It’s Wednesday night at Alfama Restaurant, and the place is packed – but there is no hum of conversation, no laughter, no cell phones ringing, nothing but silence. Except for, that is, the resonating voice that booms through the dining room and gives me goosebumps.
Wednesday nights at Alfama belong to fado, and more specifically, to Cora D’Abreu and Elisabeth Maria. Every week, these two elegant ladies don long black dresses and shiny earrings and sing the Portuguese equivalent of the blues without microphones, accompanied only by Portuguese and acoustic guitars.
“When life is rough, you sing the fado,” my date and translator for the night tells me they’re singing as the whole crowd at the bar starts clapping and roaring “canto fado!”
Say you’ve just lost a love, are enduring a long distance relationship, are grief-stricken, melancholy or all of the above – you’ve got something in common with fado. Tarcisio Costa, who co-owns Alfama with Miguel Jeronimo, says that it’s believed the musical tradition began in the 16th century, when Portugal began explorations and sailors and their families faced the uncertainties of the sea. What began as a lament, traditionally sung by rosary-clutching women wearing shawls and all black, eventually transformed into a kind of social commentary. Costa tells me that in Lisbon, someone would be lynched if they uttered a word during the fado. I can’t tell if he says this jokingly or not, but tonight it seems no one is ready to test the order of silence.
Fado nights at Alfama are not great for conversations (although you can speak during the breaks between performances), but there’s plenty to do with your mouth in the meantime. A well thought out menu offers an array of Portuguese items and Costa has handpicked the extensive wine list, which includes only Portuguese selections (127 of them). If it’s your first time trying the cuisine, Costa recommends starting with a bowl of the Caldo Verde, a deliciously warming soup made of potato and onion puree, thin strips of collard greens and slices of Portuguese sausage (called chourico). For an entrée, he suggests the Bacalhau Espiritual, a smooth, creamy gratin of codfish and shrimp served in an oven dish scrumptiously browned. But if you
think Portuguese cuisine is all cod, think again. Costa says that the extensive travels of the culture to places like Brazil, Cape Verde and Macau all make their way onto the seasonally produced menu in one way or another. Did you know that the Portuguese brought tempura to Japan? I didn’t think so. But you’ll find these dishes and even themed cocktails at Alfama, like the Caminho das Indias, a curry-rimmed drink inspired by Portuguese travels to Goa. Curry is not my cup of tea, so I enjoyed an Alfama fizz, made with sparkling wine and Ginja, a cherry flavored liqueor.
Costa and Jeronimo have also spent considerable time on the atmosphere, incorporating elements true to Portugal – their décor includes a recreation of an 18th century tile portrait of the Alfama (the oldest district of Lisbon) the theme of blue and white and the inclusion of pieces of art by Portuguese artists like Eduardo Alarcao and Isabel Pavao.
“The philosophy has always been to highlight anything Portuguese,” Costa says. “We offer an educational component of Portugal and its history.”
But this is no ordinary classroom – it a hands-on, full-bellied, music-to-your ears approach to learning about a different culture. I have heard that fado is out of fashion, a relic – but the woman next to me shivers after a passionate song ends and I leave doubting that the music is going anywhere, and feeling like I’m anyplace but Hudson Street.
551 Hudson Street
New York, New York