La Salette

Gettin' figgy
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paulr@sfbg.com

Is Portugal the most isolated country in Europe? It's certainly competitive. It is the sidekick land of the Iberian peninsula, itself a geographical curiosity barely connected to the rest of the continent by a mountainous isthmus. Iberia's big bruiser is Spain, of course, and the Iberian siblings are strikingly similar in language, history, and of course, cuisine. But whereas Spain looks both outward to the Atlantic and inward to the Mediterranean basin, much of which it ruled not so long ago, Portugal looks on the Atlantic only. In this sense it resembles its northerly, lonely-island kin, Ireland and Iceland — but it differs from them too, in having a long and global maritime tradition that over the centuries has brought to the home country all manner of exotic influences, many of them culinary.

LaSalette is, to my knowledge, the only spiffy Portuguese restaurant in the Bay Area. (The menu describes chef Manuel Azevedo's cooking as "cozinha nova Portuguesa." Try saying that fast, three times.) Although I wonder why there aren't more such places, given the obvious symmetries of climate and topography between Iberia and northern California, I am glad we have this one at least. When I stepped into the restaurant recently, I flashed for a moment on Babette's, which in the 1990s occupied a similar space — perhaps the same space? — near the rear of a building on Sonoma's verdant town square. "No, not the same space," one of my companions said. "It just looks the same." Later I referred the controversy to my friend Google, which returned information suggesting that Babette's space is not LaSalette's. So: touché! I did eat one of the best cheeseburgers of my life at Babette's, long ago, and RIP.

LaSalette's space is lovely, a patio and cool tiled room at the end of a lazy walkway in the Mercado building. The interior has a certain Zuniness, a handsome functional look with ceramic tiles whose images of happy fish remind us that the Portuguese have long been a seafaring people. Chief among these is the salt cod the Portuguese call bacalhau — but much of the cod came from the New World, especially the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland.

Another New World import is the chile pepper, which the Portuguese turn into a spicy sauce called piri-piri and use as a marinade, often for chicken. Boneless breasts so marinated and grilled turn up at the heart of a tasty sandwich ($10.75) that can be made even tastier by the addition of avocado or bacon slices or both ($1.25 each). The perfect fries on the side also seemed to have been enhanced by a dusting of pepper, which gave just a whisper of heat through the oily crunch.

Piri-piri was also listed as a participant in the unusual and marvelous sardine pâté, one of the tapaslike arrays of small plates ($13.95 for three items) that are good enough to make the main courses of a meal seem like afterthoughts. But I did not detect its smoldering presence in the pâté. Mostly I was aware of a pleasant, creamy brininess. A little sharper were the vinegar-bathed boquerones, white anchovies from Spain. And even whiter than those was the queijo fresco, a disk of soft farmers cheese topped with a single pearl of tomato confit, like a bit of salmon roe. Best of all was the linguica, the garlicky sausage, still sizzling from the grill and cut into not-quite-separated coins.

If Portuguese cuisine has a signature other than bacalhau, it is probably caldo verde ($7.75), the soup that thinks it's a plate of meat and potatoes. LaSalette's version consists mostly of beef broth, and color (green, of course) is provided by a puree of collard greens. The potatoes are pureed too, to thicken the liquid.

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