In the Ironbound section of Newark, an ebullient, down-to-earth crowd rolls up its sleeves for heaps of the freshest fare of the sea, Portuguese style.
Reviewed by Warren M. Bobrow
Originally posted June 16, 2010
The bar area by the front door brims with displays of iced lobster, cockles, clams, whelks, snails, and bright pink prawns, their glaring black eyes and antennae intact. Freshly charred sardines and grilled white anchovies touched with sweet red peppers and olive oil come into view along with ceramic dishes of steamed clams dotted with fiery green sauce (garlic, puréed with olive oil, hot chilies, and parsley). The bar is clearly not just a great place to sip a lip-smacking caipirinha. It’s just as much about feasting on sparkling seafood.
Located in the Ironbound section of Newark, just off bustling Ferry Street, Seabra’s Marisqueira was founded in 1989 by the former owner of what is now the A&J Seabra Supermarket corporation of Fall River, Massachusetts. In 2000, three Newark businessmen—Jack Fernandes, Antonio Sousa, and Manuel Cerqueira—banded together to buy the popular restaurant. They work in the restaurant, too—Fernandes running the kitchen, Sousa and Cerqueira the front of the house. Their supportive attitude has fostered a strong esprit de corps.
“We are our own bosses now,” says manager Mario Martins, who, like most of the staff, has been at Seabra’s (See-AH-bra’s) since the start. “We wanted to control our own fate. We can decide the future of our passion.”
As even a single meal at the Marisquiera makes clear, that passion is for freshness and faithfulness to Portuguese culinary tradition. Pointing to a patron eating fish soup at the bar, Martins says, “Everything we serve is prepared fresh daily. We make fish soup from scratch. That is a bowl of our culinary history. ”
Cheerful, efficient waiters in black pants and crisp white shirts lead diners past the perennially packed bar and the bustling glassed-in kitchen to the blue-and-white tiled dining room. Seductive aromas of sautéed garlic shrimp accompany them on the journey. Hardly a word of English is heard among the patrons.
A good way to start is to order garlic shrimp and sop up the garlicky, saffron-laced, white wine sauce with the warm, locally baked, crusty bread. Don’t be put off by the need to peel the shells. It’s part of the fun of eating Portuguese. The aforementioned caipirinha (which is Brazilian, but never mind) goes well with fish and shellfish, thanks to its large hit of lime juice and its fuel of cachaça, which is Brazilian sugar cane rum.
Fresh North Atlantic sardines, charred and smoky from the charcoal grill, come with hunks of fresh lemon. If you’ve only had canned sardines, you’re in for a discovery. Eat them with your hands; they’re gone in two quick bites. Fresh grilled white anchovies also take you far from their oil-cured cousins. Served in a cazuela (ceramic bowl) with sweet onion and red vinegar, they are not at all salty and are in fact reminiscent of fresh brook trout. For a hearty and heady meal in a bowl, try sopa do mar, heaped with whole Jonah crab claws, whitefish, hake, and several head-on giant shrimp peering over the steaming surface of tomato-and-fish stock.
Most entrées come with thinly sliced, pan-fried, Portuguese-style crispy potatoes, another perfect soaker-up of broths and sauces. Sautéed green beans and sliced carrots in green garlic sauce complete the presentation of delicious charcoal-grilled grouper. Two split, grilled Nova Scotia lobsters come doused with a tasty butter sauce. Seabra’s staff honors requests for no sauce or sauce on the side not with rolling eyes, but with a warm reply: “Sure, no problem.” The waitstaff is also adept at finding the right Portuguese wine or sangria to complement the food. The best Portuguese wines, little known here, are great values—high in quality, low in price.
A fine entrée is pescada cozida com todos—white potatoes, hard-boiled egg slices, and sweet onion simmered with hake, a sweet, white-fleshed fish served in seaside towns along Portugal’s coast. Another entrée, bacalhau (dried, salted codfish) is served roasted with olive oil, garlic, green peppers, and onions, in a deep bowl. To extract most of the saltiness, Seabra’s soaks the crusty slabs of bacalhau for several days before cooking.
The kitchen staff turns out more-than-respectable meat dishes, like luscious, spit-roasted suckling pig with baby clams, and zesty pork tenderloin pounded into scallopini, pan-fried till crisp. Grilled short ribs smeared with a sweetly perfumed, caramelized garlic paste, make irresistible finger food. Same for baby lamb chops served with garlic flan.
For dessert, the dense, creamy, sweet house-made flan is even better with pulls of Seabra’s smoky, thick espresso. Caveat: The noise level can be high. Best defense: Bring a bunch of fun-loving friends and create a joyful noise of your own.