- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Caravela Restaurant, a wonderful, year-old Portuguese establishment in Washington’s Tenleytown, doesn’t receive nearly the attention and business it deserves.

Not only does owner-chef Carlos Mendes prepare excellent, authentic Portuguese food, he also has created an original setting and atmosphere. The dinnerware is from Portugal, the light green walls are adorned with colorful paintings of Portuguese scenes, and bossa nova music sung in Portuguese flows from the speakers.

Mr. Mendes, an original in his own right, wearing his hair long and mustache trimmed but massive, and his wife and co-owner, Maria, take special care to visit the dining room frequently, inquiring about guest satisfaction and creating that nice and often sorely missing neighborhood feel.

The guests sometimes are scarce, except on weekends. The location probably is not ideal for what Mr. Mendes is trying to do. There is little foot traffic and unless you know about Caravela you’re not likely to bump into it, for it is shielded from Wisconsin Avenue by a makeshift wooden construction shelter beside the street.

Caravela’s prices actually are low considering the quality of the food, but in an area where low-cost eateries abound they may seem high.

But it is the excellent food that really matters. We started with the clams sauteed in garlic, cilantro and white wine, which were so good that we were tempted to lift the small cast-iron skillet to our lips for every last drop of the scrumptious broth. But we didn’t.

We also tried the carpaccio of octopus with shavings of Parmesan cheese, lemon juice and olive oil. The dish is served cold, and while we can appreciate the high quality of ingredients and preparation, this starter might be better suited for longtime Iberian food connoisseurs.

The caldo verde, a Portuguese national dish, however, is a real pleaser. This soup made with kale, potatoes and chourico sausage is reminiscent of potato-leek soup, but better. The kale and chourico give it a unique, slightly salty flavor, and the potato base provides the creamy consistency.

Mr. Mendes, who comes from the fish- and seafood-loving Lisbon region, reflects his heritage on his menu. Not only is it heavy on seafood, but it is also Mediterranean-focused, with its staple ingredients of olive oil, onions and garlic, rather than the more exotic spices favored in the south or the heartier, meat-and-cheese fare of the north.

Along with most other guests that night, we tried the roasted lobster stuffed with sea scallops and shrimp in a lobster sauce. The mildly seasoned sauce was sensational, as were the generous portions of scallops, shrimp and lobster. And at $22.50, it’s an amazing value.

We also had to try a version of the salt cod, another popular dish in Portugal. Evidently, there are as many ways to prepare this fish as there are days in a year, according to Mr. Mendes, who offers three varieties on his menu.

We tried the casserole version, which, aside from the salt-cured fish, includes eggs, potatoes, black olives and caramelized onions. The dish is very tasty and filling, but it’s no $22.50 lobster packed with perfectly sauteed scallops and shrimp.

The meat and poultry selection is varied and innovative. It includes rack of lamb served with potato puree, a cabernet sauce and vegetables; roasted marinated rabbit served with potatoes; beefsteak pan-seared in garlic and white wine and served with homemade potato chips; and grilled breast of duck with turnips in a cabernet sauce. The duck is exceptional: tender and flavorful, another treat that shouldn’t be missed.

The dessert menu includes flan, oranges in Grand Marnier, and an excellent chocolate mousse, also flavored with the cognac-based orange liqueur. This chocoholic’s favorite is done the Portuguese way — with eggs, but no cream — which contributes to a very nice texture.

Caravela also features an ambitious wine list, with a nice collection of Portuguese selections, including ports, and also Spanish wines. The eight-page wine list, done stylishly by a local graphic designer, includes descriptions of each wine and a map indicating from which region the wine derives. Wines start at a reasonable $5.50 a glass.

Other offerings at the restaurant include live music at least once a month and specialty menus on occasions such as Valentine’s Day.

Caravela, named after the successful light sailing ships developed by the Portuguese in the 1400s for world exploration, is a delightful place to discover. It excels in food, charm, originality and service. Hopefully, it will sail on to the success it so deserves.

RESTAURANT: Caravela Restaurant, 4615 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202/537-3200

HOURS: Noon to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday

PRICES: Starters and sandwiches, $4 to $8 (lunch), starters, $4.50 to $10 (dinner); main courses, $9 to $12 (lunch), $17 to $32 (dinner); desserts, $5 to $5.50.

CREDIT CARDS: All major credit cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Not wheelchair accessible

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