Some people dine out to satisfy their hunger quickly and easily; actual flavor is a secondary concern. There are plenty of options for this group, and an entire industry has arisen to provide them with ten chicken nuggets for a buck.
Then, there are the rarefied souls who pay hundreds for tweezer-sized morsels and entrees of distilled foam. You won’t find a $500 chef’s tasting menu in Worcester.
And then there’s a another group; those who are ready for some adventure, who like to experience other flavors and cuisines, who want to meet and support the people who prepare these meals and the community it fosters. Let’s face it, this is the dynamic that put the renaissance in Worcester.
If you consider yourself a witness to this renaissance, here’s a story that should be of interest.
I hadn’t been to Azorean Bistro’s location in quite some time, so when my friend and I walked into the dining room, I was surprised to find the physical layout and decor mostly unchanged. The Azorean was so new, the owners hadn’t yet replaced the sign out on the street, so if you drive up to the “Blackstone Bistro,” then OK, you’ve reached the Azorean.
We waited a few minutes, then seated ourselves. After a few more minutes, we were greeted with menus, an enthusiastic welcome and a discussion regarding beverage choice. Azorean is BYOB, but there are soft drinks, mineral water and Portuguese beverages to choose from. As expected, the menu features Portuguese options augmented with American and Italian cuisine for those unready to explore.
Because the place was almost empty, I felt emboldened and asked Carla Soscia, our server, for recommendations. She saw that as a green light to be social, describing, in detail, any dish I was curious about, how it was prepared, how the vegetables were chopped, where the ingredients were sourced and preparation details specific to her own family.
Carla, we soon learned, is server, co-owner, cook, mother and grandmother and one of the most infectiously happy persons we’ve encountered. Anywhere.
And if that wasn’t enough, we soon discovered that the Azorean’s cuisine, with its Portuguese spectrum of flavors and distinct ingredients, is every bit as exciting.
From the buttery-thick slices of grilled bread, richly charred on the grill, to an appetizer of cod cakes, we found satisfaction at the first tasting.
But let’s explore those cod cakes. They’re actually Codfish and Potato Croquettes, made with bacalhau (dried cod) that’s been painstakingly soaked and restored to a creamy-smooth texture. The cod is pureed and blended with mashed potatoes, formed into oblong cakes, deep-fried a golden brown — crunchy on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside.
“Not too fishy,” Carla had proclaimed, as if worried we might taste fish and object to it. In my opinion, the mild fish flavor was perfect and not burdened by the potatoes. For dipping, we were introduced to an Azorean Bistro signature, the Mozambique sauce. This is a thin, tomatoey blend of spices, paprika and onion bits. It was delicious — not too spicy, but with flavor so new to us that we eagerly dipped the last of the bread into it and spooned out all that remained.
A small side salad of mixed greens followed, with a glass cruet of balsamic dressing. I haven’t seen “salad included” in a while, and it was appreciated.
I’ve been to Lisbon, so I’m not unfamiliar with Portuguese cuisine. And, if there’s one thing common to most Portuguese-American menus, it’s Kale Soup. Never miss it! My friend ordered a cup and reported, “A sturdy broth, loaded with deep-green chunks of kale, kidney beans, thick carrot slices and elbow macaroni.” Each kitchen has their own variation; the Azorean had it nailed.
Before launching into the next course, here are some observations. Our meals were large and freshly made. While we waited for them, Carla stood by and recounted how she came to start the restaurant, tidbits about her family and the nature of the family recipes she’s brought to the Azorean. Her friendly nature is infectious, and time quickly passed.
Little neck clams figure prominently throughout the menu. Since they are not found on very many menus, I had to make them my entree choice: Littleneck Espanola over Linguine. My first reaction was delight. A broad bowl of pinkish-tinged linguine was studded with fresh in-shell clams and big chunks of chorizo sausage. Chorizo proved to be both the source of color and the engine of flavor, a mildly spicy heat tinged with other tasty spices and rich olive oil.
A word on chorizo: This is a Portuguese sausage that, as Carla explained, varies in spiciness depending upon each butcher’s recipe. The one she’d selected had “controlled heat.” If it’s too mild for your liking, she has her own ways of adding fire.
As much as I worked on this meal, it seemed bottomless. Big slices of chorizo and additional clams kept appearing from the depths of the linguine. To conserve some shred of appetite for dessert, I asked Carla to bring a takeout box so I could bring home more than half of my meal.
Shrimp Mozambique, my friend’s entrée, featured that delicious sauce we’d already encountered. Eight large and juicy shrimp were sautéed in it and served over yellow rice. Another huge dish! This time, we were introduced to another Azorean specialty — the rice. Onion and garlic bits are sautéed in olive oil and the chef’s blend of spices. Once softened, the rice is stirred in and browned, then stock is added and simmered until the rice is soft and wonderful.
Amazingly, we managed to save some appetite for dessert. Carla had detailed her approach to flan so extensively, it seemed criminal to leave without sampling it. Many cuisines claim flan as their own; I was happy to try Portuguese flan. A bit deeper and thicker than most, it was eggy-rich and drenched in a pool of caramel sugar syrup. Compelling and sweet-tooth satisfying!
The Azorean, as I said, is new to the area and, for many, will be an introduction to a wonderful Mediterranean cuisine. My advice? Don’t wait. Go before she gets so busy, Carla doesn’t have a chance to give you a big hug on your way out!
35 Blackstone River Road, Worcester
Menu posted on Facebook
Story by Bernie Whitmore