Casa do Benfica encapsulates what the Local Knowledge series is about better than almost any other restaurant we’ve covered. There’s almost no reference to it online, it’s hidden in the back of a tennis club, it looks like an RSL and the only people who eat there are Portuguese people, tennis players or Marrickville residents. “The tennis club was not doing very well and the Portuguese were not doing very well either. The restaurant brought a lot of the Portuguese community together,” says Casa do Benfica’s manager, Vince Gonsalves. The reason it’s been so popular with Sydney’s Portuguese community is because it’s only one of three places – along with Gloria’s and the Madeira club – to get good, old-school (non-rotisserie-chicken related) Portuguese dishes.
Gonsalves, a moustachioed Zoro-lookalike, explains to us that any Portuguese meal starts with olives, bread and an aperitif. Max Malcolm, who is in charge of the club’s impressive range of Portuguese alcohols, pours us each a cocktail glass of favaito. It’s a semi-sweet Portuguese muscatel, with a slither of lemon zest. Immediately afterwards we’re making room on the table for platters of ameijoas, lemon and garlic vongole clams and polvinhos grelhados, a very savoury hill of grilled octopus. Both dishes are intensely flavoursome considering there’s not much more to them than garlic, bay leaves, mustard and lemon.
It’s all trumped by the arrival of the espetada de carne, skewered salted beef chunks and Gonsalves’ cherished arroz de marisco or seafood rice. The latter arrives at the table looking like a clay ship with crab leg sails, prawn masts and a mussel bowsprit. Below it is a massive and garlic-heavy rice stew that gets more umami-rich towards the base. The espetada, or as Malcolm calls it excalibab, is like Brazilian picanha (rump steak on a skewer) but with the addition of a half-cut bread roll which sits under the sword absorbing all its glistening drips.
This is all eaten with a trio of Portuguese reds, each one from a different region of the country and washed down, as is Portuguese tradition, with a harsh shot of coffee. Gonsalves tells us about caldeirada, the most magical-sounding Portuguese stew made by slow-cooking layers of potatoes, fish, onions and tomatoes. Gonsalves isn’t bothered by the caffeine-alcohol mix quite as much as we are. He’s not going to bed until sunrise. “I was brought up with wine and coffee,” Gonsalves says. “I love the night. That’s when there is peace. In the morning, the rat race starts.”
Casa do Benfica
1 Centennial Street, Marrickville
(02) 9569 8058
Mon to Sat 11am–3pm, 6pm–9pm
Local Knowledge is a weekly Broadsheet series shining a light on the unassuming, authentic Sydney restaurants that are worthy of appreciation beyond the neighbourhoods they serve.