Not too many Lagunans may have made their way to the coastal country of Mozambique with its colorful seaside restaurants. We know that we haven’t, so we were unaware that Portuguese sailors discovered Mozambique on their way to and from the spice-rich countries in the Far East.
There, in this nation bordering the Indian Ocean, they found peri-peri, the African birds-eye chili, which became a staple in Portuguese sauces and marinades, especially for chicken and fish.
Modern Mozambican cuisine reflects Portuguese and Far Eastern influences and, like the rest of southern Africa, also features curry dishes based on the cuisine of slaves brought there from Indonesia and India.
Perhaps the closest we can get to the cuisine of this South African country is the restaurant Mozambique. One glorious warm evening last summer we reviewed the Shebeen, which is the upstairs patio bar featuring an extensive appetizer menu.
It was the perfect summer grazing spot and as we were leaving, we thought that the downstairs dining room would be a great place to go on a chilly winter’s night. As you all know, we’ve had quite a few of those lately. So, on one of them, we decided to drop in.
As we were being shown to our table, we noticed a small boutique in the reception area selling all manner of the restaurant’s signature brand spices, rubs, chutneys and the famous peri-peri sauce (a hot sauce made with chilies, spices and lemon juice.)
Greeted by a warm, cozy fire in the front dining room with its dark wood beams and deeply carved furniture, we gladly removed our heavy winter gear and relaxed with the menu.
Much of it seemed fairly standard except that almost everything was marinated, grilled or served with peri-peri sauce. If not, it was accompanied by their chutney or served with their spice rub.
When ordering our appetizer, we tried to avoid the ubiquitous peri-peri sauce that we both find a bit too acidic for our palates, although as a marinade it works better. We selected the wok-charred ahi tuna with Asian vegetable slaw.
While we waited for it to appear, we nibbled on soft, warm Parker House-type rolls studded with raisins and served with flavorful maple butter. We always appreciate it when the bread is served warm. Don’t you?
Everybody and his brother are serving seared tuna these days and most of us have become connoisseurs of this dish. Since it is barely cooked, everything depends on the quality of the tuna.
In this case, there were striations of connective tissue that made the fish a little stringy, but the black and white sesame seed crust was quite tasty. Unfortunately, the slaw was watery and did not look or taste fresh.
We mentioned this to the waitress, who said she would tell the chef, and later in the evening, we noticed some very fresh looking slaw on another diner’s plate. Too bad they didn’t bring us some.
Peri-peri prawns, peri-peri chicken livers and chicken skewers with peri-peri dipping sauce were among the other appetizers, as well as a chilled seafood plate and a grilled vegetable napoleon with mozzarella and spinach. Soups include chicken/ escarole, fava bean/ wild mushroom and oyster, corn, and fish chowder.
There is an interesting sounding pickled beet and goat cheese salad with onions, ginger and arugula. Their signature chicken salad has apples, celery, chickpeas, spiced nuts and raisins with a curried yogurt dressing.
Two handcrafted pastas are featured. The house-made gnocchi has tomatoes, spinach, olive oil, capers and, you guessed it, peri-peri sauce. The other is the shrimp and crabmeat ravioli. The fresh-made ravioli pasta was really delicious with an excellent texture; however, the seafood filling was “fishy” tasting with that vaguely iodine flavor.
Since curry is one of the traditional Mozambican dishes and we love curry, it was an obvious choice. Lamb, seafood and vegetable curries are avail- able and the latter appealed to us.
It was chock full of vegetables such as carrots, celery, celeriac, peppers, eggplant, potatoes, apples, garbanzo beans and dried dates in a curry sauce that was layered with flavors and just a hint of fire.
The three accompaniments were Mozambique Spice Company chutney that could be added for heat, sweet apricot chutney and a chopped tomato, coconut, and banana garnish.
It was really a delicious and distinctive curry, and the perfectly cooked, aromatic, buttery rice was excellent although strangely salt-free — a problem easily remedied.
For people who dislike curry because they associate it with the taste of that yellow powder invented by the British, this would be a great way to get over that prejudice and be introduced to the wonderful and multi-dimensional world of the real thing.
Meat, grilled over a hard wood fire and seasoned with the house steak rubs, also features prominently on the menu in the form of a filet in spiced béarnaise, a huge 18 ounce bone-in rib-eye and a surf-and-turf with sirloin and peri-peri prawns.
Lamb chops are served Portuguese-style marinated in oil, garlic and rosemary and basted with pomegranate glaze. There is a pork chop in whole grain mustard sauce with onions and apples as well as a mixed grill of beef, lamb and Mozambique signature sausage.
Finish your meal with lemon meringue tartlet accented by huckleberry sauce, or the warm, white chocolate, toasted macadamia and banana bread pudding topped with vanilla ice cream and berries. Amarula is a luscious creamy South African liqueur that flavors the cheesecake.
We enjoyed their apple cobbler. The apples were crisp yet tender with an irresistible caramel sauce. Only the thin granola topping left something to be desired as it was quite soggy.
Checking with Wikipedia, we know that there are no chilly winter nights in Mozambique, as the climate ranges from sub-tropical to tropical; but for a cool evening in Laguna Beach, sitting by the fire at Mozambique restaurant is a cozy dining experience.