Two things were surprising about the polvo grelhado at Luciano's Restaurant. First, the grilled octopus ($11) that arrived on my plate was big -- enough to call to mind that tentacled monster of Peter Benchley's "The Beast," Architeuthis, the giant squid. No, it wasn't quite large enough to stuff and slap on the wall as a fishing trophy, but its 8-inch legs, each as thick as a breadstick, would surely unnerve those who prefer to dine sans suction cups. Second, it was as tender as superbly prepared chicken and juicy as can be in its vibrant, lemony, white-wine-and-garlic sauce. Best of all was the careful use of one of my favorite seasonings: carbon. The beast was perfectly, succulently charred.
"People from Cape Verde love octopus; that's why I make it. And they do like them as the whole squid," says Luciana Docanto, who with her husband, Domingos (Tony), opened this Cape Verdean restaurant in East Cambridge in September.
They chose a storefront space on Cambridge Street, just up from the Portuguese restaurants Sunset Cafe and Portugalia, and brightened up the otherwise windowless rooms with yellow walls, white tablecloths, and fresh flowers.
Given Cape Verde's history and cuisine, the location makes sense. The volcanic islands off the coast of West Africa that make up Cape Verde were settled in the 1400s by the Portuguese, who brought African slaves with them. The cuisine that emerged on the islands draws from the Portuguese kitchen (think olive oil, garlic, lemon, seafood, and sausage) as well as the hearty stews, beans, and tropical crops of Africa.
The polvo grelhado ($11) or its less threatening appetizer ($6.95) version, which is chopped up into safe little bits, must be tried. Likewise for the daily lunch buffet, which surveys the best the house has to offer ($10 weekends, $6.95 weekdays).
These folks don't skimp. The dozen or so buffet entrees and sides plus rice and salad always feature a fresh fish entree. One day we found thick, juicy swordfish filets in a thin tomato-and-wine sauce rich with olive oil. On another day, triangles of tuna steak shared a fragrant salsa-like tomato-cilantro sauce with rounds of white sweet potato.
Buffet selections usually include meaty stews with big, soft chunks of potato-like yucca; slow-cooked beans like pigeon peas soaked with garlic and seasoned with olive oil; grilled pork; stewed chicken; and Brazilian specialties like feijao tropeiro (here a jumble of fried pork and plantain, smoked ham, ground yucca, and shredded kale).
The buffet was tasty, much of it in a Southern slow-cooked with salt-pork kind of way. The huge, soft lima beans may have been seasoned with smoky chorizo sausage, but they still called to mind my north Louisiana grandma's pork 'n' limas.
Katchupada (as an entree $9.50), Cape Verde's most popular dish, usually makes it onto the buffet. It, too, was a slow-simmered stew of golden hominy, tender pork, kale, hearty beans, and yucca that for all its island flair delivered a down-home kind of comfort.
But this restaurant was born on the sun-soaked shores of Cape Verde. "It always has been my dream to open my own restaurant," says Luciana, who named Luciano's after her father. "My sister owned a restaurant and hotel in Cape Verde, and I used to help a lot. I didn't cook, but I watched and said one day I want to do that."
We found three more standouts. The crisp wedges of fried yucca (mandioca frita, $5.95) rivaled the best French fries (ask for garlic and olive oil to dip them in). Canja ($3), a thick chicken and rice soup, warmed with starchy goodness. Camarco a Luciano's ($11), Gulf shrimp and vegetables splashed with lemon, wine, and a garlicky, secret house sauce, was mild but pleasingly so.
Most of what we tried a la carte was fine but unmemorable. Arroz de marisco ($12.95), a sort of paella, was packed with shellfish but subtle to a fault. A tuna steak special ($12) was dry. Grilled Cornish hen ($12) was juicy but plain. Cabritada ($10.50, stewed goat with yucca) was tender but overly mild. Bottles of Tabasco, which Luciana says is a Cape Verdean favorite, on the tables might remedy this.
Desserts fared better, with a creamy coconut flan, sweet condensed-milk pudding, and rich ice cream cake ($2.50-$3). But nothing left as big an impression, in every sense of the word, as the polvo.
All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at ae.boston.com/dining Taiwan Cafe 34 Oxford St., Boston. 617-426-8181. Everyone's favorite Chinatown restaurant really delivers: You get the sense that an army of chefs must be manning the woks here because the food comes to the table so quickly, so hot, and so beautifully made. Try pan-fried dumplings, sauteed clams with basil, salt-and-pepper shrimp, home-style braised eggplant, and sauteed spinach. (2/19/04, S.J.)
Tiki Room 1 Lansdowne St., Boston,. 617-351-2580. This kitschy island-themed room is built around a large, rectangular bar, tropical drinks and pu-pu platters. It's a social experience, but the food is good, too. While watching re-runs of "Gilligan's Island," share an assortment of Asian pu-pu offerings, or a platter built around veggies, or carbs. The room is a bit dark, but the fake tiki flames and blue and green lanterns lend a certain warmth. (2/12/04, B.E.)
Teriyaki House 32 West Broadway, South Boston. 617-269-2000. A sushi bar in Southie? It's true. Teriyaki House boasts a six-seat sushi bar in a serene dining room with a very Zen feel and also serves Chinese and Japanese food that's fresh, made-to-order, and loaded with crisp vegetables. Most foods are wok-cooked, grilled, or steamed, so service is very quick. At long last, healthy Asian food has come to South Boston -- from nearly greaseless vegetable tempura, to excellent coconut curry chicken that's spicy without being overbearing, to crunchy broccoli with garlic sauce. Trendy bubble teas, too. (2/5/04, S.P.) Reef Cafe 170 Brighton Ave., Allston. 617-202-6366. This tiny storefront may look like your average falafel joint, but the fare served up on those styrofoam plates is mostly superb Lebanese home-cooking. It's all from scratch: from the lamajeun dough to the stuffed cabbage tomato sauce. Forgo the standards for the soups, daily specials, kibbi, and pistachio baklava. (1/29/04, D.T.)
Bluefin Japanese Restaurant & Bar 1815 Mass. Ave. (Porter Square), Cambridge, 617-497-8022. Amid ringing cellphones and tables of young diners, you'll find well-made Japanese specialties: sushi, which is a real deal; big bowls of nourishing noodles in broth; rich broiled fish; even a sizzle platter of steak. A sip of Bluefin's miso soup will keep you warm for hours. (1/22/04, S.J.)
Ferlito's Eatery 95 Sharon St. (Cobb Corner Plaza), Stoughton. 781-341-8045 This small storefront space belies the magic at work in its kitchen: There are homemade soups, panini oozing with grilled vegetables and cheeses, salads, creative entrees and wraps, all very fresh and affordable. What Ferlito's lacks in ambience it makes up for in quality; owner Stephen Allegro clearly knows how to create and execute a casual menu. (1/15/04, B.E.)