Colonial Portuguese fusion. That's a lot to unpack right there.
Some history: Portugal was really the first colonial superpower, sailors zipping around the coast of Africa and the Atlantic archipelagos in search of speedy spice routes. That was in the early 1400s. Vasco da Gama landed in India at the end of that century, followed swiftly by Pedro Álvares Cabral stepping off his ship in Brazil. Mozambique, Zanzibar, Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Goa on the west coast of India, Malacca, Portuguese Timor, Macau, etc.
So colonial Portuguese food could be African or southeast Asian or sub-Sahara African or South American. Why did Russell Andrade, professional opera singer, bring this vision to St. Petersburg with his new restaurant Iberian Rooster? He says it's because he was hungry.
Yes, downtown St. Petersburg is a smorgasbord these days, but not if you grew up ethnically Portuguese in Dubai, with your mother's side of the family from Africa and your dad's side from Goa. St. Petersburg has pizza and burgers, but Macanese minchi? Not so much.
There's more to the story than hunger pangs. Andrade was at a crossroads. Keep pursuing the itinerant life of a tenor or put down roots. And then there was the call of that empty space in the historic Kress Building at 475 Central Ave., vacated by Moscato's Bella Cucina, with its glorious but chronically underutilized club/speakeasy downstairs.
Andrade hired ska guru and Magadog (a Tampa band) frontman Ed Lowery, most recently executive chef at Skipper's Smokehouse. He handed him a pile of family recipes and charged him with making them approachable for an American dining public. He also hired Brandon Muske, a level one sommelier, as beverage director and chief architect of one of the most hilarious cocktail lists to ever wet, or whet, a whistle in Pinellas County.
Let us begin there.
Andrade doesn't drink, which may explain why the "extreme cocktails" portion of the list begins with this: "Please do not order these drinks. They are ridiculous on all accounts and you will be required to sign a waiver to indulge. Also, your friends will laugh at you for years to come. You don't want that kind of pressure; we have Bud Light in bottles."
The cocktails in this section are $42. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fans will know that this number is the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. For the rest of us, it's just an alarmingly expensive cocktail, made to be shared. The Skinny Dip, I'm told, comes in a terrarium with 144 ounces of rum, vodka, 151 Bacardi, ginger, soda and some other things like Pop Rocks, which make bubbles to simulate a hot tub. There are also superhero figurines lurking at the bottom in compromising positions.
Why did I not order a Skinny Dip, or a Living in a Van, Down by the River (described thusly: "Bourbon, beer, and orange juice, maybe the last little bit of the sandwich in the front seat. It could be worse …")? The Tampa Bay Times frowns on me embarrassing myself in public. Also on me spending $42 for a cocktail.
But I ate just about everything on the menu and I can say this with authority: There are successful dishes that introduce the flavors and ingredients of cuisines unfamiliar to us. There may not always be rigorous verisimilitude, but you'll be back for the aforementioned minchi. It's one of the most beloved comfort foods of Macau, a jumble of minced beef and in this case chorizo, with onion and potato and a bed of basmati rice, a sunny-side egg perched on the top. Seasonings are hard to nail down: soy sauce and Worcestershire, maybe cinnamon and a bit of curry, a trace of heat that might be cayenne. Anyway, for $12, it's one-dish fun.
Equally fun is the Hotchee Dog ($7). I'm not sure if this is a reference to the dog at Hamilton Restaurant in Carlisle, Pa., which is famous for its dog by this name, or a shorthand reference to its hot chili, but Andrade says it is "straight-up Brazilian," something he ate at midnight, drenched in sweat after performances of The Tales of Hoffmann in São Paulo. This one starts with a beef frank struggling under mashed potato, corn niblets, beef chili, shreds of cheddar, crispy shoestring potatoes and another sunny-side up egg. Advice: Slice the dog down the middle and stuff all the accessories into the crevice. Lean in.
I've got miles to go, so I'll have to be breezy: Rice-based dishes like the Shrimp and Sausage Pulao ($16) or the chicken Goan Cafreal ($16) are nuanced, filling and well priced, whereas the Moroccan tenderloin with a pool of excellent chimichurri and a purple potato puree featured lots of nice flavors but seemed a little steep at $28. The more exotic appetizers (Goan patties that read like a samosa or Indian turnover but in a tender puff pastry, $6; or the fish croquettes with smoked tomato chutney and a bit of harissa aioli, $10) proved much more alluring than the spread trio (hummus, artichoke dip and fish spread; $9) or mayo-intensive chicken salad ($10). So be bold.
Servers, while friendly, are unlikely to be your spirit guides. They do not know which dishes hail from which former Portuguese colony, and they are unlikely to be definitive about which desserts — either those in the huge dessert case at the entrance, or the handful on the menu — are worth your time. Turns out, you're likely to pick a winner even unassisted. All made in-house, the matcha crepe cake, enrobed in chocolate with the zillion little layers sandwiching flavored whipped cream ($11), is matched in flavor if not visual drama by the rice pudding with lemon zest ($7) and the chocolate mousse-filled Iberian torte with raspberry coulis ($12).
Andrade may be ambivalent about moving on from Don Giovanni or Otello, but he can rest assured he has introduced St. Pete to some showstoppers, in the form of colonial Portuguese fusion and mad mixology mashups.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.