Chef Rui Correia is a man dazzled by water. Whenever he and wife Dana would visit her family on the Jersey shore, Rui would barely stop to say “Hi,” she says. He’d just plunge into the Atlantic. The family didn’t mind, Dana adds. They knew he’d be whipping up a table-size pan of one of his signature paellas for them later.
Water is perhaps his destiny. He was born in a hospital overlooking the Douro River in northern Portugal, which lends its name to Douro Restaurant Bar in Greenwich. The eatery – which Rui and Dana own with his cousin Maria Correia and her fiancé, Ron Shemesh – brings a contemporary Portuguese touch to Greenwich Avenue.
“I like to use different Mediterranean flavors,” says Rui, who also makes periodic appearances on the “Today” show. “I wouldn’t say there’s anything traditional about what I do. I present it in a modern way.”
Patrons might, for example, order a peniche – a seafood stew, named after the Portuguese city – accompanied by Italian couscous. Rui’s take on the paella is a case of variations on a theme, with paellas featuring spare-rib bits, duck for the autumn/winter months or the soupier consistency of the jambalaya. During a recent visit to the sedately modern establishment – a chocolate, cream and slate-colored affair with carafes on display – WAG sampled the Valencia paella, after the Spanish city where the dish originated. It’s a spicy, hearty blend of saffron rice, baby shrimp, peas, cilantro and chorizo, a pork sausage generously flavored with paprika.
The Portuguese, and their fans, love their chorizo as well as linguiça, an even spicier, paprika-laced sausage; pão, a savory basic bread; massa sovada, a divine sweet bread similar to challah or Italian egg bread; and caldo verde, kale soup; washed down with an assortment of ports and other wines. It’s a cuisine that despite its share of starches and sweets like flan is essentially a healthy one, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, white meats, fish and olive oil. And now, thanks in part to Douro, others are discovering the joys of Portuguese food as well.
“People who come in find it’s much more approachable than they thought it would be,” says Dana, who is of Italian and Portuguese descent and brings a wealth of experience to the front of the house.
Rui has been an apostle for that approachability almost since he came to these shores at age 9. He had already been around his grandparents’ restaurant in Portugal. So it was perhaps inevitable that he should attend the New York Restaurant School in Manhattan and hone his skills at Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, two of the restaurants owned by Danny Meyer, whom Rui admires for his cuisine and business savvy. Then it was on to opening Café Porto in Yonkers, where he grew up. For four years, he concentrated on serving pastries there.
After five years as executive chef at the former Oporto restaurant in Hartsdale, Rui decided to strike out on his own, with the help of Maria, a business analyst.
“I just believe in him so much and not just because he is my cousin,” Maria says. “His food has a flavor all its own. We took a gamble, but we’ve hit a home run.”
Maria convinced him that he should look at Greenwich, a community with a sophisticated palate. Rui – who now lives there with Dana, as does Maria – fell in love with the place.
“It’s the closest thing to being in Manhattan without being in Manhattan,” he says.
For almost two years, Douro had a home on West Putnam Avenue in Greenwich. For the past year, it’s been on Greenwich Avenue and Fawcett Place, a prime spot.
“What’s nice about this location is that it’s right across the street from Richards,” Maria says.
“Having it here took us to the next level,” Rui says. “Business has been great.”
Among his patrons is NBC executive Jim Bell, who invited him to cook on air. It’s one thing to stand the heat in the kitchen of your own restaurant. It’s another to be in the pressure cooker of live TV. But Rui took to it like, well, a duck to the Douro River. That was two and a half years and eight appearances ago.
The recipe for his TV success?
“The viewer has to get what you’re doing and you have to be able to do it all in three and a half minutes,” he says.
“Plus, I don’t think I’m a shy person.”
Something for which we foodies are grateful.
Douro Restaurant Bar, at 363 Greenwich Ave., Greenwich, offers a guest chef wine dinner once a month, with a special prix fixe menu. For more, call (203) 869-7622 or visit dourorestaurantbar.com.