I’ve been thinking about how when I was a kid, my favorite restaurant meals were the ones where they prepared or served the food with a flourish. Pizza dough tossed to the ceiling, the spinning salad at Lawry’s, Steak Diane flambeéd tableside at the Hotel Roanoke (which looked like this).
Based on my enthusiastic response to the Espetada we were served at Restaurante Santo António on the island of Madeira, this is one aspect of me that hasn’t changed. I can no longer do a cartwheel and it’s been years since I have responded to the call of “Do the hustle.” But bring out the food theatrics—and I’ll push my way to the front of the line.
I gaped and giggled as our waiter approached with a 4-foot long skewer of beef. It was a real man’s man sort of presentation worthy of people like King Henry the Eighth, Neandertahl man and Hagrid.
Really, it was a 4-foot long skewer. With almost 18″ inches of beef chunks. If you don’t believe me, just look at the photos.
When the waiter got to our table, he hung the giant skewer pendulum-like from a four-foot high iron hook that rose out of the middle of our table. With the restaurant’s high ceilings, minimal décor and bulky wood tables, the whole thing had sort of a dramatic, mead-hall feel.
The only way it could have been better is if the meat had been served impaled on an actual medieval sword.
I almost wanted to stand up and salute.
Espetada is a traditional dish on the island of Madeira. Big nuggets of meltingly tender beef threaded with a little bit of bay leaf and grilled fast over an open fire. A small plate positioned under the beef catches the drops of au jus that slide down the skewer.
We went at lunchtime, so the place was filled with large, extended families—all happily jabbering away and enjoying their own Espetada.
I’d like to thank Joel, a Madeira native I stalked on the message boards of Chowhound.com for leading me to Restaurante Santo António. The restaurant is in Estreito de Câmara de Lobos, a mountain village 15-minutes from Funchal. Ron and I got there by cab.
They serve Espetada at some of the restaurants in Funchal, but I never saw in-town skewers more than 12” long. Espetada light, after you’ve seen the super-sized version.
Ron and I tried a chicken skewer too, which had a light yellow curry flavor. Side dishes are salad, Bolo do Caco (a traditional round and somewhat flat loaf served with garlic butter) and Milho Frito—cubes of deep-fried polenta. Everything was really good. If I went back, I’d have the same meal again—maybe with the addition of their French fries.
Whatever you do, don’t touch the skewers. We found out the hard way that they are very hot!
(Get Saveur magazine’s recipe for Espetada here.)