Restaurant Review: Without Calling Itself a Wine Bar, Cervo’s Acts Like One
Without calling itself a wine bar, Cervo’s does a good impersonation of one, pouring about 12 unfortified wines by the glass along with another dozen or so sherries, Madeiras and ports.
On my previous visits I’d ranged all over the list. I’d enjoyed a sparkling wine bottled, with spirited acidity, by Sidónio de Sousa in the Bairrada region of Portugal, by the Atlantic Ocean; a quietly flowery vermouth from the Basque Country, poured from a tap; Los Bermejos’s illuminatingly bright dry malvasia, grown in the volcanic soil of Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands; a glass of red from 4 Monos, made in the mountains west of Madrid and so approachably low in tannin that Cervo’s serves it chilled, like a Beaujolais.
According to the owners, Nialls Fallon and Nick Perkins, the menu is inspired by Portugal and Spain, like the wine list. For years, they say, they talked about opening “a Portuguese version” of Swan Oyster Depot, the San Francisco institution. (They have another place in Brooklyn called Hart’s, taken from Mr. Perkins’s middle name. Hart is also an antique word for deer, which is what cervo means in Portuguese.)
The menu reads like a wine bar’s, too. Portions are generally small and the plates are unstudied, starting with some basics like fleshy green olives in olive oil and paprika, or pan con tomate with ripe tomatoes and shavings of bottarga.
But while the wine list sails off into uncharted territory, the menu sticks closer to home. Few of the dishes would be familiar in Lisbon, but several would be right at home in Estela or Wildair.
The main ideas that Mr. Perkins and Aaron Crowder, who share the chef duties, seem to have drawn from the cuisine of Portugal is that people there eat a lot of seafood and tend to keep things simple. This isn’t a bad place to start, though.
Their next move is a smart one, too. Mr. Perkins and Mr. Crowder cooked in many of Andrew Tarlow’s restaurants, smallish Brooklyn places with locavore inclinations. At Cervo’s, they work with very fresh seafood caught off the Northeastern coast, supplemented by a few things from farther away. It doesn’t take much to make these ingredients stand out.
The selection of oysters is not overwhelming, but each time I’ve turned up there were new ones to swallow, Truro Pearls and Wellfleets from Cape Cod in August and, in September, Pink Moons and Savage Blondes from Prince Edward Island.
From the raw bar also come things like whole white prawns marinated in white wine and garlic, or radishes shaved over anchodinas, the meaty and salty Spanish sardine fillets that are preserved like anchovies.
The kitchen has a way of applying just enough chile heat to register: The pink flesh of yellowfin tuna was just starting to go opaque from lemon juice stirred with fermented Serrano chiles, while pickled banana peppers accentuated the sweetness of marinated and browned scallops, and stopped there.
Cockles or small clams steamed open in vinho verde with garlic seem always to be on the menu, and they make a very delicious next step after cold seafood. There is often a strangely likable beef tartare with littlenecks and so much of the clams’ steaming juices that it almost comes across as some kind of mutant chowder. Fish — porgy or Boston mackerel recently — goes right on the plancha in one piece.
Chicken skewers with sweet onions and yogurt may sound, in the context of this menu, like a sop to the seafood-averse. It is, in fact, a standout. The chicken is marinated and griddled with ground fennel seed, coriander and other spices, a bit like the great Andalusian snack pintxos moruños. The skewers are carried out on a plate with all their juices pooling around a spoonful of yogurt and petals of onions brought to the crunchy-tender threshold on the plancha.
Dessert is an opportunity to look again at the Madeiras or one of the inexpensive ports, all from a young, boutique operation called Morgadio da Calçada. On some nights, there is a thick, yolk-rich custard infused with anise hyssop. Other times, I’ve eaten soft, sweet vanilla pudding decorated with peaches and tiny yellow husk tomatoes. I can’t decide which I like more.
It would be easy to let my enthusiasm about Cervo’s get the better of me, the way some people have gotten carried away over Hart’s. The charm of both restaurants is that they come on easy, then deliver more than some places that are much more full of themselves.
Overstating that charm wouldn’t do Cervo’s any favors. The lamb burger can be juicy one night and dry on another. (Either way, adding white anchovies for $3 more improves it, one of the few restaurant-burger upgrades I’d say that about.) Raw cabbage leaves dressed with yogurt and bottarga, meanwhile, might have come from a completely different restaurant. Cervo’s hasn’t put down deep enough roots into Iberian food yet for the kitchen to flirt with trendier styles.
So I won’t make extravagant promises. I think you should just go and see what happens.
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