montoya once said, “It’s too long to explain. Let me sum up.”
To begin, the cast for the evening’s performance:
The crowd: Dozens of Porto’s top foodies, all fashionably attired were there in force eagerly awaiting the night’s event as they smoked cigarette after cigarette non-stop.
The winemaker: Was from a small estate in the Douro Valley that produced both Port and dry wines from indigenous varieties. He resembled a short, beardless Santa Claus and was perpetually smiling as if someone had dialed up his medication for the evening. He spoke only Portuguese, which to me has always sounded like Russian pirates trying to speak Spanish.
The winemaker’s son: Would be joining us at our table, which meant that Keith and I would actually have to behave and pay attention. The son had gone to school in New York and spoke very good English. He was a timid sort but truly excited about the evening because it was a grand opportunity to show off his family’s winery and wines. After all, it was also Porto’s first winemaker dinner and how bad could that be? The gods were just about to show us.
The Chef: Soon after arriving, Maria arranged for Keith and me to meet the chef. Moments later he appeared from the kitchen in impeccably clean starched whites with his tiny assistant trailing behind. Said assistant was a short, mousy woman who looked as if she’d experienced one too many explosions at close proximity. We would soon learn why. The Chef shook our hands vigorously and, in perfect English, regaled us with tales of his recent opening of a multi-million-dollar restaurant in Rio de Janeiro. He then went on to provide his thoughts on the menu for the night’s extravaganza.
It was about ninety seconds into the conversation when I noticed the chef’s left eye start to twitch. Odd, I thought, but really no big deal. But as he went on describing the menu and how he would, and I quote, “flout convention,” things got downright strange. His speech became increasingly punctuated with loud staccato words accompanied by jerking gestures. Several minutes in and our chef was shouting and literally spitting out words as he finished describing the dessert course. Keith and I looked on with more than a bit of concern. We weren’t quite sure what had just happened. But in watching him and then looking at his tiny cowering assistant everything suddenly became crystal clear. And the thought of this guy in a hot busy-ass kitchen working with knives also became an unsettling picture.
As the first course hit the table I remembered the chef’s phrase: “flout convention.” It was a soup course. In this case, a cream of almond soup with a texture not unlike Malt-O-Meal. But the crowning touch was a raw egg yolk floating in the center of the bowl looking for all the world like an enormous evil yellow eye. Memories of the black and white Twilight Zone commercials with the huge blinking eye quickly came to mind. All around me diners with spoons in hand pierced the evil yellow eye and tucked into the almond soup, which was remarkably salty and a stark contrast to the slimy texture of the egg yolk. To top it off, the soup was paired with an oxidized and over-oaked Douro white wine that reminded me of an unfinished bedroom set that had seen better days. I will leave it to you to imagine the combination of gloppy soup, slimy egg yolk, and oaky over-the-hill white. It was definitely not conventional.
With each successive course the bizarre tableau repeated itself. The foodies chain-smoked as if it were their last day on earth until the smoke got so thick that one could, as they say, cut it with a chef’s knife. The winemaker would stand up and quietly mewl away for 5-10 minutes about the next wine. Finally, mercifully, he would stop talking to the smoky applause of the diners. Then the chef would reappear from the kitchen with his tiny assistant trailing behind him. As before, he would start speaking to the group with authority and conviction but within minutes start to melt down. After sputtering and barking through his description of the next course he would return to the kitchen as the audience politely applauded through the haze. To say it was all surreal is a bit of an understatement.
Between courses Keith and I would stagger outside through a side door gasping for fresh air. Any and all urges to grab the nearest cab back to the hotel were quickly thwarted by the appearance of Maria, who was concerned about our sudden absence. We complained vociferously about the cigarette smoke but there was nothing really to be done. To her credit, Maria tried to get the people around us to give the smoking a rest several times but they completely ignored her.
The high point, the pièce de résistance, of entire evening was surely the entrée. It consisted of a large chunk of cod, a staple of the Portuguese diet, which had been pan-seared and supposedly finished in the oven. Beneath the cod was a puree of roasted pearl onions and on the side a lettuce leaf burrito looking affair filled with soggy mashed potatoes. As I went to cut into the cod for the initial bite I quickly realized that it was all but raw. In fact, it had the same texture as a piece of flesh just carved from the bone of basically any kind of dead animal.
Accompanying the dead cod and fixings was the Brettiest, most tannic Douro red wine I’ve ever tasted. Imagine the essence of barnyard and iodine combined with a texture similar to licking the floor of a machine shop. When I first put my nose in the glass my eyes watered and I saw the color brown. At that point I looked up and across the table at Keith. He was equally stunned. We put our dinning utensils down in unison, picked up a glass of one of the other wines, and quickly slammed the remaining contents. All around us Porto’s top foodies wolfed down the raw cod and potato burrito with relish and aplomb.
The end the meal was kind of/partially/sort of saved by a delicious flourless chocolate cake prepared not by the chef but by a local caterer. It was paired with the winemaker’s vintage port which had a smoky edge due either to the wine’s age or the tainted air in our lungs.
Three-plus hours later we emerged from that hazy den of gastronomic disaster practically begging for another beer. Back at the hotel bar we did our best to tell Maria that it was OK. We would be just fine. After the second beer even she had to say, “Wow, that really sucked.” And so it did–but with style.