When Telmo Faria (formerly of Tacolicious) said he wanted to open a Portuguese restaurant in San Francisco because it didn’t have one, I assumed what he really meant was that it didn’t have a signature Portuguese restaurant. But with the notable exception of the “Portuguese corner” on the menu at Grubstake — which is legit, and also available until very late at night — Faria was speaking quite literally. See for yourself: There ain’t none. Even Yelp wants to redirect you to tapas spots or to Brazilian steakhouses like Espetus, and those aren’t even in the same family. For a country that punches above its weight class — the word tempura comes from Portuguese and dates to the Portuguese Empire’s contact with feudal Japan in the 16th century — it’s a curious omission.
But now we’ve got a Portuguese restaurant, and it’s rather plainly called Uma Casa, or “a house.” Having taken up residence in the space that used to house Chris Cosentino’s Incanto (and, for a short while after, Porcellino), Uma Casa is a newly mined jewel in the process of getting its facets buffed to a gleam.
Further reinforcing the idea that every meal ought to start with at least something complimentary, the little bowls of potato chips and malagueta pepper sauce are one thing and one thing only: addictive. It’s a shrewd move, because the $5 bread-and-butter is a cut above what’s normally dished out for free. It comes with two butters, actually, one made with olive and the other, sharper-tasting one, with chouriço (i.e., chorizo). And the pieces are presented — staged, almost — on their ends, so it almost looks like you got a full loaf, sliced and toasted. There’s a full menu section devoted to snacks (petiscos), in fact. Cenouras alentejanas ($6), a marinated salad made with carrots, fennel, watermelon radish, and coriander, could use a touch more salt, but when it comes time to venture into seafood territory, Portugal’s maritime influence starts to gather steam.
Take the salada de atum ($15), which is different not only in degree but in kind from every other tuna salad in the Western hemisphere. Like ultra-luxe poke wearing a headdress of microgreens, it’s raw yellowfin bedazzled with quail egg, onion puree, herbs, and olives, and served on chips in such a way that it feels like you’re preparing hors d’oeuvres for yourself. (Minus the chips, it’s purer and just as good.) Similarly, the pasteis de bacalhau (or salt cod fritters, $10) outperform even the most well-rehearsed crab cakes. Creamy but not heavy and mixed with plenty of potato, they’re easy and casual and very, very good. (As an aside, and for whatever it’s worth, it’s dishes like this that have helped me get over my crybaby aversion to mayo and all its derivatives.)
Piri-piri chicken wings — which I always associate with Dom’s pop-up on the mediocre, shot-in-San-Francisco HBO show Looking — were pleasantly hot in both senses of the word, if slightly awkward to eat. It was as strongly seasoned and salty as the takeout chicken from the churrasqueiras in my hometown, and if grilled chicken is always going to be nothing more than grilled chicken, it’s homey and well worth the $12. (Overall, I found Uma Casa’s prices eminently reasonable.) The sticking point was the greens it came with, which were oily yet insufficiently cooked down, such that however slowly and deliberately my dining companion and I tried to eat them, we always had stems sticking out of our mouths. I get the urge to avoid serving bare wings on a plate, but it’s not the right solution.
A $16 plate of “arroz de pato” — the scare quotes are theirs, and probably owing to the use of risotto in lieu of paella — was undoubtedly the most elegant, harmonious dish. A roasted duck breast with a duck-confit mushroom risotto, plus dried cherries and a red wine reduction sounds almost comically labor-intensive, but however much sweat equity goes into this, it’s completely justified, as every leg of the duck-rice-cherry triangle holds the other two in place. It’s beautiful. As much as I love quail, Uma Casa’s codorniz vinho d’alhos (fried quail with squash puree, Madeira jus, pickled pearl onion, and herbs, $15) suffered from following perfection. It didn’t help that it was plated like catering food, plus the jus didn’t enhance the quail in any way, and the onion sat far away from the action, like a satellite in high orbit.
For mains, a caldeirada (or seafood stew, $28) of sea bass, shrimp, mussels, and potato in a saffron-tomato broth) was flat-out excellent, partly because saffron is like a wormhole to deliciousness, partly because the flaky sea bass absorbed its essence, and partly because of the reappearance of the wonderful bread from earlier, to scoop up the residual broth. And a bacalhau gomes de sá ($21) was easily its equal. Bursting with caramelized onion richness and studded with parsley aioli plus three slices of soft-boiled eggs in a shamrock formation, this salt cod casserole is the closest Faria gets to country cooking. (Go ahead, order salt cod twice in one sitting; if you don’t finish this one, it makes great leftovers.)
As with the finest, high-end tapas restaurants (think Bellota or Zarzuela), it’s worth going with a group of four so that everyone can maximize the number of nibbles they get. But, Bellota’s occasional live Spanish guitarists notwithstanding, Uma Casa’a ambience is a bit more romantic, so it may be more attractive to parties of two. It’s beautifully lit, and as tiled as downtown Santa Barbara. A second palpable tension: This is a large space for a neighborhood joint, and in order to keep the lights on, it will have to make itself known far beyond the 94114 ZIP code. (Luckily, nearby 94110 is among the hungriest in the country.)
The third and final (potential) complication is that by filling a hole in the city’s culinary scene, it would be easy for Uma Casa to go the rustic-nostalgic route and cater to Portuguese people’s fond remembrances of Sunday at grandma’s. Rendering a final verdict on that point is outside my range, but I strongly suspect that it’s not the case. But even if Uma Casa weren’t able to broadcast itself as the only Portuguese restaurant in town, there’s reason enough for the hordes to flock here.
Uma Casa, 1550 Church St., 415-829-2264 or umacasarestaurant.com