A Taste of San Jose’s Michelin All-Star Experience
Carlos Carrerira beamed with pride last Wednesday evening as he started to introduce his daughter before the assembled throng of media and San Jose officials gathered at his family’s Adega restaurant for a celebratory dinner.
“This all started when my daughter decided to skip UCLA and go to cooking school instead,” he said with a smile.
This referred to the little restaurant that could, and how. Last year, before it even turned a year old, the Portuguese restaurant in the working-class neighborhood of Little Portugal garnered the first Michelin star ever in San Jose.
When Carreira’s daughter, Pastry Chef Jessica Carreira, who oversees the restaurant with her fiance, Chef David Costa, stepped into the dining room, she was greeted with a standing ovation.
Tears welled in her eyes, as the applause went on and on.
As her father explained, when his daughter got the idea to open a restaurant with his help along with his wife’s, Fernanda, he assumed she would do so in San Francisco or Palo Alto or Los Gatos. But she stuck to her guns. Jessica only wanted to open in the neighborhood she grew up in, and which she still calls home.
Her instincts and loyalty paid off when Michelin put them on the global map. “It’s been so great,” she says. “We went from a secret foodie destination to a boom of people knowing about us, even in Portugal.”
To celebrate the whirlwind of success, Adega held three special $375-per-person dinners last week. “San Jose’s Michelin All-Star Experience” featured the talent from four of the world’s Michelin one-star Portuguese restaurants cooking together for a gala event, with a portion of proceeds going to No Kid Hungry. The hope is to make it an annual event.
For Mendes, Silva and Lemos, it was their first time in San Jose. Aldea was the first Portuguese restaurant in the United States to earn a Michelin star. How does Mendes feel to have company now?
“The more the merrier,” he said. “Portugal is finally getting the attention it should.”
And what was it like to cook together for the first time? “You put a bunch of Portuguese chefs together in one kitchen, and you’ll just laugh all day,” Mendes said.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, in attendance with his wife, told the crowd that he brags about Adega every chance he gets. He joked, “We are the city that created Eggo frozen waffles and fruit cocktail. And now we have a Michelin star. It just shows innovation is not just about technology here.”
The visiting chefs were given the choice of which of seven courses they wanted to prepare. As always, Adega set each table with an assortment of its home-made breads, including a chorizo one reminiscent of focaccia.
A parade of amuses by Costa began the meal: a shot glass of chilled cauliflower soup garnished with toasted almonds and olive oil; a fabulous spoonful of crunchy Monterey Bay abalone garnished with Passmore Ranch white sturgeon caviar perched next to traditional fried codfish cakes; and a delicate mound of softly scrambled eggs with shavings of black truffle.
Mendes took the first course, a veritable tide pool on a plate. Yellowfin tuna was marinated overnight in kombu for a hit of umami before the thick rounds of raw fish were torched. They were finished with red bell pepper, red beet, and cucumber juices, freshly made from veggies bought from the farmers market that morning. A bit of dashi, and a gelee made from the fish bones, added more taste from the sea.
Silva followed with one of my favorite dishes: giant red shrimp served raw in a foamy bath of the most intense shrimp stock. Frozen chips of tangerine, looking almost like almonds, added an icy citrus note. Red seaweed added a lively crunch. This dish dazzled with the true essence of sweet shrimp amped up to new heights.
It was Costa’s turn next with what he called one of his favorite dishes of all time. I can see why. Pig’s ear was served both fried, and in a terrine, cut into paper-thin slivers, then simply garnished with garlic and cilantro. There was crunch and chewiness, and every texture in between.
Lemos’ take on a traditional Portuguese caldeirada showed just how a humble fish stew could be elevated. Mussels out of the shell, along with precise squares of halibut, mahi mahi and cuttlefish were arrayed on a plate, over which a server poured table-side a broth full of smoky seafood flavor.
Costa finished up with the last savory course — lamb presented two ways, slices of loin and braised neck meat formed into neat bricks that you didn’t even need a knife for. Stewed garbanzos and garbanzo puree added nuttiness in this soulful dish.
Then, it was Jessica’s turn for what she joked was “the best part of the night — but don’t tell the other chefs that.”
Two of her desserts followed, each lovely to behold, and imaginative in their own right. First was “Discovery of Asia,” a chewy, nutty thin black sesame cake supporting a matcha creme brulee, a sesame tuille, and of all things, a quenelle of soy sauce ice cream. It was a dessert that veered between sweet and savory, with the soy sauce ice cream almost like a Chinese version of a salted caramel.
Second was her play on Portuguese olives and olive oil — in four forms: an olive oil roulade rolled around candied olives, garnished with olive oil ice cream and olive oil dust. Imagine an airy sponge cake enveloping berries, but with a lush, rich, slightly sweet dice of olives instead. It was truly inspired.
That was followed by the piece de resistance — the ceremonial opening of two bottles of vintage 1983 port. Because of their age, the corks would disintegrate if you tried to take a regular corkscrew to them. Instead, Costa heated up iron pincers that were clamped onto the upper neck of the bottle for a few seconds, before they were removed and Carlos Carreirad dribbled a little ice cold water on the same spot to shock the glass. With a quick twist, he then snapped off the very top part of the neck that housed the cork.
Glasses of the brownish-burgundy liquid, which tasted of smoke and concentrated, dried figs and plums, were passed around giddily.
It was the ultimate toast to a little restaurant’s triumph.