There is something magical about Aguardente. The smallest details have been attended to: synagogue pews repurposed into booths, pierced brass lanterns emitting flower-shaped designs, embossed water glasses that make both indoor and al fresco dining feel elegant. In addition to the main dining room, an intimate loft area hidden by a row of tall snake plants allows romantics to get cozy. The bar scene is lively, with co-owner Victor Pereira pouring flights of the restaurant’s namesake (aguardente translates to “fire water”) and making rounds to all of the guests.
I first learned about Aguardente in mid-July when, giving a tour of the East Side to my out-of-state boyfriend, I realized that Round the Corner bar was no longer on the corner of Governor and Wickenden. Renovations were underway for a new restaurant that would bring Portuguese food back to the historically Portuguese neighborhood of Fox Point.
Neither my boyfriend nor I knew that a few months later we’d be having our engagement dinner there.
On a crisp night, we arrived to a full restaurant. Although the outdoor patio was alluring with its string lights, we preferred the coveted indoor loft area. Resident artist Magda León has painted five black-and-white murals that tell immigrants’ stories.
We began our evening with a toast. I chose the Navigator, a spin on the Aviator, a gin-based cocktail that uses Ginjinha, a Portuguese cherry brandy. Garnished with a slice of lemon, it was dangerously drinkable. The Hibisco-rita was an obvious second choice, a unique twist on the classic margarita made with hibiscus tea, which is added last, creating swirls of crimson as it descends. It’s not only beautiful but also has the right amount of sweetness without the artificiality of margarita mix.
The menu showcases recipes from Portugal (both the islands and the continent) and Guatemala, with additional influences from Spain and Mexico. Family-style service is my ideal way to dine, and these dishes are perfect for sharing. Although the Rellenitos – fried sweet plantains filled with black beans, served with a savory cilantro crema dipping sauce – are worth keeping for yourself!
For a truly authentic experience, the menu includes curated tins of tuna, sardines, and mussels, but since I’m unable to turn down a warm cheese plate, we ordered the Queijo Fresco: fresh farmer’s cheese with onions, garlic, olive oil, and paprika served with grilled Portuguese cornbread. I assumed the bread would be made southern-style, but it had the appearance of sourdough and the sweetness of cornbread – truly unique. The Almondegas, traditional Spanish meatballs made with chouriço and sauteed in garlic and onions, were small but mighty, and they disappeared quickly.
Chef Natalia Paiva-Neves says that creating a vegetable paella was one of her biggest challenges, so I had to try it. Drawing inspiration from ratatouille, this dish offers a medley of vegetables and rice, smoked paprika, and a mixture of other spices – and there was enough for leftovers.
But my fiancé’s pick was my favorite dish of the night. Imagine a loaded baked potato, but instead of a potato, there’s a perfectly ripened avocado. And instead of bacon bits, there’s pan-fried chorizo. The cheddar and scallions are replaced by melted Oaxaca cheese and arugula, and it’s topped with – not sour cream – but a fresh cilantro crema. That’s the Aguacate Relleno, and it is superb.
Whether you come across Aguardente by accident, as a hidden gem in the heart of Fox Point, or you intentionally seek it out for a special occasion, it will transport you to a time and place that is both exotic and feels like a warm welcome home.
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