Big plates and gutsy flavors find a home on Second Street.
The poor waiter's arm strained under the weight of my entree at KooZeeDoo. The sheer size of the Cozido Minhoto, an epic bollito misto of sorts and the Portuguese namesake of this new Northern Liberties BYOB, is daunting. One man would have as much luck tackling all the treasure in this brimming terracotta canoe as he would tackling an entire porchetta or Peking duck.
For being the next-door neighbor of tapas-crazed Spain, little Portugal could not be more different when it comes to portion control, one of many details KooZeeDoo chef/owner David Gilberg and his wife, baker Carla Gonçalves, have observed at this little exposed-brick hideaway at the former address of Copper Bistro. Sure, by name you’d think it was a day-care center, but there’s nothing childish about the family-style pots of bold ingredients—silvery sardines, blood sausages, chicken gizzards, salt cod—that once earned Gilberg cred at the Gonçalves dinner table and now grace the menu of the couple’s first self-owned restaurant.
Gonçalves’ family hails from Minho, two hours up the coast from Lisbon, where Gonçalves lived till she was 9. Her grandmother had a farm, and dinner consisted of “vegetables that were picked that day, animals that were slaughtered that day.” At KooZeeDoo, Gilberg keeps with that theme, featuring rustic peasant recipes tightened up with fresh, local ingredients and pretty plating for a menu that feels both traditional and modern—not to mention novel for Philly, which lacks an entrenched Portuguese food scene.
There were a few execution issues (mostly centered on the cozido) from the two-man open kitchen, which is framed in dangling copper pots and a four-seat slate chef’s bar. The nine-hour simmer in water fortified with white wine, bay leaves, peppercorns and pig’s feet forced the oxtails, chicken and pork into succulent, falling-off-the-bone submission—but also resulted in blood sausage that disintegrated into clotty clumps and smoked chouriço with the texture of a dollar dog in its ninth inning.
However, the third sausage in that congress—all are imported by Triunfo, a distributor in Portuguese-rich Newark—was so good, I could've eaten an entire plate. Called farinheira, these clouds of smoked pork fat and wheat flour brought to mind the dumplings in chicken ’n’ dumplings, only with a piggy, Portuguese accent. The vegetables in the cozido rocked too: starchy Yukon Gold potatoes from Green Meadow Farm, tender collards and cabbage and a grab bag of sweet root vegetables.
The cozido is now off the menu, and Gilberg has also sacrificed the farinheira in order to make the pleasant chestnut-and-hubbard-squash soup it garnished vegan. Portuguese cuisine doesn’t make many accommodations for the meatless, but Gilberg knows what’s up. The vegetarian milho frito, squares of flavorful fried polenta veined like a fine Roquefort with a chiffonade of collard greens, was flavorful enough to satisfy herbivores and carnivores alike, with grilled leeks and fennel over a bright green fava-bean puree freshened with mint, parsley and cilantro.
I’ll miss the farinheira, but maybe if you (read: me) ask nicely, Gilberg might make you (me) some. The staff was certainly accommodating when I asked (begged) for a basket of the heavenly buttermilk biscuits that won Gonçalves a cult following at the Ugly American. They’re available at KooZeeDoo during lunch and again at dinner if there’s extra and you ask nicely.
Gonçalves also bakes KooZeeDoo’s desserts, including a lovely coconut-custard tart—not traditional, but her father’s favorite—you shouldn’t miss after you’ve sucked the pointy pink carapaces of four colossal head-on shrimp Gilberg pan-sears and tosses in “piri piri” hot sauce stoked with the West African spice known as grains of paradise. There’s also mild housemade raw-milk goat cheese, a better ending to a meal than the crepes, which were pleasantly springy but way overstuffed with a molten Nutella-like confection.
Fresh and grassy, the snow-white petals of cheese divided the pool of Portuguese olive oil, gritty with coarse salt and cracked pepper, from a housemade doce de tomate, a sweet-and-savory tomato jam with grace notes of cinnamon and citrus zest. Alas, that jam, jarred with the final crop of fall fruit just before KooZeeDoo opened, has also vanished. Awesome-sounding squash preserves will understudy, Gilberg promises, as if I needed an excuse to go back. ■
Next week, Brian McManus reviews Percy Street Barbecue. For more on Philly's food scene, visit blogalicious-adam.blogspot.com.■