I am reminded of the “lavadouro das francesinhas” as I read the menu in Alfama, a compact Portuguese restaurant in the Dublin suburb of Windy Arbour. On a trip to Lisbon six years ago, I did a Culinary Backstreets walking food tour, which took me to Madragoa, the former home of the varinas, the immigrant fish vendors who travelled door to door selling the fish that they carried in baskets on their heads.
Hidden behind a doorway was a large outdoor bath divided into 12 separate tanks, one of the few remaining (since closed) communal spaces where the neighbourhood women laundered their clothes. The space took its name from the Convento das Francesinhas, the convent of the French Capuchin nuns who had previously occupied the site.
Much like the old washhouse, one of Portugal’s most famous dishes takes its name from France, but it’s neither small nor French. The francesinha, a juggernaut of a sandwich, is said to have evolved from the French croque monsieur, and was constructed and exported back to Portugal by Portuguese migrants who were working in France.
Edi Nunes, a Brazilian, who owns Alfama with her Portuguese husband, Paulo Miguel, says that the Portuguese would be horrified to hear that in Ireland we have been known to eat this sandwich for breakfast. But, in our defence, it’s a brunch dish on their menu, billed as a meat lover’s paradise, and a Portuguese version of a full Irish.
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It is this dish – which also features on the dinner menu – that has me pulling up a seat in Alfama. The dinner menu is concise, two starters – croquettas and presunto de serrano, the Portuguese dry-cured ham – and seven main courses, which include two steak dishes, Portuguese duck rice, vegetarian lasagne and bacalhau com natas, a salt cod pie.
The pastéis de bacalhau (€8.90), three salt cod croquettas, are the perfect starter to share. Deliciously hot, the crunchy exterior yields to a fluffy filling of flaked bacalhau mixed with onion, garlic and herbs and just the right amount of mashed potato. With a squeeze of lemon, a bit of salsa and a few olives, it’s a lovely bite to have with a glass of wine.
The wine list, like the menu, is brief, and as you’d expect, local wine features. I spot a few bottles from Casa Ferreirinha, a vineyard I visited in the Douro Valley a few years ago, and opt for the Papa Figos (€37.45), a red with plenty of fruit and nuance.
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When it arrives, the francesinha (€20.90) looks innocent enough, a sandwich topped with an egg in a pool of gravy, with chips on the side. It is only when I cut into it that I realise how truly well-endowed it is. Layers of sausage, ham, salami and a grilled steak are piled up between two slices of bread, the top one oozing with grilled cheese, gilded with a fried egg. When Paulo, the chef, pops over to our table to say hello, we get more detail on the gravy. Every restaurant in Portugal has their own individual recipe.
His gravy is made from a number of stocks: vegetable, chicken, beef and shrimp, and it has been reduced twice, with Port, whiskey and two cans of beer involved. I’m sure there is more that I can’t recall. If you want to enjoy the unbridled pleasure of this dish, those chips must be immersed in the gravy. Francesinha, I learn, in what I’m sure is sound advice, is perfect as a hangover cure, or for lining your stomach before you go out.
The bacalhau de natas (€18.90), you might think, would stumble somewhat in the shadow of this behemoth, but it delivers admirably, with flakes of fish in a cheesy sauce under a crisp layer of mashed potato. Sometimes I find salt cod a bit overpowering, but this meets the Goldilocks test head on – not overly salty or fishy, just tasty and satisfying. I can see why it’s their best seller.
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There’s no dessert on the menu, so we finish with a couple of the small, delicious pastéis de nata (€2.85), the legendary Portuguese custard tarts.
Alfama is a low-key, simple restaurant that has innate charm. People drop in, there’s conversation and a sense of community. The menu may be limited but it’s the sort of place that absolutely merits a return visit, either during the day or in the evening. The food is delicious, cooked from the heart and priced at a sensible level. And the service is warm and welcoming.
Dinner for two with a bottle of wine was €91.85.
THE VERDICT: A charming neighbourhood restaurant
Music: Joao and Astrud Gilberto in the background
Food provenance: O’Mahony’s meat, Kish Fish, Silvas bacalao, Doyle’s vegetables, Redmond Fine Foods
Vegetarian options: Vegetarian lasagne, sometimes there’s a kale soup. A vegan option of tempura of green beans with rice
Wheelchair access: No accessible room or toilet