Portuguese-inspired Baleia opens in the South End this week

Portuguese-inspired Baleia opens in the South End this week

Restaurants

Culinary and nautical history meet for a contemporary spin on global flavors.

Portuguese-inspired Baleia opens in the South End on March 6. Baleia restaurant

The restaurant group that brought Italian-centric favorites like SRV in the South End and Gufo in Cambridge will take guests on a different culinary journey come Wednesday, March 6, with the opening of Portuguese-inspired Baleia. 

The name means “whale,” and it’s an homage to executive chef and partner Andrew Hebert’s explorations in the Algarve, the country’s southernmost region. There, on the sun-kissed coast, sardines, tuna, mackerel and other marine life provide a snack bar for some of the world’s largest mammals – and a treasure trove for fishermen. 

Baleia’s seafood-forward menu is a natural fit for Boston’s palate and heritage, said Hebert. “There’s such a huge Portuguese population in the area, and the mom-and-pop shops are great. But I’ve never seen anyone focused on Portuguese food here the way they are with Greek or Italian concepts.”

The cataplana stew ($42) — so named for the pretty copper vessel it’s cooked in — is a savory sup of braised pork and a medley of the day’s catch. Each fishing village and beach town in the Algarve has its own version, says Hebert, much like the way every Italian nonna has her own interpretation of ragù. The salt cod bolinhos (fritters, $14) get an upscale spin with saffron-tinged mayonnaise for dipping, while lemon and mignonette fall by the wayside for oysters ($4) served with a wine sauce sourced with a dry white Madeira varietal, and piri piri. The pepper that’s now globally ubiquitous among those who love to push the limits of the Scoville scale was first introduced to the masses by Portuguese explorers coming from former Southern African territories. 

“There’s such a huge Portuguese population in the area, and the mom-and-pop shops are great. But I’ve never seen anyone focused on Portuguese food here the way they are with Greek or Italian concepts,” said executive chef and partner Andrew Hebert. – Baleia restaurant

A visit is just as much a culinary experience as a historical one, say Hebert and Coda Restaurant Group partner and director of operations Ted Hawkins. Baleia staff are trained not only about the flavor profiles of each dish and which cocktails or wines (exclusively Portuguese, by the glass, $13-$17) will pair well, but about the imprint sailors had globally that influenced the menu.

That yields what many may find surprising on a menu that’s inspired by a European country, but is essentially a choose-your-own worldwide adventure. Charred eggplant tagine with harissa, saffron rice, chickpeas and mint ($28) – served in the eye-catching clay pots with conical lids – is inspired by the Portuguese sailors who explored North Africa. The chili-spiced shrimp Mozambique small plate ($16) hails from Portugal’s former colony on the east coast of Africa. And low-ABV $14 tonicos like Porto (Ferreira white port, citadelle gin, and tonic) and Outro (rittenhouse rye, Portuguese cherry liqueur, and tonic) feature chamomile and green tea, respectively – a nod to Portugal’s role as one of the original tea importers from the south of China in the 1500s. 

These days sourcing is thankfully a lot easier, say Hawkins and Hebert, who are working with a local purveyor and a Fall River grocer to get cheeses and meats from the mainland and other former territories like the Azores and Madeira archipelagos. Queijo São Jorge, a cow’s-milk cheese from the Azores, and presunto cura, dry-cured ham with traditional Portuguese spices ($14), feature as starters, while the dessert menu spotlights soft sheep’s milk queijo da Serra with crackers and pineapple jam ($14). 

Hebert makes the spread himself in-house by grilling the fruit until its sweetness becomes caramelized. “I’m a huge fan of those charred, charcoal flavors,” he said. “It pairs so well with this milk, creamy cheese and the texture and profile of rye crackers that ties it all together. It’s just so beautiful in its simplicity.” 

The meaning behind the pineapple being the worldwide symbol for hospitality isn’t lost on Hebert or Hawkins. Their advice for guests is to stick around awhile to enjoy dessert – and a feast for the eyes. 

Indulgent, pillowy sonhos donuts (which translates to “dreams” in Portuguese, $12) are drizzled with port caramel, while custardy pastéis de nata ($8) egg tarts pair perfectly with a coffee or zero-proof espresso martini ($10). Each features a contemporary flourish on traditional presentation, much like the interiors from Boston’s RODE Architects. 

Patterned tiles evoking the Old World coast, custom wallpaper embellished with interwoven whale tails, and a copper-beaded light fixture draped from high ceilings mean there’s much more to admire than the food. 

“The design started by sharing some photos that [the team] had from various trips to Portugal, but it’s crazy to think how many of those elements fit together so perfectly to create a space that’s influenced by a Portuguese summer holiday, either physically or subliminally,” said Hawkins. “We have this homage to whaling and exploration that’s not over the top, but so elegant. It’s just perfect.”

Baleia is open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5 to 9:30 p.m.; 264 East Berkeley St., Boston. baleiaboston.com

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