Every once in awhile the heavens align and a restaurant is born that makes perfect sense for the time, the neighborhood, the chef and the patrons. Uma Casa, the new Portuguese restaurant opened by Telmo Faria in the old Incanto space on Church Street near 30th street, feels inevitable, as if it belonged in our overheated restaurant scene all along. This is one of the few places that actually makes sense in The City, because there’s nothing like it. The Portuguese cooking, inflected with our San Francisco sensibility, is luscious and the prices miraculously reasonable. You can afford to eat here a lot, and you will want to. The menu is just big enough to bring you back, again and again.
Telmo Faria happens to be a great cook. He knows how to make delicious food, no matter its nationality. He understands balance and contrast, what makes a dish savory and satisfying. He’s an eater himself. You can tell he likes to feed people, especially at his own place after spending years developing the menus at Tacolicious, and later at Chino, which was not a good fit. But Uma Casa’s Portuguese menu, which currently takes full advantage of outstanding winter produce, has his personality written all over it. His new place introduces an overlooked cuisine to restaurant goers eager for new experience.
Set up to be a neighborhood restaurant, Uma Casa keeps things simple with a one page menu and a small, manageable wine list printed on the back. Start with Snacks. Rissois de camarao ($8 for 2), shrimp turnovers, are dark brown, flaky crescents of pastry, plump with fresh, juicy shrimp and velvety bechamel sparked with the Portuguese/African red pepper called piri-piri. They are big enough to split, leaving room for pasteis de bacalhao, ($9.50 for 4), the lightest of salt cod and mashed potato fritters, golden and crisp, smeared with a little cilantro-infused mayonnaise. Clean your palate with tart, colorful, coriander-scented pickled vegetables ($5) and then eat your grilled sardines ($11 for 2), slathered with vinegared braised onions and slices of hard boiled egg. There’s not a corner of Portugal where you don’t eat grilled sardines. As in Portugal, you filet and bone them yourself.
Whatever you do, share a bowl of Faria’s divine salada de mariscos ($14), one of the best seafood salads in town. Here, succulent, tender, sensitively cut-up bits of shrimp, squid, octopus and mussels are tossed with garbanzos and a lively salsa that makes you want to devour it all. Don’t miss this charmer.
If you start with all these “snacks” you can complete your meal with just a bowl of caldo verde ($9), one of the best versions I’ve tasted of the ubiquitous soup of Portugal. Here, a deeply flavorful puree of potato and beef broth gets texture from thin slices of linguica, traditional Portuguese sausage, and tender bits of collard greens, an ideal winter soup.
But, there’s so much more. From the “Small Plates” section, look for a crispy fried quail, dusted with spices on a bright orange puree of winter squash ($15). From “Big Plates,” tasty piri-piri chicken with fries and arugula ($21), works for sharing. How easy to over order from this affordable, seductive menu!
End with a little pasteis de nata ($4), a miniature custard tart, even though the buttery crust is a little hard. I like the way it works with the rich, eggy filling.
The dining room is airy and fun to be in, with curvy wooden tables, bucket chairs on spindly legs, blue and white flowered tiles and a long wine bar where you can eat. Drink a full bodied, Portuguese red and you’ll be very happy, as I was.
Uma Casa fills a unique niche in a town with an over abundance of restaurants, too many of which are just like each other. Welcoming, unpretentious and surprisingly moderate these days for a full service operation, Uma Casa has it all. I might run into you there!
Uma Casa, 1550 Church Street, San Francissco 415 829-2264 Dinner Tuesday-Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.