Let me start with a confession. Before I went to the Portuguese restaurant Bica e Vinho, the closest I'd gotten to Portuguese cuisine was pictures on a computer screen. Instead of trying to assess the authenticity of the restaurant's dishes, I met it like most Western New Yorkers would: as a newcomer to Portuguese flavors.
It's not like we've had lots of chances around here. For reasons of history or commerce, when Bica e Vinho opened last year in East Aurora, it was the first Portuguese restaurant in town. Portuguese cuisine is famous for seafood from the briny depths of the Atlantic, but that's fresh water rushing by the restaurant's Mill Road site.
Owners Lisa DeCarlo and Dan Buscaglia, enthused by time spent exploring Portugal, transformed a former powerhouse alongside Cazenovia Creek into a restaurant and design studio. The result feels like a Portuguese wine seminar offering just enough food to call it a restaurant.
Two patios with a natural waterfall soundtrack give the little restaurant big potential as a summer chill site. Inside, a bar room and dining area are lined with dark wood, stone and a gorgeous rooster strutting across a stained-glass window. Some tables are served with chairs and benches, while higher tables have stools without lumbar support.
Bica e Vinho means coffee and wine. Its bar has no liquor, serving Portuguese, Italian and American coffee drinks, beer and an extensive Portuguese wine list.
Fortified wines like port and madeira, and dry, crisp vinho verde, I've enjoyed before. Here, one may explore Portugal's 26 winemaking regions, by the glass, bottle or samplers like the Welcome to Portugal flight ($30), five glasses ranging from delicately effervescent white to brawny red.
It might be easier choosing something to eat. The night I visited there were three boards bearing various meats, cheeses and accompaniments ($14-$40), and 11 small plates ($10-$24).
The Artisanal Chef's Board for four ($40) was a plank covered with a colorful mosaic of snacking opportunities. It included crackers and toasts aplenty, sausage, cured ham, pickles, olives, cashews, berries, dried figs and four kinds of cheese. Mustard, quince jam, chile sauce and aromatic olive oil multiplied the dipping and accenting possibilities.
There was plenty to go around, but sharing it was more dicey than it needed to be because of the ham-sized metal cog anchored in the middle of the table denied us its logical resting place. We handed the hefty plank around, and managed not to knock over any glasses.
Sardine pate ($7) was a small jar of spreadable fish, its flavor more assertively of the sea than tuna, but still enjoyable. Cod cakes ($12) were five decently crusted golden brown potato-cheese fritters subtly flavored with salted cod, terrific drinking snacks dipped into spicy mayonnaise.
Another pleasant snack was cod baguette melts ($15). Four little three-bite sandwiches were crisped on the grill, each carrying a judicious amount of flaked salted cod prepared ceviche style, combined with melted cheese.
The most eye-catching dish was a chourico sausage ($12) diners can grill at the table. We were brought a ceramic grill with a shot of alcohol in the base and a fat, garlicky pork sausage on a skewer. Playing with fire is always fun. This was disappointing, though, because it died too soon. It vanished before the sausage was hot enough to crisp the skin and melt the fat, leaving the center still cool.
Fresh seafood made an appearance in the form of piri piri prawns ($18). Three large head-on shrimp were split open and delicately grilled, flavored with garlic, parsley and good olive oil, then adorned with a squiggle of chile pepper sauce.
Octopus with black-eyed peas ($24), offered tentacle tips and sliced coins with onions in olive oil and lemon, dressed with wisps of pea shoots. Judicious braising left the seafood tender and mild, a pleasant companion for the nutty beans. As with the shrimp, I wished for more.
More beans arrived in the chickpea and cod salad ($16), flaked fish tossed with garbanzos, parsley and red peppers in a red wine vinaigrette.
Caldo verde ($10), a soup of kale and sausage, was hale and hearty, with broth smoky from the plentiful sausage. Rabbit stew ($15), with chunks of dark meat, carrots and potatoes, was bland and needed salt. Our rustic wooden table had a fresh flower and an unlit candle, but no salt shaker.
Egg tarts ($2.50) for dessert were a tidy little sweet, with crunchy crusts holding simple, eggy custard.
Guests who had just returned from a week in Portugal liked the dishes they tried, wishing only for Portuguese beer, which was out of stock. I would go for more octopus, caldo verde and cod cakes, but my first Portuguese excursion was pretty low-key, except for the piri piri.
Given the lack of entrees some nights, you could argue that Bica e Vinho is not quite a restaurant, but a wine bar with a glorified nibbles menu. For some folks, that's enough. If you want to spend an hour by the babbling brook with a flight and a few plates, you'll be in no mood for whining and dining.
Bica e Vinho - 7 plates (out of 10)
Portuguese plates by the water.
261 Mill Road, East Aurora (714-9298)
Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
Price range: Platters, $14-$40; dishes, $7-$24.
Parking: Small lot, roadside
Wheelchair access: Yes
Gluten-free options: cod salad, piri piri shrimp, chourico.