Until recently, if you had a hankering for Portuguese cuisine - and it's hard not to - you had to trek to the Northeast or New Jersey. With the opening of Koo Zee Doo BYOB on Second Street in Northern Liberties, it is easier for Philadelphians to say, "Bom Apetite!"
As is the custom with most BYOB's, this one involves a couple dividing up the duties of ownership. David Gilberg, last of Bar Ferdinand, is chef, while Carla Goncalves is front of the house, pastry chef, and also brings her Portuguese heritage to the establishment. The menu is based on her family's recipes and the dishes that were served in her home in Portugal and here in the states. "Koo Zee Doo" is a mangled phonetic spelling of the Portuguese word for "cooked."
In keeping with the emphasis on home cooking, the dishes are served family-style in traditional Portuguese pottery. And although there is no denying that you are in a restaurant, the low-key decor of exposed brick and bare tabletops also lends a homey feel.
Goncalves makes the breads in-house. The basket includes a dense rustic broa de milho made with both corn meal and corn flour. It is a nice contrast to the lighter white-flour bread made with just a little sourdough starter.
The bread and a small bowl of nuttylike beans come to the table as a little prelude to help you work your way through the menu.
For a starter, the Queijo Fresco, fresh goat's-milk cheese ($9), set the tone for the evening with a fresh, light taste. It is served with a traditional tomato jam as well as a Portuguese olive oil with a sprinkling of Portuguese salt.
Another appetizer, The Rissóis de Camarão ($8) or shrimp turnovers, also added to the taste of home. Fried pastry encased a mixture of shrimp so light, it could have been a mousse - in another country, of course.
The beauty of serving family-style is that everyone at the table gets to sample. Even a diner who eschews the "fishier" fish would enjoy a bite of Sardinhas na Brasa, grilled sardines with roasted pepper salad ($16).
These small, whole fish are oily enough to take well to the grill and the sweet peppers cut the taste of the fat.
If there were a quintessential Portuguese dish it would be the Carne de Porco a Alentenjano, a mix of pork and clams, with crisp potatoes ($24). The combination of pork and clam may seem counterintuitive to our tastes stateside, but the melding of flavors in this dish is amazing, as was the tenderness of the pork.
Clams are a featured ingredient in Portuguese cuisine, and in Portugal this dish features their local, small, sweet varieties. Here, cockles are added to our East Coast clams to make the substitution.
Another traditional dish we truly enjoyed was the Arroz de pato, baked duck rice ($24). A perfectly sautéed breast was served on top of a bed of rice with morsels of duck leg. Chorizo sausage added a layer of spicy flavor.
Açorda de Cogumelos, or bread soup, includes greens, cheese and poached egg ($18). To call this a soup is stretching it, but our server explained that there is no accurate translation. Whatever you call it, it is comfort food with roots in hearty peasant fare.
A perfectly poached egg sits perkily atop the cheese and green mixture ready for your fork to command it to ooze a rich yolk into the broth-soaked bread.
With its emphasis on sausage and seafood, Portuguese cuisine isn't known for being vegetarian-friendly, but Gilberg does manage to make this soup vegetarian as well as offer a fried corn porridge with fennel, fava and green beans that is vegan.
Me, I'm going for as much of the chorizo sausages that Gilberg can get from his source in Newark, N.J. He gets many products from Portugal - such as the olive oil and sea salt - but the meats are as authentic, fresh and sustainable as he can get.
If you aren't a fan of Koo Zee Doo by the time you finish your entrées, Goncalves' desserts should push you over the edge.
Be sure to try the Pastel de Nata, a traditional custard ($6) that encases a rich, egg custard that has just the right amount of sweetness.
Also getting high marks were the Bolo de Bolacha, coffee-soaked cookies with buttercream ($6) that is impossible not to finish even though you swear the previous bite was the last.
Our server kindly included the chocolate-covered fig from the Prato de Chocolate we had to leave on the cutting room floor as we were approaching the top of the fullness meter. The fig was divine and this gesture was an example of attentive service and interest in the cuisine that was consistently in practice.
The only real flaw in the evening was the coffee. Although it was purposefully chosen from an Indonesian island that was settled by the Portuguese, it was cold and a little flabby for the final note of such bold flavors. My Brazilian taster suggested a better ending would be authentic Brazilian cafezinho.
The coffee was a minor disappointment, though. Koo Zee Doo is a place you'll want to return to again and again, so I was happy to discover that they will be opening for lunches Friday through Sunday in a couple of weeks.