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A taste of Portugal
#01-15 Dempsey Rd, Block 8
Tel: 8129 9122
Open daily from 11am to 11pm
YOU know you're suffering from severe travel withdrawal symptoms when you shed tears of joy at the sight of a menu written in a foreign language. Although you're acutely aware that there is an English translation and you are in Dempsey Village not Lisbon, there's still something about this new restaurant Tuga that nudges your internal compass pleasantly off-kilter.
It's not like we always wanted to go to Portugal. Apart from an old love affair with egg tarts and a passing "one day we should go to Macau to try the food" fancy, there was barely any compulsion to visit the coastal birthplace of bacalhau (salt cod) and sardines. Not when Spain and Italy have much more PR-savvy fish.
But Spanish and Italian restaurants in Singapore are more familiar than fascinating, which is why Tuga's novelty factor is working, going by the non-stop bustle at this spacious and eye-catching restaurant-in-a-wine-shop concept.
Some cool spatial manoeuvres make this retail-dining space work seamlessly, with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with wine bottles playing a critical role in the interior design. Organised in a grid-like pattern, the dining tables are positioned between the shelves, like study tables in a library.
The geometrically-proficient design makes sense considering that the owner of Tuga is also an architect. Portuguese national Carlos Couto still has a practice in Macau where he's lived for some 30 years, although serendipity - and his wife - led him to Taipei eight years ago, where they run the flagship Tuga (short for Portugal). He commutes between Macau, Taipei and Singapore - where he is currently stuck, so he is now a regular fixture at the restaurant, pouring wines and making recommendations in an understated yet distinguished manner.
Wine sales are clearly the main goal of Tuga, but since food and wine are intertwined in Portugal, the cooking is not to be sniffed at either.
It's homey and hearty, nothing earth-shattering but cooked with a level of care that comes either from love or the fear of a no-nonsense employer. First up is the Cogumelos salteados e presunto de porco preta (picante). We cry again at the wonderful incomprehensibility of it all, as well as its literal translation - spicy sauteed mushrooms with black pig ham (spicy)(S$25). What appears is a sizzling skillet of chunky cut mushrooms simply stir-fried with lots of olive oil, garlic and strips of salami-like salty cured pork - the silky mouthfeel of mushrooms seasoned with the salty pork and a finish of chilli heat.
Ameijoas a Bulhao Pato (S$18) are clams by our definition, sloshed in its own piping hot juices, wine and added stock - a brew that's drinkable to the last drop, almost outshining the piffling tiny nuggets of clam flesh, fresh though they are.
You can't visit Portugal without trying the salt cod in some form, and here the pastéis de bacalhau (S$22) are meaty fish cakes from reconstituted salted cod that's relinquished all salt but not its character - meaty flakes moulded with potatoes into quenelles and deep fried. They're different from croquetas as there's no bechamel or breadcrumb coating; the fish instead achieves a satisfying chewy crunch when it hits the oil, and is less cloying than its Spanish cousin.
Arroz de marisco (S$49) is a paella that fell in love with a seafood bisque and started a new life in Asia. Tender rather than risotto-like, the rice grains hold their own in an intense, saffron-hued briny broth that steals the thunder from the borderline mushy shrimp and ho-hum mussels. But they're a minor infringement of a rib-sticking Portuguese mui fan.
We have high expectations for polvo à Lagareiro (S$65) aka octopus, if only for the price and the high recommendation it came with. Indeed, we're greeted by a specimen that might have worked as a bouncer in the underwater world.
Two thick tentacles are still smoky from their time on the grill, with a well-developed flavour of the sea, no doubt from its time spent swimming in it. But the texture is a letdown, braised too long such that its resilience gives way to a deflated stringiness. There's a taste of what it could have been in the thinner ends, but it's not enough. However, the accompanying fluffy, fork-tender whole potatoes spilling out of their waxy chewy skins are really good, especially with the surrounding octopus-flavoured olive oil, paprika and parsley.
Dessert is a forgettable arroz doce (S$6) which we thought might be creamy and risotto-like but is instead cold, firm and almost paste-like (think hardened sago pudding), dusted with cinnamon. The chocolate mousse, creme caramel and drunken pear with ice cream sound more promising on hindsight.
Throughout the meal, you can browse the shelves for a wine you'd like to have with your meal (or take home at a 10 per cent discount), or go with a glass of red or white (S$20) from whatever bottles they decide to open. This random approach is also an introduction to Portuguese wine - any lack of knowledge you have will be more than rectified by the sheer variety available. Besides wine, there's also a little gourmet shop in-house that stocks canned fish, olive oil, coffee, rice and other victuals.
A ticket to Portugal via Tuga isn't a bargain, but like buying an overpriced souvenir, it gives you a momentary thrill that's fun while it lasts.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy:
The Business Times pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.