The most important thing when it comes to seafood? “Its freshness,” is the immediate answer of both Cascas’ owner Flávio Palminha and chef Ana Tavares. This attitude shows in the menu: not all dishes are available every day; it completely depends on what the sea has to offer.
People who don’t know what to order are encouraged to take a look in the front window, where fish and seafood are displayed market stall style. While making up your mind, do take a glance at the open kitchen, where Ana’s professional movements show that she’s been cooking since the age of 13.
Freshness alone isn’t enough though. Flávio explains: “Olhão is a very traditional fishermen’s town. The people here know their seafood; they only need one bite to know if it’s of good quality. The Portuguese are hard to impress.” Cascas, however, has succeeded; its clientele is a mix of foreigners and locals. The latter especially come at lunch time, when a daily changing traditional Portuguese dish such as seafood rice and razor clam bean stew can be bought for under a tenner, a drink, fruit and coffee included.
The key to the restaurant’s success? Adding some extra style and finesse to the dishes. Instead of just tossed on the table with some bread, the preserves are dished up with a salad and a shot of gazpacho. The combination of carefully presented plates and enthusiastic young staff makes Cascas a welcome and fresh addition to the restaurant scene in Olhão since March 2015. The menu features only plates with seafood, the two exceptions being a T-bone and a flank steak for people who really can’t go without their meat.
The emphasis is on shellfish, logical, as ‘cascas’ means ‘shells’ in Portuguese, and on the tables you’ll find all the tools needed if you’d order lobster or crab. As for wines, they all come from Portugal. “With the variety of great wines we have in this country, it’d be nonsense to serve wine from Chile,” Flávio states. We agree, and have a vinho verde.
To me, it seems strange that a restaurant that keen on freshness also offers canned fish. Tins can be seen hanging in the store window, right above the fresh seafood. Isn’t this a bit of a contradiction? According to Flávio the canned stuff is popular with chefs all over the world because of its high quality. I don’t believe him, so we try for ourselves. The tuna belly tastes so good I assume there’s been a miscommunication and we’ve been given freshly cooked tuna instead because of my sceptic attitude. No mistake has been made though. “I told you it was good,” Flávio laughs.
Lovely waitress Rachel, popular with the guests as she speaks fluent English, Portuguese, German and Dutch, brings us the dried tuna with mango chutney. I didn’t even know tuna could be dried. “It certainly can, it’s salted for conservation. On Farol Island, where I previously worked, all the fishermen carry a chunk of dried tuna in their pocket, slicing off a piece with their pocket knife when they feel like a snack,” she explains.
One bite and I’m sold. No matter what comes next, this is my favourite dish of the evening. It happens to be one of Rachel’s favourites as well, and as she has tasted almost everything on the menu, she knows what she’s talking about. Any tips she can give us for when we visit next time? “Do try the fried anchovies with homemade garlic mayonnaise, I love that too,” she advises.
As the sun begins to set, the restaurant fills up. Its open front looks out over the Ria Formosa and lights on Culatra Island can be seen flickering in the distance. No need to worry about food miles as somewhere between these lights and our table is where the next dish comes from; clams in white wine sauce. The sizes of the dishes are ideal for sharing – like tapas, but a bit bigger. Instead of having just one, order a few and try something new.
For us, oysters are next. Photographer Marijke looks sceptic: “I tried raw oysters once and hated it, it was like taking a gulp of sea water.” I have to admit I’m not a fan of the slimy creatures either; it reminds me of when I got tumbled by the surf as a kid. However, breaded and with sweet and sour sauce they undergo a complete metamorphosis. Think tasting a tiny drop of salty sea water, rather than a whole mouthful. Even Marijke empties her plate: “I almost start to like oysters I think.”
Last but not least we share the prawn Muqueca. Delish! Prawns are from Mozambique, so not exactly in the neighbourhood, but captured in the wild. “About 90% of our seafood is captured,” Flávio explains, “The exceptions being if the species is overfished. If we empty the seas, there won’t be anything left to eat!” Room for a dessert? Always! We have the mango mousse: a perfect end to a lovely meal.
Would I recommend this restaurant to my friends and family?
Certainly, I already told my brother he should take his girlfriend there so she can taste real Portuguese food in a stylish environment.
So eat here if you fancy:
- trying traditional Portuguese dishes but with a bit more finesse and flair. (This is nothing like your usual roadside restaurant with plastic chairs, dirty walls and a waiter with a pencil behind his ear).
- authentic flavours, but with a little twist. (Mango with your tuna? Sounds strange, but is delicious! Eating tinned food in a restaurant? Sounds ridiculous, but should be tried!)
- having a nice meal in a bright restaurant without breaking the bank.(It’s not the cheapest seafood in Olhão, but well worth the money).
What could be better:
The one negative point? The TV that’s permanently on in the corner. Then again, “That’s so you know you’re in Portugal, it’s almost obligatory here to have a television in a restaurant,” Rachel smiles.
Cascas, Av. 5 de Outubro 2 J/L, Olhão 8700-302. Open 7 days a week, 11am – late. Reserving recommended, especially in the weekends. Telephone: 289 722 221.
Pictures by Marijke Verschuren