When I was recently invited to attend a celebratory Launch Event at the newly opened Mãe Maria, I greedily (pun completely intended) jumped at the opportunity for several reasons. Firstly, food. No need to elaborate further. Secondly, the Portuguese food I have previously tasted, although not as eclectic a selection as I would wish, has been fantastic. Thirdly, I had read that Laura Da Silva, the restaurant’s owner, had been involved in the growing success of the Portuguese Bakery Nata and Co. I adore their bakeries, and was understandably incredibly excited for the night to arrive. Additionally, my boyfriend (fondly renamed here as Mr Chef) works, as you’ve probably guessed, as a Chef, so would have killed me if we had passed up the opportunity.
Mãe Maria is an independent Portuguese restaurant, set up by the owner, Laura, because of how much she missed the cooking from her home country. The restaurant itself is situated in Canton, a short distance from the City Centre. The space itself is well presented, facing outwards towards the main road. A red colour scheme and signage gives off a warm, inviting tone, indicating that this is not the kind of establishment in which you need to attend with an air of refinement and stiff collars. Instead, you are presented with a cosy place for all of the family, where the emphasis seems to be directed towards the food itself as opposed to the decor – as, of course, it should be.
Upon entering, we were greeted within a lounge/waiting area of sorts, where the warm and comfortable decor continued. Matching red sofas and a slightly artistic assemblage of logs reminiscent of a fireplace, gave the air of entering the house of a friend, no doubt arranged to continue the link between the themes of food and family.
Myself and Mr Chef were immediately handed a colourful glass of liquid, which I heard being described as similar to a Bellini. Although I never did find out the precise ingredients, the two main ones were undoubtedly fruit juice and white wine. I really dislike wine, but I had no reason to fear. The sweet, refreshing juice perfectly balanced the alcohol, and quickly left me holding an empty glass.
The main purpose of the night was to give those invited a sample of the kinds of foods and flavours that Mãe Maria are all about. Both Tapas and Sample Main Dishes were constantly dished up on an understandably delicious looking table for attendees to sample for themselves. I need to make one point clear straight away; these are neither my best nor my prettiest photos. Due to the busy environment, finding good lighting and a free spot was understandably challenging. Secondly, we were able to serve ourselves from a delectable table, meaning that my plates are a haphazard mess resulting from an eager rush to grab what was on offer and consume it as quickly as social decorum allowed! This also meant that not all of the food was actually photographed due to a huge lack of restraint on my part! Lastly, the dishes were not actually labelled, and I only managed to gather clarifications of a few of the dishes, so much of the lovely food that I discovered still remains a mystery to me . . . although this does justify another trip back!
So, because of the above, and the sampling nature of the evening, I am simply going to walk you through some of my favourite or most notable items of the night.
Without a doubt, one of my favourite dishes was an anonymous item which our neighbours quickly compared to a Findus Crispy Pancake. Biting through the deliciously crisp exterior, cooked to a pleasing dark golden brown, revealed an inside packed through with a meaty substance, which tasted along the lines of beef. The meat itself had obviously been cooked to a perfect level, gently falling apart with the slightest pressure. I may have sneakily headed back to the table in the hopes of procuring another . . .
There were several varieties of bread on offer, and I really wish I had been able to gather the correct names for you, as each was a lovely example of a crusty, hardy exterior, with a much fluffier inside. One little item which seemed to closely resemble the very crunchy mini toasts I am so found of buying in packets from supermarkets, was perhaps my favourite. This was pared with Mae Maria’s homemade Tuna Pate, which was ridiculously full of flavour, and added the necessary moisture to the crunchy bread/toast hybrid.
A similar crunchy item formed the basis of what Mr Chef quickly likened to a Portuguese Bruschetta. The topping consisted of a generous portion of finely dices tomatoes, red onions and peppers, coated in what we presumed to be a good quality olive oil,creating a marriage made in heaven. Although extremely simple, this was again another favourite of mine.
Myself and Mr Chef are huge cheese lovers, to the point in which we cannot be trusted around cheese. I only wish I could have seen the perfect synchronisation of our eyes greedily enlarging upon discovering several different cheeses. Whilst Mr Chef favoured one which definitely tasted as if it had been made from creamy goat’s milk, I fell instantly in love with one which had much more of a deep, smokey flavour, and which I am hoping I can once more hunt down.
Another dish which proved to be a favourite of Mr Chef’s was the Rojões, which was a combination of small pieces of boneless pork, served with chestnuts, black pudding, and marinated in some kind of sauce. Although I do not like pork, and will only ever eat it if it is in the form of a classic British sausage, Mr Chef encouraged me to sample a piece. I can testify that the pork was indeed extremely tender, and despite my dislike of the actual taste of pork, the marinade surrounding it was too good to pass up, meaning I of course had to procure some more bread to soak up the goodness.
The next item we happily devoured came in the form of a generously filled sandwich. The bread itself was very reminiscent of ciabatta in that the outside held a flour dusted exterior, giving way to a fluffy inside consisting of the perfect balance of structure with which to hold the filling. This was my first sample of Mãe Maria’s use of chicken (my favourite meat), and it proved to be a success. The meat was succulent, avoiding the harsh realities of those which are sacrilegiously overcooked, and worked brilliantly with the slightly smoky cheese.
A similar sandwich contained the same type of bread, but with a pork filling, with the meat being covered in a generous helping of sauce. Again, for the sake of the blog (of course . . .) I sampled this pork dish. In many ways it reminded me of the pulled pork sandwich which has become so popular across Britain. Whilst the marinade/sauce in no way tasted like BBQsauce, it had that gorgeously silky feel which you would look for, and added a lovely moistness to the bread, which also handily combined to soak it up.
One of the dishes we sampled and immediately loved was a vegetable soup, which you can see rather sloppily spooned onto the bread below. I cannot name what vegetables they had used, but it tasted almost like a butternut squash, with an almost sweet but distinctly wholesome flavour. Additionally, it had a lovely orange hued colour which made me feel so warm and wintery whilst sat eating in my woolly jumper. For any vegetarians who may be aiming to visit Mãe Maria, I highly encourage you to sample their soups!
I must admit that one of the samples we had tasted from the main menu was not what I had been expecting from a Portuguese restaurant. For some reason, salmon with mashed potato just did not seem to fit my preconceptions surrounding this culture. Despite this, we were presented with a dish which both myself and my partner, as well as other couples across the room, were pleasantly surprised by. The salmon itself appeared to have been cooked to perfection, gently flaking apart with the touch of a fork, retaining a moistness which was bursting with an enviously fresh flavour. Whilst I did think the mash paled a little bit in comparison to the salmon, it was smooth and very lump free, with a good creamy consistency. It was a tad cold, but with the amount of people they were catering for, this was surely to be expected to some degree. Sadly, in our eagerness to sample, we actually ate the said product before I could provide you with a photo! Although I am sure that speaks volumes for the food in itself!
During the night we stole off to the joining room next door to have a sneak peak at the deli which Mãe Maria’s also hosts. Mr Chef enviously eyes up the selections of meat, whilst the caramelised tops of the custard tarts immediately arrested my attention. Needless to say, we are both hoping to sample these products in the near future.
This event was also accompanied by a wine connoisseur, who spend the evening busily employed educating people on the wine used, and offering free samples to taste. Whilst myself and Mr Chef are not wine drinkers (unless it has been used to cook food in!), the couple sat across from us assured us that the wine was delicious, providing an interesting taste that they enjoying sampling and would certainly try again. The wine was provided by Viader Vintners, an independent, family run wine merchants in Cardiff (link to website here). Additioanll, samples of various olive oils had also been laid out alongside the wine table. Obviously, being a chef, my boyfriend uses a heck of a lot of olive oil, and thoroughly enjoys buying good quality variations, especially those we have bought fresh from Greece. The enthusiasm we lacked in the wine tasting was readily made up for in sampling every oil on offer with the provided bread. Mr Chef was suitably impressed, and made a note for future use. I am assuming that both the wine and the oils are the ones bought and used by Mãe Maria, which has left us assured of the quality of ingredients used.
As you can probably tell, we left this enjoyable evening feeling rather impressed with Mãe Maria’s, and hopeful for their future. Nothing felt forced or over the top, with a simple and friendly environment rekindling the excitement of the small, rustic taverns we so love to discover on holiday. Having said that, this kind of event, designed to give you a taste and view to the restaurants aims, is altogether a very different experience to a sit down, waiter service meal, and we are both very excited to try this in the near future! If I have taken one thing away from this experience, it is the hope that the food will continue to speak volumes for the restaurant, and that I will soon be expanding my Portuguese knowledge further!
Disclaimer – We were very kindly invited to attend this event by Little Bigfoot. All thoughts and opinions are completely myself and my partner’s own. We will never write anything we do not feel to be 100 percent honest and accurate, and will NOT accept a complimentary meal in return for a favourable review!