Emidio’s in Sandy Springs: Portuguese cuisine, old-school service

Never was I more intimidated by a waiter than while vacationing in Portugal 15 years ago.

After trekking up one of Lisbon’s steep hills, my husband, carrying our then 3-year-old toddler piggyback, and I, holding a desperate-to-nurse 9-month-old baby on my hip (the stroller had broken down a few hours earlier), grabbed a table at the first restaurant we could find.

The waiter was not the least bit happy to see our motley, sweaty crew. And, then, the parade of unhappy dishes began. Grilled chicken came out nearly raw. The waiter became irate when we asked that it be cooked a little longer, and he practically slapped the now twice-cooked (but somehow still red and bloody) bird on the table. By the time we got around to coffee — I was handed American drip coffee when I thought I’d ordered “uma meia de leche” (half espresso, half milk) — I was sure the waiter was going to kick us out.

That episode came flashing back to mind when I sat down to dinner at Portuguese restaurant Emidio’s, and a stern-faced waiter with a dominating air about him approached the table.

His name is Jorge Silva. He hails from Madeira, just like husband-and-wife owners Emidio (he’s also the chef) and Maria Sapeta. I’ve now spent more than five hours in Jorge’s company, and he’s cracked a smile maybe twice. He’s one of only two waiters at Emidio’s (not counting Maria); chances are high he’ll be taking care of your table.

Don’t let him scare you off. Instead, put yourself entirely in his hands.

One more tip: Don’t come rushed. This is old-school European dining. Embrace the unhurried pace.

Jorge will seat you and offer you a beverage. The wine-curious not only should peruse the Portuguese-heavy bottle list, but listen to Jorge as he ticks off recent arrivals of vino that haven’t yet been added to the print menu. One night, for example, it was a solid and full-bodied, if still a bit tight, Quinta do Portal 2013 Mural Reserva red blend from the Duoro region.

Listening, in fact, is how you’ll learn about the evening specials, and that’s Emidio’s wheelhouse.

If there is mention of a beef skewer, nod in agreement. Out will come thick chunks of grilled beef threaded onto a formidable metal skewer that could double as a sword, or “espetada” in Portuguese. The skewer is hung from a hook affixed to a stand, and a clay plate set below to catch any juices. Try to stay classy as you devour the garlic- and sea salt-rubbed chunks of meat scented with bay leaf.

Also both theatrical and delectable was the cataplana. This seafood stew special, presented in a gigantic lidded copper pot, was teeming with clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp and hunks of tuna (that, some days, might get replaced with salmon or tilapia, depending on what chef Emidio has freshest at his disposal). For this, you also need to place an order of bolo de caco — flatbread that looks like an oversized English muffin, halved, swiped with garlic oil and cut into wedges. You need it for wiping up your plate of maritime goodness.

Among standard menu items, the bacalhao a braz is Portuguese comfort food at its finest. A mess of French fries, scrambled eggs and cod bits, it feels like drunken fisherman’s food, and it’s delicious, as you’ll likely tell Maria during one of her visits to check on your table and exchange pleasantries.

Emidio’s offers many other delicious tastes of Portugal. Either soup — garlic in a tomato base or caldo verde of collard greens with mashed red potato and chorizo in chicken broth — is a fine start. The linguica Portuguesa (Portuguese sausage) is an appetizer that demonstrates the art of Portuguese sauces — not spicy with heat, but deeply flavorful, as they might be seasoned with Madeira or, in this case, a port reduction.

Not all of the dishes were impressive. Veal, grilled rib-eye and lamb chops, though beautifully arranged, didn’t impress. The latter two were both cooked as requested — medium rare — and were accompanied by an interesting side dish: baked sweet potato sweetened with honey and capped with a mound of underseasoned vegetables, mainly carrots, that had been boiled, mashed through a garlic press, bonded with an egg and baked in a mold. Yet these offerings, as a whole, didn’t satisfy nearly in the same way that the plebian cod, the knightly beef skewer or the kingly cataplana did.

Emidio’s also offers fare from Spain and Italy. Purists of paella Valenciana, though, will question why there’s dried oregano and springs of rosemary instead of parsley in this rice-seafood-chicken dish. And whether it’s wanting for more saffron, too. Diners with Italian inclinations likely will say they’ve had better pasta dishes after twirling a fork around the linguine zuppa di pesce and the spaghetti a la moda with a secret house meat sauce.

So, return to Portugal for dessert. Like the espetada and the cataplana, it becomes a bit showy when Jorge wheels out the dessert cart. Ogle over them all, then point to Grandma’s Cake (bolo da avo), a specialty of Madeira that is usually reserved for high holidays like Christmas; and the orange cheesecake (bolo mousse de naranga), whose texture is somewhere between cheesecake and mousse.

Emidio’s opened in 2014. It’s still easy to get a table there. However, when everyone else realizes there’s an authentic Portuguese restaurant tucked away in a strip mall behind the Sandy Springs Diner and a few storefronts down from Cafe Brazil and a Georgia Department of Driver Services office, Jorge may get pretty busy. He can handle it. He’s a professional.

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