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REPORTERS NOTEBOOK:Tastes of Mozambique

I can honestly say it was the first "” and probably the last "” invitation I ever received that came (with) a jar of Moroccan spice rub.

It arrived in a large white box, and invited me and a guest to a three-course dinner and South African wine pairing.

It wasn’t from a foodie friend, though; it was from Mozambique Steakhouse and Coastal Lounge (née Mozambique Restaurant and Shebeen Lounge two years ago), which was kicking off its rebranding campaign with a bang. A very satisfying, very yummy bang.

My husband and I arrived not sure what to expect. The restaurant had been on my “to-eat" list for quite some time, but I had never made it over there for a meal.

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My husband was concerned he’d be eating Ethiopian fare "” or lack thereof "” all evening.

I tried to explain the South African connection, and the qualifications of their executive chef, but he wasn’t going for it. I was almost to the point of drawing a map, but I figured I would let the restaurant handle him.

And they did. When we sat down to a glass of wine and some hummus in the dearly-departed Shebeen lounge (apparently the name scared off potential imbibers), he remarked it was the best hummus he’d ever had. I reminded him that it was only an appetizer.

Certified Master Chef Alfonso Contrisciani then arrived "” there are only 70 such chefs in the United States "” and stood up in the corner of the lounge usually reserved for live entertainment.

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I had the feeling of being in a Mario Batali taping: hot lights and cameras pointed down at him, and he encouraged us to interact with him as he was being filmed.

Contrisciani, who compares training to be a Certified Master Chef to becoming a Navy SEAL, has appeared on Iron Chef and in many celebrity chef competitions.

He prepared a fiery cioppino soup for us, and we tasted a cherry tomato/pepper hybrid known as a peppadrop.

“One of the most important things in cooking is to be organized," he instructed us, as he dumped minuscule amounts of ingredients from tiny glass bowls into his concoction.

“Easy to be organized when one has a few sous-chefs to clean up for you," I thought to myself, but I was still awed by his ease in preparing the soup. I wouldn’t know the back from the front of a scallop, nor do I have any clue what exactly constitutes a “dash."

We also learned the meaning of sauté in French (to skip or to jump), how to sweat garlic, and the importance of free-range and sustainable cuisine.

“You’ll never see a piece of farmed-raised product in my restaurant," Contrisciani said.

Mozambique’s managing partner, Tony Shill, grew up vacationing in South Africa and Mozambique, and he and a friend vowed that they would start their own restaurant to be able to eat Peri-Peri chicken whenever they wanted.

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Somewhere before or after the white truffle risotto and the gazpacho, we learned the restaurant’s new emphasis on steaks doesn’t mean a loss of what made Mozambique Mozambique; its sauces and rubs will still be used in full force, as evidenced by my invitation, and they will be prepared on seasoned hardwoods with natural charcoal.

The concept comes from the Portugese tradition of cooking on wood-burning pits on the beach, Contrisciani said.

Although mixes remain popular at the restaurant (we ended up coming home with a very heavy goody bag of samples), 60 to 70% of Mozambique’s orders are for steak.

“It’s no secret that Morton’s is looking at coming into Laguna," we were warned.


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