The best new restaurant in Bend, Oregon, in 2018 may be an old favorite: Sintra. A popular daytime stop on Bond Street since 2004, the former Café Sintra has been reinvented as a dinner house with an extensive menu of Portuguese entrees and Iberian tapas.
One of only two purely Portuguese restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, Sintra put on a new face with the arrival of chef Marcelo Bento from Ritz-Carlton’s Penha Long Resort. The resort is (not coincidentally) located in Sintra, Portugal, the seaside Lisbon suburb where restaurant owner Manuel dos Santos was raised. Bento is his nephew.
“Marcelo is an excellent chef and a great manager,” dos Santos said. “It’s really all him. He was motivated to create a menu and a concept that we felt would complement Café Sintra’s breakfast and lunch. It was the perfect opportunity to expand our business with a family member who is creative, passionate, and has a background in hospitality.”
Bento, 32, was trained as a chef and in hotel management. Before joining the Ritz, he had been manager of the acclaimed Terreiro do Paço restaurant in the heart of Lisbon.
He first came to Bend in 2015 with his girlfriend, Constança Souta. They left the following year to renew their visas and marry. They returned in 2017.
Oil and garlic
A rapidly growing city of nearly 100,000 on the east side of the Cascade Range, Bend has been recognized since the early 2000s as second only to Portland for fine dining and brewpubs in Oregon. A year-round hub for mountain recreation, its many restaurants have earned wide acclaim.
But Portuguese food is something new.
Portugal has a cuisine that is not quite Spanish, not quite French, not quite Italian. It’s not technically a Mediterranean country — it faces the Atlantic Ocean from the west end of the Iberian Peninsula — but it has elements thereof. To hear Marcelo tell it, “Modern Portuguese cuisine is similar to French.” But its generous use of olive oil, garlic and paprika, along with fresh seafood and port wines, give it a flavor all its own.
A sampling of petiscos (small plates) and tapas, mostly priced $4 to $10, include Ameijoas à Bulhão Pato (steamed clams), Cornichos Fritos (fried calamari tentacles), Feijoada (traditional stew with beans, pork belly and linguiça sausage) and Solomillo Com Brie (steak and cheese with a soy glaze on bruschetta).
Entrees ($18 to $28) include chicken piri-piri (roasted with an African chili-pepper sauce), Bitoque à Portuguesa (top sirloin sauteed in olive oil and garlic with prosciutto, topped with an egg), and Filetes de Bacalhau (battered and pan-fried cod with onions and sweet peppers on a spinach-potato cake). And Bento is delighted that his grilled octopus has quickly become a best seller.
Dos Santos, now 48, grew up in the restaurant business: His mother opened a gourmet restaurant when he was 5 years old. “It was called Faz Figura, which means, ‘Make a gesture,’” he recalled. “Her restaurant was very famous.” For a youngster, this was culinary heaven. “I especially remember how the chefs always hooked me up with desserts,” he said. “But I never thought that someday I’d have a restaurant of my own.”
Fast forward to the 1990s. Dos Santos graduated from Fresno State University as a science-and-math major. Marriage took him to Oregon. He opened the original Café Sintra in Sunriver in 2000, added a second restaurant in downtown Bend in 2004, and sold the first café three years later to focus on Bend business.
Bend diners liked its European flair for breakfast and lunch. “We incorporate Mediterranean flavors as much as possible,” Dos Santos said. “We import Portuguese sausages and cheeses, and we have a stew on the menu that is very popular.”
That chicken stew, a recipe that Manuel learned from his mother, has kept me coming back time and again. A rich broth of chicken and white beans is mixed with additional shredded chicken, beans and roasted green chilies, then topped with sliced green apples, mozzarella cheese and a dollop of sour cream.
My favorite breakfast is Sintra’s egg-and-spinach crêpe. I also like the linguiça scramble with sausage, sautéed onions, mushrooms and fresh cilantro.
While Sintra’s evening atmosphere has been upgraded with the dinner service, which began around the first of December, the midday mood (including afternoon tapas hours) is less formal — especially when the single large television is tuned to international soccer. That’s when Bend’s substantial community of soccer fans flows in. Sintra feels more like a private den than a downtown restaurant, which I imagine is how it might be back in Portugal.