The sensation of entering A Cozinha do Manel (“Manel’s Kitchen”) in Porto is so similar to entering grandma’s house on Sunday that it almost confuses us. There is no one to greet you at the door, no cloth napkins folded over employees’ arms. We walk confidently, as we would at home, with the sense of comfort that only intimacy is capable of inspiring.
From the wall, among the many clocks, vintage plates and drawings made on napkins by customers with an artistic bent, dozens of familiar faces look back at us. They are actors, musicians, politicians and soccer stars all standing next to Zé António, the owner and manager – a confirmation of the restaurant’s popularity.
Nevertheless, it still feels like home. Perhaps that’s because for three decades it has been run by the same family. It all began with Zé António’s in-laws – they founded the restaurant, which is named after his father-in-law, Manel. Today, he runs the homely spot with his wife and daughters.
In the restaurant’s windows they exhibit, without ostentation, rich sausages, little oxheart tomatoes and free-range eggs. Everything is fresh, hand-picked by Zé António himself. “If we want quality products, we have to go get them,” he says with certainty. “Because we are good customers, suppliers give us the best. No matter the price, I want it to be good.”
And what is this “best”? Zé António’s daughter has no doubts: “Vitelinha [small strips of veal] roasted in the oven with arrozinho [rice], esparregado [puréed spinach] and batatinhas [small roasted potatoes].” Yes, we talk about food in Porto with a special code: the diminutive, always, and it feels almost like a hug from an old friend (one that’s repeated over and over). It may leave the customer in doubt as to whether they’ll get enough food, but then they inevitably receive a portion that’s large enough to feed a battalion, erasing any fear of going hungry.
Not fully convinced, we go over the menu again and consider ordering the tavern’s yellow cured cod or the small chops with little garlic (see the diminutives?). Zé António is adept at the maxim “less is more” and, therefore, A Cozinha do Manel’s menu is not very extensive. “We make food to finish. We have three fish dishes and three meat dishes. When it’s over, it’s over,” he says.
We ponder the ease with which 250 kilos of veal run out each month while watching the constant comings and goings of customers – regulars are greeted by name and wished a “good evening” in Portuguese, while English, French or Spanish is softly spoken to those coming with guidebooks in hand.
We decide to follow his daughter’s suggestion. After declaring that we’ll have the veal, we hear a chorus of voices at nearby tables order the same dish. The bell announcing another dose of veal – pardon, vitelinha – to leave the wood-fired oven makes itself heard again and again.
In the expert hands of chef Gracinda Moura, fish from Matosinhos and Angeiras, goat from Montalegre and meat from Amarante are turned into dishes that are eaten heartily and generate exclamations of “everything was great, as always.”
“We make food to finish. We have three fish dishes and three meat dishes. When it’s over, it’s over.”
Although Zé António and his family mostly run the place, Grandmother Piedade, on her way to eighty, still does all the desserts herself. All things that you want to snuggle up to and will fatten you with just a glance: drunken pears, out-of-season rabanadas (similar to French toast, these are a common Christmas treat), toucinho do céu (a Portuguese almond cake translated literally as “bacon from heaven”) and curd with pumpkin jam.
The new trend of healthy food has no place here. We stayed for the cookie cake, which Zé António’s daughter guarantees is not “like those made with a lot of butter” and gives us both a generous slice and the recipe – there are no secrets between relatives, which is how we and other customers at the restaurant are made to feel. “Fame comes from work,” says Zé António.
“This is a house turned to traditional Portuguese cuisine,” he repeats every time someone tells him about the gastronomic trends that proliferate in the city of Porto. And do not even think of saying the word “gourmet.” “There are no gourmets here, do not tell me about it, I do not understand any of this,” he shouts.
What A Cozinha do Manel wants is to be your home kitchen: “That’s what we want to create, that’s the key in a restaurant,” says Zé António. He continues: “Here there can be a problem with the food but if the person feels at home, he says, ‘Zé, the meat is hard,’ and I say, ‘No problem, we change it.’” Everything can be altered except for the certainty of a comforted stomach.