FUNCHAL, Madeira — It's a contender for the ugliest fish in the ocean, but espada , the local specialty of Madeira, is one of the world's great seafoods.
By itself, the fish is reason enough to visit this Portuguese island some 350 miles off the coast of North Africa, but Madeira has a wealth of local dishes you can't get anywhere else.
"The only place you can find espada (black scabbard fish) is in the cold, very deep waters of the Bay of Funchal," said Virgilio Gavina, chef and owner of Golfinho, a seafood restaurant in Funchal's old and cobblestoned fishermen's quarter.
Inside, his restaurant is a nautical fantasy of portholes, metal ship's doors and even an indoor pool surrounding the bar, but we chose to eat on the front patio, where the afternoon sun filtered through a yellow-and-blue awning.
Earlier, in the bustling, open-air market, we'd come face to fin with an espada --a long, black fish with a perpetual frown--and were eager to try it. But first came sopa de peixe , a robust fish soup made with onion, tomato, garlic and pepper, and served with traditional Madeiran bread made with sweet potato.
Similar to French bread, the small round loaf had a heavier, moister texture, and the sweet potato added a pleasing richness.
The next course was polvo a Virgilio --octopus cooked in white wine and olive oil and served in a piquant sauce of tomato, bay leaves, garlic and onion. Tender and smooth in texture, the octopus was not rubbery, and the sauce achieved a nice balance of sour and sweet flavors.
Then came the espada , prepared in the traditional Madeiran manner--dipped in egg batter, sauteed and served with fried bananas. The light, delicate white fish was moist, sweet and absolutely fresh. Accompaniments were rice with red peppers and French-fried potatoes enhanced with a light touch of garlic.
For dessert we had Madeira cake, made with molasses, cinnamon, nuts and Madeira wine. Topped with a big dollop of creme fraiche , the cake was delicious, but we could eat only a few calorie-laden bites.
"The traditional bolo de mel (a kind of fruitcake) is even richer," said Gavina, noting that we weren't even making a dent in the portion. "Madeiran families make it at home on holidays. It would be too heavy for most visitors, so we serve a lighter version at the restaurant."
Our meal cost 3,300 escudos per person (about $20 U.S. at the current exchange rate of 156 to the dollar).
Gavina, who with his wife Teresa has operated Golfinho for 12 years, learned his culinary skills from his father, Raul Gavina, who owns the family's other seafood restaurant, Gavina's.
On the Lido, just to the east of downtown Funchal, it's built right over the water. The day's catch is displayed in a windowed refrigerator at the front of the restaurant. When ordering, walk up, pick out the fish you want and tell the waiter how you want it cooked.
We chose fresh sardines, which came grilled in olive oil and were served with French-fried potatoes cooked with tiny bits of fresh garlic. A typical lunch costs $7 to $10.
Another favorite seafood is bife de atum , tuna steak. We tried some at Caravela, a modern restaurant on the main boulevard along the harbor.
Sitting by the window in this second-story restaurant, we looked out on the sunlit ocean as we tried caldo verde , a traditional cabbage and ham soup that was similar to a potato soup, with finely shredded, dark-green cabbage and large chunks of smoked ham.
The tuna steaks came in thinly sliced fillets that had been marinated in Madeira wine, garlic, vinegar and spices, and cooked in olive oil. Lunch or dinner here will cost about $10 per person.
While local seafood forms a mainstay of Madeiran cuisine, a dish for special occasions is espetada . Everyone says the best is served at Celeiro Restaurant, on a side street in the heart of Funchal. Descending a few steps, we found ourselves in a dimly lit cellar restaurant with white stucco walls and huge log beams.
Garlic and Parsley
The espetada consisted of large chunks of beef that had been seasoned with garlic and parsley and skewered on twigs of laurel. The meat was tender and juicy, infused with the flavors and aroma of laurel and garlic.
For dessert, we had veludo , a pudding of milk and eggs topped with caramelized sugar and raisins. It was similar to Spanish flan, but as with all desserts in Madeira, it is very rich. Meals here cost about $10 per person.
To sample all of these Madeiran specialties, try A Seta, in the hills above Funchal, about a $5 cab ride from the center of town. If you go early in the evening, you risk running into bus tours, but don't let that dissuade you.
Go later and dine with the Funchal residents who start arriving around nine to dine on the authentic local dishes. The sweet potato bread we had there was freshly made and served warm, and the espada was sweet and tender.