Adega's success is fueled by an eccentric mix of authentic and commercial elements.
Maria da Luz Ferreira dos Santos is in the kitchen and she’s shouting for Cardoso: “Salt, Cardoso, who took the salt!”
Milu, as she is known, until recently one of the executive chefs for the Adega group of restaurants, is making seafood rice from her new recipe book in the kitchen at the Bryanston branch.
It’s training day. The kitchen is packed with chefs from other branches learning new recipes. “No, do it like this,” Milu tells a woman firmly, grabbing some minced bacalhau and rolling it gently into a rissole.
It’s also greasy underfoot, and busy, but on a corner counter, there’s a plate with neat piles of clams, shelled and whole prawns, mussels, pieces of crab and calamari.
The heart of the kitchen
Milu pours a hefty amount of olive oil—“the basis of our kitchen — that, or butter”—into a sturdy restaurant kitchen pan followed by a handful of grated onion, some chopped garlic and a little chopped chilli. Apparently, unlike the Portuguese, many South Africans are put off by sliced onion.
She cooks this until the onion turns the colour of the olive oil and adds the pieces of crab. Next into the pan is grated tomato, some salt, a few bay leaves and paprika. Now the prawns, calamari and mussels, and then half a glass of dry white wine—then Milu tastes it. More salt, paprika, more wine, some of the restaurant’s peri-peri sauce and a little turmeric, though “it’s supposed to be saffron”. And then two cups of cooked Tastic rice, which is turned over in the sauce.
“Portuguese mothers will stick you in the kitchen, shelling peas or preparing beans, and eventually you’ll be doing everything,” Milu tells me later, sitting in the restaurant. The dining room has lots of dark wood and there’s some stained glass—it reminds me a little of a Portuguese-themed Spur.
Milu says her book, Festa—The Adega Cookbook, has sold about 4?000 copies and there are plans for a reprint. They’re on sale in the restaurants for between R280 and R300.
The Adega group of restaurants, of which there are 24, can be found all over the country, including Nelspruit, Boksburg, Lenasia and Cape Town.
Prospective proprietors, says owner Luis Ferreira, will need a R180?000 “joining fee” and about R3-million to set up a branch. The group will then do a feasibility study in their chosen area to see whether it can support an upmarket Portuguese seafood restaurant.
Incongruously, most of the restaurants have a sushi bar. Ferreira says this came about when he noticed that the menu didn’t cater for those seeking a “lighter” meal.
They’ve also fiddled with the concept a bit and you can get a fashion sandwich with cooked chicken instead of tuna.
There’s also one with chorizo, but you have to ask for that as they’ve “not been brave enough to put them on the menu”.